It is with deep sadness that the Cornell Alliance for Science marks the passing of Prof. Calestous Juma — an admired friend, scholar and writer. He was a tremendous science ally, participating in the first planning meeting of the Alliance, and serving as a role model to so many, including our Global Leadership Fellow Nassib Mugwanya.
I first learned of Prof. Calestous Juma when he visited Uganda in April 2013, at a time when I was still a graduate student of agricultural extension education at Makerere University. The front page of New Vision, a major newspaper, featured a headline from his talk: “Africa needs science and technology to transform its agriculture.” I found his words phenomenal, emphasizing the role of technology in transforming livelihoods, insisting that if Africa didn’t embrace genetically engineered crops, the problems that have dogged its agricultural production would continue.
His was a positive voice, much needed at a time when the debate about GMOs in Uganda was so negative, cynical and devoid of optimistic voices. I didn’t know Prof. Juma personally. I never met him, or even spoke to him. But in reading the report of his talk, I recognized in him a shared spirit. Calestous was, in many ways, the inspiration for my passion to promote access to agricultural innovation and technology among smallholder farmers in Uganda. I took a keen interest in learning about his work as a way of deepening my understanding of science and technological issues. His book, The New Harvest, gave me more inspiration and hope about the future of African agriculture, and his frequent Twitter posts and polls further expanded my awareness.
More recently, in September, when another friend and science mentor, Prof. Sarah Evanega, was visiting Uganda for a conference and asked if there was anything she could bring me, I requested another book of Calestous’ — “Innovation and Its Enemies.” It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. As someone involved in outreach and communication around ag biotech, a heavily contested but beneficial technology for farmers, this book gives me the courage and resolve not to quit. It reassures me that I am on the right side of the evolutionary path of technological advancement
Calestous was an enthusiastic champion for agricultural development in Africa. His legacy will live on through the impact of his endless efforts in working towards a more food secure and prosperous Africa. It was a privilege for me to have known him through his works. When I was in Boston this year, just a week prior to Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to meet with Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Harvard and colleague of Calestous. I first met Robert last year at a conference in Italy. He tried to introduce me to Calestous via email, but we didn’t get a chance to meet. However, in a separate email thread, which turns out to be my most recent memory of Calestous, I found something that spoke to his character. In one of his many awards and public recognitions, The Breakthrough Institute had offered Calestous a cash prize for his books on agriculture. But he generously decided to donate it back to support the Institute’s programs.
Calestous— a smiling and passionate science ally, admired friend, scholar and role model — will be missed by many, but never forgotten by those like me, who were, and continue to be, inspired by his work. Calestous set a high bar that we will strive to meet as we to continue advancing his legacy of applying science-based and technological solutions to agricultural challenges.
Nassib Mugwanya is a 2015 Global Leadership Fellow based at Uganda Biosciences Information Center.