I would like to formally pay my respect one last time to my dear friend Calestous Juma who passed away last week. Of course, my first thoughts go to his family and friends. But I think they won’t be the only ones deeply affected by his passing.
For a whole generation, and maybe for future generations of leaders, he was an exceptional teacher and thinker as well as one of the shining lights of Africa in the intellectual sphere. Famous for his good spirits and readiness to help out others, he was as charming and charismatic as he was demanding. His vision was one of openness and sound debate.
But although he was one of the most optimistic people I had the chance to meet, he did not take a rose tinted view of Africa’s place in the world, be it from an economic or political standpoint. For instance, he was noticeably quick to pinpoint shortcomings in the conventional narrative about Africa, either overpessimistic or overoptimistic.
His greatest works such as In Land We Trust or Innovation and its Enemies revolved around fundamentals topics for a truly African-led revolution, both political and economical (biological diversity, technological innovation, property rights…). He charted the path to our true emancipation, keeping in mind the importance of taking a pan-African perspective if we want to overcome our challenges.
I remember a few particularly illuminating texts he wrote and that also helped me better define my views of the continent’s development and its place in the world.
For instance this one about industrialization and what he called “the misplaced promise of Africa’s mobile revolution”, helped to deconstruct a myth often played up in the media about the quasi-magical power of new technologies to industrialize Africa. Far from being idealistic, and though he was such a pioneering scholar, he was a very down to earth and dedicated proponent of pragmatic solutions.
Most of his business plan for Africa rested on the physical infrastructure and agricultural revolution he never ceased to promote. He placed them at the center of the continent’s long-term economic transformation but was particularly keen on innovation to achieve this, as he demonstrates in a fascinating book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.
For generations of students lucky enough to benefit from his teaching, he will remain one of the most humble and yet noticeable voices from our continent. His voice will be sorely missed but the ones he inspired will keep him alive and well among us. Let’s hope he inspired many vocations. This would be the best tribute we could pay to his memory.