Kenyan Biotechnology scholar Prof. Calestous Juma passed away last week Friday. The renowned scholar had been ailing in the months leading up to his death. In 2016, Prof. Juma underwent spinal cord surgery and in October the same year had a repeat operation on his neck. “The wounds took long to heal due to tumor operations he had had before,” his sister, Roselyda Nanjala told the Sunday Nation.

“While alive, he made it known to everyone that he would wish his grave to face the direction where the sun sets,” she added.

Juma grew up on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria where he obtained early education as one of the pioneer students of the then Port Victoria Secondary School (now John Osogo SS) from 1968-1971. He first worked as an elementary school teacher before becoming Africa’s first science and environment journalist at Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.

Prof. Juma’s later days were spent teaching at Harvard University. He taught graduate courses on the role of science, technology, and innovation in development policy as well as an executive course for senior policy makers and practitioners.

“For all of Calestous’ amazing accomplishments and contributions to the Kennedy School and to the world, he was always modest about what he had done and focused entirely on what he could do next. He was a true model for us all to aspire to. I will miss him very much, as I know so many of us will,” Kennedy School dean K. Price, a professor of Public Policy said.

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Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Kenyan opposition coalition NASA leader Raila Odinga are some of the leaders who have sent condolences messages on the passing of Prof Juma.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded some of Juma’s work, said he was “a tireless champion for economic and social development in Africa”.

UNESCO in Botswana extolled how his innovation helped to empower heir community

Policy Work

Prof. Juma has provided high-level policy advice to governments, the United Nations and other international organizations on science, technology, and innovation. The report from a task force he led in 2005 has become a standard reference against which governments assess their policies and programs on the role of technological innovation in development. Its recommendations have been adopted by development agencies and governments around the world.

He also co-chaired the African High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology of the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2012.

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Recognition and accolades

Prof. Juma’s contributions have led to innumerable awards and accolades. Among these is the 1992 Justinian Rweyemamu Prize, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) (for broadening Africa’s knowledge base for development) and the 1993 Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement, United Nations Environment Program (for important contributions made to Africa’s quest for solutions to the complex issues of biotechnology, biodiversity and the transfer of technology).

He was also named one of the most influential 100 Africans for three consecutive years in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the New African magazine.  He was the only Kenyan to be listed in the inaugural list of “2017 Most Reputable People on Earth”.

In recognition of his work, Juma was elected to the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, the African Academy of Sciences and the New York Academy of Sciences.


Aside from his academic and policy contributions he also sought to leave a lasting legacy to his community, country and the world by starting the John and Clementina Juma Institute of Science and Technology (JIST).

The foundations for the institute; to be based in Port Victoria, Busia County, in memory of his late parents; were laid, save for a few regulatory matters.

“The vision Prof Juma had for JIST was big. He wanted to harness the resources of Lake Victoria for science and technology research. The name JIST is principally an abbreviation of the names of his late parents,” said Mr. Peter Wanyama, Prof Juma’s legal counsel and founding trustee of JIST. “He wanted to set up something similar to Acts but which will exploit the vast resources of Lake Victoria.”