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Calestous Juma: a life dedicated to finding answers to Africa’s challenges

Both Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga paid tribute to him shortly after his death on December 15. Odinga commented: As a country, we are all better off because we produced Prof Juma.

Juma started his professional career as a teacher before becoming a journalist and then researcher at Nairobi’s Environment Liaison Centre. After completing a doctorate in science and technology policy studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, he went on to achieve global recognition for his research on technological innovation, genetic patenting and how to transform agriculture on the continent.

High up on his list of priorities was the continent’s food gap. His quest was to find pragmatic and innovative approaches to the prob- lem. This included being highly critical of government policies that threatened the agricultural sector.

He also wrote extensively about disruptions that technological advances would trigger, and how Africa had the potential to lead the way.

Professor Juma engaged passionately and widely on these and other subjects. He used social media, and other media platforms like The Conversation, to share his wealth of knowledge and to engage with as wide a global audience as possible. As President Uhuru Kenyatta put it:“He was a jovial, generous and humble man.”

We at The Conversation Africa were deeply saddened to learn of Professor Juma’s passing. We recognise the enormous contributions he made to public life across the continent, and express our thanks for the fine work he did with us. Our thoughts and sympathies are of course with his family and friends at this time.

o discussion about the his- tory of science, technology and innovation policy in Africa is complete with-

out mentioning Calestous Juma. Juma, Professor of International Development at Harvard University, passed away late last year after a long battle with cancer.

Juma championed the use of technological innovation to tackle sustainable development challenges like food insecurity, climate change, poverty and disease – especially in African countries. He was work- ing on a book, A New Culture of Innovation before he passed away. The book would have followed his 2016 publication, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. He had also agreed to co-write the foreword for an ongoing interdisciplinary book project that I am leading on using science, tech- nology and innovation for meeting sustainable development goals.

Juma was a passionate advocate for strong national science, technolo- gy and innovation policies. He spent decades engaging with policymakers,

convincing many African govern- ments that integrated frameworks could bolster a country’s economic growth and prosperity.

So, how successful was he? What do Africa’s science, technology and innovation (STI) frameworks look like today? And what more must be done – using his ideas and knowl- edge – to harness science, technology and innovation for the continent’s economic success?


Innovation and investment

Juma believed that Africa needed an integrated science, technology and innovation framework. This would be reflected in national development strategies and aligned with institu- tional changes across African coun- tries.

This framework could be built, he argued, by focusing on building strong institutions and innovative


universities. These universities ought to concentrate on agriculture, engi- neering, entrepreneurship and trans- formative governance; they should be able to train scientific experts, entrepreneurs, policymakers and engineers, among others, to create long-term, sustained growth and fos- ter competitiveness at global level.

Sadly, these ideas remain for the most part a dream. Africa’s sci- ence, technology and innovation framework are fragmented. On aver- age countries invest very little in research and development compared to the rest of the world.

Such investment is crucial to strengthening innovation and tech- nology. It bolsters science, technolo- gy, engineering and maths education (STEM). This clears the path for the kind of scientific discovery and breakthroughs that can solve the sustainable development challenges that vexed Juma throughout his life. For example, according to a report by UNESCO, South Africa spends 0.73% on research and devel- opment as a percent of gross domes-

tic product (GDP) compared to

0.22% in Nigeria. South Africa’s higher spending is reflected in its good academic publication and patent out- put rates.

Compare this to how two of the world’s largest economies approach investment in science education. China invests USD$15 billion in STEM annually; the US invests over USD$3 billion. And US corporations have unveiled a plan to invest more than USD$350 billion annually in STEM initiatives to boost the nation’s work- force.

China and the US also both invest heavily in physical infrastruc- ture: waterways, railways and air- ways. These countries engage science, technology and innovation to build infrastructure. This drives innovation and promotes competitive economies. Africa must do the same. The conti- nent needs good roads and efficient railway systems that connect Lagos to Accra; Nairobi to Johannesburg. This will not happen if the conti- nent doesn’t prioritise and implement strong STI initiatives.

Juma believed that all of this – and more – was possible in Africa. And Nigeria, he argued, could be the continent’s science, technology and innovation powerhouse.


Juma’s dream for Nigeria

One of Juma’s many projects was the creation of the Lagos Innovation Advisory Council. He wanted to help address food security problems in Nigeria’s largest state and to put the city of Lagos on a low-carbon path to a stronger, sustainable economy.

He also tried to help revamp Lagos State’s Ministry of Science and Technology. He was frustrated in these efforts by the Nigerian Federal govern- ment, which didn’t offer the necessary support.

I know all of this because Juma and I had extensive discussions about what could be done to improve my government’s support for a function- al STI framework. He argued that

Africa’s most populous nation should be leading by example. It should be creating a world class Ministry of Science and Technology and excellent science, technology and innovation policies.

Nigeria is Africa’s leading econo- my. It is blessed with human, financial and natural resources. These could all be used to turn Nigeria into the con- tinent’s leading light in science, tech- nology and innovation. Unfortunately, Juma and I will not be able to com- plete this ambitious project togeth- er. In honour of his exemplary life, though, I will continue. I hope to bring his dream for Nigeria to life.

This is just one way for one African country to honour him. Another would be to nurture a committed group of African leaders who are will- ing to implement science, technology and innovation policy and to invest in STEM initiatives. More participa- tion and partnership are also neces- sary: the private sector, national and regional governments can all work together to develop robust STEM programmes that will boost Africa’s economies and infrastructure.