Nairobi. Saturday, January 6, the world bids farewell to Prof Calestous Juma, a renowned scholar, prolific writer, influential thinker and world-class practitioner in science and innovation.
Prof Juma’s career growth is the story of a village boy who dared to dream. He was born and raised in rural Budalang’i – an area well-known for perennial flooding, high prevalence of malaria and marauding hyenas.
He attended local schools for his primary and secondary education, making do with the barest of facilities especially at Port Victoria Secondary School, now known as John Osogo Secondary School where he was a pioneering student.
“Until recently, John Osogo Secondary School did not have a library, running water or even electricity,” says Dr Francis Nang’ayo, a former student of the school. As a result of these limitations, Prof Juma could only manage modest grades but good enough to qualify him to enrol as a P1 teacher at Egoji Teachers’ College in Meru.
In 1974, he started off his career as a teacher at Shanzu Primary School in Mombasa. He would teach by day and at night he would write newspaper articles, a move that saw him gradually transition from an elementary school teacher to a budding science journalist
He was subsequently hired by the Daily Nation in 1978 as one of the first science and environment newspaper journalists in Africa.
Prof Juma would later dream of something scholarly, something more intellectual. To realise his dreams, he successfully applied for a scholarship from the International Development Research Centre in Canada that enabled him to attend the University of Sussex, UK, where, in 1983, he earned a Master of Science degree in Science, Technology and Industrialisation. He subsequently received his doctorate in Science and Technology Policy Studies.
Prof Juma’s lofty dreams did not diminish, if anything, they appeared to intensify with time. A born mobiliser and an engineer of ideas, he founded the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Nairobi in 1988. ACTS was the first of its kind, a policy research NGO at a time when policy was seen as a preserve of the government.
“Prof Juma established at ACTS a culture of thought leadership, ground-breaking research, and a passion to ensure science, technology and innovation policies accelerate achievement of Africa’s economic, social and environmental sustainability targets,” ACTS said of its founder.
His pioneering work did not end at ACTS. The international community, in 1995, appointed him as the first permanent Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity where he guided the early years of the organisation and helped shape global conservation programmes.
He brought together and maintained an international network of scholars, diplomats and researchers on issues related to conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. He navigated the often stormy waters of international biodiplomacy, finding the balance between the dictates of international environmental law, science and biodiversity and the realities of national and international politics.
His colleagues once said that Prof Juma wrote faster than most people would read.
None of his books has been an island – each one has had an outsized influence by being part of a larger policy dialogue and network of influential people that Prof Juma nurtured. (NMG)