Once in a while, humankind gets blessed with prodigious talents to light the world and dispel darkness. Civilizations and breakthroughs in human history have arisen from such gifted people.
Such was Professor Calestous Juma, who passed away on 15 December 2017, after a battle with cancer, and interred on 6 January 2018 in his home country, Kenya.
His death 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.
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.
Professor Calestous Juma was successively named among the 100 most influential Africans and most reputable people in the world.
When in 2010 His Majesty King Mswati III of the Kingdom of Swaziland, chose science and technology as the theme and organizing logic for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (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 have been operationalized.
So are 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 organized and gave in Lusaka in 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 ground breaking decisions, such as recognizing 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 practitioners, the ministerial decisions were concrete deliverables and as evidence-based as any could be.
Calestous 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 Government 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 organizations, 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.
His autobiography will therefore be much awaited. In characteristic modesty and humour, he has entitled it “The University Drop-in, a Memoir”.
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 entrepreneurs, 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.
The writer is the Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa - COMESA
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.