19 December 2017

The world will miss Calestous Juma


The death of Calestous Juma last week is miserable news. A Harvard professor who rose from poverty in western Kenya, son of a carpenter father and a farming mother, Calestous was a truly original scholar, writer and thinker on the topic of innovation. He was also enormous fun, always wreathed in smiles and heaving with laughter. At 64, far too young, he has succumbed to cancer.

When I first met him, at a conference in New York on agricultural technology about six years ago, I was not sure how far I dared go at first in admitting my support for biotechnology. Perhaps he’s against it, I thought, as so many people are. After all, he had been Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the United Nations and had a PhD in science policy from Sussex University. So I gingerly raised the question of whether he agreed that the Cartagena Protocol was proving more hindrance than help in getting better crop varieties to African farmers who desperately needed them.

I need not have worried. “By creating institutions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity that seek to smother biotechnology at birth,” Calestous replied, “sections of the UN are no more than the Pontius Pilate of innovation.” A few months later in print he repeated the point: “Major international agencies such as the United Nations have persistently opposed expanding biotechnology to regions most in need of its societal and economic benefits,” he wrote in Nature magazine.

He passionately believed that Africa needed a Green Revolution similar to that which transformed Asia from a hungry continent into a rich rice basket. As an article by Otieno Otieno in Kenya’s Daily Nation put it this week: “He saw biotechnology doing to Africa’s agriculture what mobile telephony did to Africa’s commerce.” Depressingly, Mr Otieno added: “Kenya, Prof Juma’s homeland, is among the majority laggards [in biotechnology] – largely due to the legendary indecisiveness of its policymakers and a scaremongering pandemic caused by cynical activist groups.”

Juma wrote numerous books, including The Gene Hunters in 1989. Earlier this year, he published what would prove to be his last book called Innovation and its Enemies. It was an eye opener. A fine piece of scholarship, written in a fast-paced style (Calestous was Africa’s first specialist science correspondent, writing for the Daily Nation from 1978), the book delved deep into some extraordinary episodes in the history of innovation to illustrate the point that there is nothing new about opposition to new technology.

Here is what I wrote in a review for the Times:

“In the 16th and 17th century, coffee was repeatedly outlawed by religious and political leaders in Cairo, Istanbul and parts of Europe as it spread north from Ethiopia and Yemen. Their objection was ostensibly to its “intoxicating” qualities or on some spurious religious ground, but the real motivation was usually to ban coffee-houses’ alarming tendency to encourage the free exchange of ideas. King Charles II sought to close down all coffee houses explicitly because he did not like people sitting “half the day” in them “insinuating into the ears of people a prejudice against” rulers. He’d have hated Starbucks.

Margarine, invented in France in 1869, was subjected to a decades-long smear campaign (blame Professor Juma for the pun, not me) from the American dairy industry. ‘There never was . . . a more deliberate and outrageous swindle than this bogus butter business,’ thundered the New York dairy commission. Even Mark Twain denounced margarine, showing that celebs have been anti-progress before.

Laws were passed in many states to cripple the margarine industry with bans, taxes, labelling laws and licensing provisions. By the early 1940s, two thirds of states had banned yellow margarine altogether on spurious health grounds. This is reminiscent of today’s reaction to the invention of vaping: banned in some countries, such as Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, discouraged in most others.

The Horse Association of America once fought a furious rearguard action against tractors. The American musicians’ union managed to ban all recorded music on the radio for a while. Like the initially successful opposition to railways from the canal owners in Britain a century before, incumbent industries will do their utmost to stop new challengers.

Another lesson is taught by the Islamic world’s rejection of printing for four centuries, in contrast to China and Europe. Professor Juma thinks part of the reason printing quickly caught on in Europe — and sparked the Reformation — is that European scribes, being monks, did not lose their livelihoods as the freelance calligraphers of Istanbul risked doing. Religious objections also contributed. Bizarrely, the Ottoman empire allowed foreigners to set up printing presses using foreign languages and scripts but when a Hungarian convert, Ibrahim Muteferrika, was permitted by the sultan to set up a press in Istanbul in 1726 to print only non-religious books there were riots.”

It was, in short, a very fine and unusual book on the history of innovation. But Juma was not just a scholar; he was also a very active and practical actor. He founded and ran the African Centre for Technology Studies in 1988. From 2002 until his death last week, he was professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He had an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age. As Mark Lynas wrote this week on the website of the Cornell Alliance for Science:

“Always a technology enthusiast, he began fixing broken radios and record players at the age of 12, and was excused from church on Sundays to develop his small business. The enterprise helped Juma meet his own school fees. ‘I had a job first, then retired into school,’ he would joke in later years.”

The world will miss him.

Matt Ridley is a journalist and author. His most recent book is 'The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge' (Fourth Estate)