Harvard Kennedy School Professor Calestous Juma, 64

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Calestous Juma, 64, is remembered for his contributions — both local and global.

File photo by Martha Stewart

Campus & Community

The human element: Remembering Calestous Juma

5 min read

Towering contributions, modesty, and good humor were his signature

On their way to church on Sundays, the residents of Port Victoria, Kenya, would pass by young Calestous Juma’s house and drop off things that were broken — radios, record players, appliances. The 12-year-old had special dispensation from his priest to stay home and fix them. He was, the priest contended, “doing God’s work.”

The scale of the broken things that Juma tried to fix grew considerably over the years, to range from agricultural to technological education in Africa to acceptance of new technology — as did the community of people who depended on his intellect and energy. This week, the global community mourned the passing of the leading voice among interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners working to harness science, technology, and policy in the service of sustainable well-being.

Juma, who died Dec. 15 after a long illness, was a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and director of the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Globalization Project. He was 64.

From colleagues at HKS to world leaders to his countless friends and followers, Juma was remembered for his towering contributions, as well as for his modesty and good humor.

“I came to rely on Calestous’ invincible good spirits in all of our conversations about his own work and about the Kennedy School’s work regarding Africa,” said Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy. “For all of Calestous’ amazing accomplishments and contributions to the Kennedy School and to the world, he was always modest about what he had done and focused entirely on what he could do next. He was a true model for us all to aspire to. I will miss him very much, as I know so many of us will.”

Archon Fung, academic dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at HKS, lauded Juma’s tireless work. “He warmed me with his humor and enlightened me with his wisdom,” Fung said. “He touched so many of us so often, and he will be greatly missed by all of us in the Kennedy School community.”

Juma’s work varied in scale from the global to the very local. It was his studies on the interaction of biodiversity, biotechnology, and development that first brought him to international prominence, said his colleague Bill Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development. Juma’s influential book “The Gene Hunters” helped give rise to the U.N. Biodiversity Convention, and he served as the convention’s first executive director from 1995 to 1998.

“For all of Calestous’ amazing accomplishments … he was always modest about what he had done and focused entirely on what he could do next.”

Douglas Elmendorf

Juma co-chaired the African Union’s High Level Panel on Science, Technology, and Innovation, and pushed for the creation of a system of scientific and technical universities in Africa, and for the use of technology to improve the continent’s agricultural output.

He also counted technical contributions among his achievements. Juma helped engineer a cook stove whose improved efficiency minimized the adverse health effects of indoor smoke. His experience with that process — users balked at the lack of smoke, which had helped them keep mosquitoes away — helped him understand the importance of “inclusive innovation.” (“We miss this human element all the time,” Juma said.)

Juma was a science teacher and journalist before earning his doctorate in science and technology studies from the University of Sussex. He went on to found the first African nonprofit dedicated to the application of science and technology to sustainable development before joining HKS in 1999.

“It was my initiative to bring Calestous to HKS, partnering with Bill Clark and Jeff Sachs, after I learned he was movable from the leadership of the Global Biodiversity Convention,” said John Holdren, Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and former science adviser to President Barack Obama. “His passing is a shocking personal loss, as well as leaving a gaping hole in the global community of interdisciplinary scholar-practitioners in the domain of science and technology for sustainable well-being.

At HKS Juma was affiliated with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Center for International Development, and the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. He also served as faculty chair of the executive-education programs “Innovation for Economic Development” and “Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Africa,” and had served as faculty chair for the Mason Fellows program.

The recipient of a raft of prestigious prizes, including the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award and the 2014 Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize, Juma served on the jury of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering and the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. He was a member of the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences, the African Academy of Sciences, and the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering, among others.

Juma was a prolific writer, whose recent book was “Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.” He was also a social media leader, with a huge following and a sideline in cartoons that poked fun at what he saw as obstacles to science and progress.

“To ministers and heads of state, he was a sought-after adviser, pointing the way toward reforms that boosted farm yields, educational standards, and economic prosperity,” said Ash Carter, Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs and director of the Belfer Center. “To the scientific community, he was an unstinting champion of innovation and rigorous evidence. To his students, he was a passionate teacher and mentor. To thousands of his fans on social media, he was a fount of insight, optimism, and good humor.

“To us, he was a dear friend and extraordinary colleague.”

Juma is survived by his wife, Alison, a son, Eric, and a sister, Nanjala.