Calestous Juma’s legacy of supporting innovation in Africa is the gift he gave us all

Calestous: Passionate about innovation
Calestous: Passionate about innovation
Image: Quartz collage
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Three years ago, when we started discussing what an Africa edition of Quartz would look like it didn’t take long for us to come to the conclusion that telling the continent’s stories through a lens of innovation would be the most rewarding approach for our readers.

The truth is that while we knew this instinctively we weren’t always certain if it would work. But soon after we started publishing stories in June 2015, one name kept popping up as a huge influencer, sharing our stories on Twitter and adding commentary to drive more conversations about them. It was, of course, Calestous Juma, the Kenyan-born Harvard Kennedy School professor, who passed away on Friday (Dec. 15) at the age of 64 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Late in 2015, one of Quartz’s Africa Innovator honorees, Sara Menker, introduced us over email and I was immediately struck by his openness and generosity, something many other tributes have noted. He was incredibly keen to support a project that shared his world view on the promise of African innovation. He also agreed innovation wasn’t simply about nuts and bolts technology or the internet, but about innovative thinking and challenging new ideas.

Being a former school teacher and then journalist, Juma was a pleasure to edit and publish. He completely understood what a young digital publication like Quartz Africa needed and he broke down complex concepts into easily digestible ideas.

As our Nairobi correspondent Abdi Latif Dahir notes in this piece on Juma’s work as a prolific author:

Much like Carl Sagan was a science popularizer and Oliver Sacks was a lyrical writer on neurology and mental health, Juma made stories about global and African innovation accessible.

Going back through Juma’s articles for Quartz, his almost schoolboy enthusiasm is self-evident. He suggested investment in the emerging bioeconomy industry to transform agriculture and aquaculture and wanted Africa to open up its intracontinental trade. He also promoted the reinvention and diversification of university education to boost creativity and African excellence. Professor Juma didn’t just focus on science and technology, he also emphasized the need to support the humanities and social sciences and called for the development of a curriculum that encouraged exploration, tinkering, and application. 

It’s important to note that Juma wasn’t a sappy romantic about the promise of innovation or technology for Africa. In this piece, I reviewed his paper on how much of the talk about “leapfrogging” and mobile revolution was overplayed without African governments developing basic infrastructure.

Like other great thinkers, Professor Calestous Juma was a person ahead of their time. We’ll forever be grateful for the role he played in proving the concept and always supporting Quartz Africa.

May he rest in peace.