Africa The Poorer As Innovation Icon, Calestous Juma, Passes On

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The diversity of people paying tribute to Calestous Juma, the Kenyan Harvard scholar who died on Friday, on social media is remarkable.

As many West Africans as Kenyans, if not more, were tweeting about the death of Prof Juma in the first few hours of the news breaking.

One of the more credible sources around that time was the twitter handle of iAfrican, the pan-African technology and innovation content company founded by Tefo Mohapi, a South African technologist, blogger and entrepreneur.

Perhaps fearing the embarrassment of circulating fake news, Kenyan mainstream media were generally slow to go with it on their online or social media platforms.


Notably, Rwandan President Paul Kagame was the first head of state to mourn Prof Juma on social media, his tweet coming about one hour ahead of that of his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta.

The scholar’s relative popularity and respect abroad compared to here at home probably has got more to do with his status as a true global citizen, having worked at a globally acclaimed American university and championed a pan-African innovation cause for many years.

But it also speaks to how his revolutionary ideas, especially about how to end perennial hunger on the continent, were received in his homeland relative to elsewhere in Africa.

A passionate advocate of innovation, Prof Juma believed that biotechnology particularly had the potential to spur a green revolution in Africa similar to the one that helped contain acute famines in Asia in the 1960s, mainly through the planting of improved rice varieties.


For over a decade, he spearheaded efforts to mobile resources for agricultural biotechnology research and lobby leaders and policymakers to have African countries embrace the science in their farming systems.

He saw biotechnology doing to Africa’s agriculture what mobile telephony did to Africa’s commerce.

Of course, Prof Juma’s quiet campaigns yielded some success, notably ongoing agricultural biotechnology research in a number of African countries.

South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan have pulled ahead of the rest and started growing some biotech crops.

Kenya, Prof Juma’s homeland, is among the majority laggards – largely due to the legendary indecisiveness of its policymakers and a scaremongering pandemic caused by cynical activist groups.


The irony of Kenya’s inertia is even more obvious if you consider the fact that the country has invested billions of shillings in the research facilities, personnel and the institutional capacity required to be a leader in agricultural biotechnology in Africa.

A biosafety greenhouse at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Institute opened in 2004 by President Mwai Kibaki was hailed as the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa.

But the fate of a drought-tolerant biotech maize variety developed by local scientists remains in the balance after its field trial was suddenly stopped despite earlier approval by sector regulator National Biosafety Authority.

That about summed up how Kenya honoured Prof Juma, the agricultural biotechnology champion.


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