In December 2017, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa joined the world at large in mourning one of the most beloved global scholars – Professor Calestous Juma. The passing away of Professor Juma on 15 December 2017 after a battle with cancer, sent shock waves throughout the world, among political leaders, his peers in the academia, his large community of students as well as followers on social media, and his global family of friends.
We keep Alison his beloved wife, and Eric his adorable 19-year old son, in our prayers, asking God to console and strengthen them.
Some will remember Calestous as an academic, a scientist, the founding Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, or the founder of the African Centre for Technology Studies; but many of us will remember him as a development engineer, who fervently sought solutions to actual social economic problems afflicting humankind.
When in 2010 His Majesty King Mswati III of the Kingdom of Swaziland, chose science and technology as the theme and organising logic for COMESA, Calestous Juma was the man who provided its intellectual underpinning. “This bright son of Africa”, as the COMESA Ministers affectionately called him, has over the years been a transformative and inspirational force for COMESA.
The COMESA Virtual University made up of a network of 22 universities, and the COMESA Innovation Awards (17 have been given so far), were concrete proposals he made, which COMESA has operationalised; as well as the COMESA Committee of Ministers responsible for Science and Technology, and the COMESA Innovation Council. On a regular basis, Calestous was at hand to make comments on working papers and numerous documents, and write policy briefs on key issues, when requested. He supported, through inspiration, advice and video-link presentations, the evidence-based approach to decision-making in COMESA. He was always prepared to try new models in this regard.
He thus organised and gave in Lusaka Zambia, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Science Technology and Innovation Executive Course for COMESA senior officials. The course was unique, as would be expected with Calestous, in that an extended summary of the lectures and discussion was immediately produced and read out to the ministers of science and technology formally meeting back-to-back with the course. A long question and answer session with Calestous followed, after which the ministers took some groundbreaking decisions, such as recognising a number of national science universities as COMESA-wide institutions, establishing national innovation funds, setting up science technology and innovation advisory mechanisms at the national and regional levels. Derived from an intensive course facilitated by three world class development practioners, the ministerial decisions were concrete deliverables and as evidence-based as any could be.
This continuous engagement with COMESA, helped to infuse a certain urgency, energy and scholarship in the COMESA Secretariat. This has led me to brand COMESA as a learning-, knowledge- and innovation- based organisation.
Calestous was obviously in love with COMESA, seeing it as a trail-blazer and a source of lessons for Africa-wide economic integration. He closely followed the negotiations for the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area, covering 27 countries, and likewise the negotiations for the African Continental Free Trade Area, covering 55 countries. These have been the biggest and most ambitious FTA negotiations in the history of humankind. At his death, he was on the verge of publishing a book he has written on these negotiations with Dr Francis Mangeni, the COMESA Director of Trade and Customs.
Gifted with immense wit, charm, courage, humour and modesty – itself a rare combination, Professor Calestous Juma was a trusted advisor to Heads of State and Governments throughout the world on critical issues affecting humankind today, a mentor and inspiration to many young students professionals and political leaders he taught over the years, and a public educator and entertainer to his very large family of followers on social media. For many, his postings were an accessible and pleasant virtual library on academic subjects, current affairs, topical policy issues and of course humour.
Through his writings and public engagements, he has made an indelible and enduring contribution to humankind’s understanding and efforts in, saving the planet and creation in all its vibrancy and biological diversity, and in eliminating poverty, hunger, disease, and ignorance through education and training, entrepreneurship, and better productivity. He believed, taught and demonstrated that through science, technology and innovation, we could positively change the world and our circumstances at the societal and individual levels. A scholar of incredible brilliance and energy, he was very much a down-to-earth doer, who believed in practical usable solutions to actual problems confronting individuals, communities and the world at large. His multi-disciplinary and inclusive approach to problem identification and solving, covering governments and public policy, the private sector and civil society organisations, and the academia, was and remains pertinent for our times, given the hair-breadth specialists many of our education systems produce. He was a master of the large picture and structure of things, from which he constructed institutions and systemic solutions for change.
Professor Calestous Juma was born in Bunyala, a village in Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria. He was one of the children in the village. To have risen from an enormously curious and tireless boy repairing radios, observing the simple innovative trades of his father and mother, to the founding Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and a Professor of Development Practice at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in the most prestigious university in the world, is a feat that fully deserves codification; to inspire new generations of children, and their parents equally. He wrote some very clever books – the Gene Hunters which informed some of CBD’s work, Agricultural Innovation in Africa which is now a template for agricultural productivity, and Innovation and its Enemies, an invaluable handbook, among others. It is incredible that from a journalist and school teacher, he went on to do his Masters degree and doctorate at the University of Sussex – yes, he leapt over some academic mountains.
His autobiography will therefore be much awaited. In characteristic modesty and humour, he has entitled it “The University Drop-in, a Memoir”.
Once in a while, humankind gets blessed with prodigious talents to light the world and dispel darkness. Civilisations and break-throughs in human history have arisen from such gifted people. Professor Calestous Juma was successively named among the 100 most influential Africans and most reputable people in the world. Tributes have poured in since the news of his passing away, unanimous on his global influence and his modesty, his wit and humour.
What then would Calestous have us do? He very much wanted the Juma Institute of Science and Technology (JIST), in honour of his parents and with the mission of supporting innovation and young enterpreneurs, up and running immediately. Let’s look into this. And above all, Calestous’s message to everyone would be, “Go throughout the world, and each in his or her community, baptizing them in the name of Science, Technology and Innovation”.
May God the Almighty, welcome Calestous in his company of angels and saints, and grant him eternal life.
(A tribute from COMESA Secretary General Mr Sindiso Ngwenya)