- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Spotlight on Calestous Juma

| Winter 2010-11

Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School, wears many hats in his work at the Belfer Center. He is director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project, and principal investigator for the Agricultural Innovation in Africa project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He also is a member of the Belfer Center board of directors. He has been elected to several scientific academies including the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, and the African Academy of Sciences. He has won numerous awards for his work on sustainable development. His latest book, on agricultural innovation in Africa, will be published by Oxford University Press in December.

Calestous Juma holds a vivid memory from his childhood in western Kenya on the banks of Africa's largest lake: His mother learned a neighboring language in her 40s so she could make the transition from farmer to trader, selling fish from Lake Victoria.

"That had a big impact on me -- to see her learn a new language so she could sell fish to pay my school fees," Juma said as he recounted the path from his boyhood in Kenya to Cambridge, where he joined the Harvard Kennedy School in 1999.

His household, Juma recalled, was always "very experimental," where "ideas were always being discussed in the sense of their utility - how you solve problems." His father, a carpenter, redesigned houses to keep out mosquitoes and capture rain water, and introduced new crops from Uganda.

"I had an early interest in going into the sciences, to understand how sciences contribute to society," he said. "By the age of 12, I was already an accomplished repairman myself, fixing all things electrical."

Those family roots still ground his work today. In December, Oxford University Press will publish his latest book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, which has the unusual personal endorsement of four sitting presidents as well as a Nobel laureate.

The book argues that "agriculture needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity." It suggests concrete ways to boost agricultural research across Africa, and says that effort must be part of "a larger agenda to promote innovation, invest in enabling infrastructure, build human capacity, stimulate entrepreneurship and improve the governance of innovation."

On his way to a Harvard professorship, Juma skipped an undergraduate university education entirely. He attended teachers' college in central Kenya, and taught elementary school kids in the morning so he could keep his afternoons open for studying and writing.

His early writings took the form of frequent letters to the editors of newspapers, so "I was one of Africa's first bloggers."

That led him to a one-year stint writing for the Daily Nation in Nairobi on environmental issues, which brought him a job offer from the Environmental Liaison Center International, a non-profit chaired by Wangari Maathai, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. He soon won a Canadian scholarship to Sussex University in England -- where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in three and half years.

Juma went home to Kenya in 1988 and founded Africa's first independent think-tank. He ran the African Center for Technology Studies for eight years, earning a reputation as one of Africa's innovative voices in leveraging science and technology for economic growth in developing countries.

He also was the first permanent executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a role that helped him forge ties with influential officials across Africa.

He arrived at the Kennedy School as it grappled with how to confront issues of African underdevelopment. Professors John Holdren and Bill Clark were strengthening research on science, technology and sustainable development policy within the Belfer Center.

Juma's work has always focused on what he describes as "evolutionary technological change." His early research examined how technology changes over time as part of a wider system of innovation. For example, he did his doctoral research on the introduction of fuel ethanol technology in Brazil, Zimbabwe and Kenya. "I developed an evolutionary approach for understanding economic growth is shaped by the co-evolution of technology and institutions."

That's one reason he is working not only with nations in Africa but with regional economic blocs and other cross-border organizations.

"Africa hasn't fully tapped the power of technology because economies are organized around nation-states with small markets," he said.

From his early "blogging" days, Juma has never lost his skill and commitment to networking. He grew to know presidents all over Africa, and has been a frequent adviser to governments. In 2007 gave the keynote address at a special summit of African presidents on science and technology. Earlier this year, he helped the leaders of the 19-country Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to develop a blueprint on how to apply innovation in regional integration.

Juma has thousands of names on his Blackberry and maintains active Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. He also maintains a Yahoo group on innovation policy. "I share news on innovation with thousands of followers daily. I have always had an interest in reaching out. I learn more by sharing information, and I am an avid collector of contacts. I am also an amateur historian of coffee and frivolous objects."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Smith, James. Spotlight on Calestous Juma.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2010-11).

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