His household, Juma recalled, was always “very experimental,” where “ideas were always being discussed in the sense of their utility – how you solve problems.” His father, a carpenter, redesigned houses to keep out mosquitoes and capture rain water, and introduced new crops from Uganda.
“I had an early interest in going into the sciences, to understand how sciences contribute to society,” he said. “By the age of 12, I was already an accomplished repairman myself, fixing all things electrical.”
Those family roots still ground his work today. In December, Oxford University Press will publish his latest book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, which has the unusual personal endorsement of four sitting presidents as well as a Nobel laureate.
The book argues that “agriculture needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity.” It suggests concrete ways to boost agricultural research across Africa, and says that effort must be part of “a larger agenda to promote innovation, invest in enabling infrastructure, build human capacity, stimulate entrepreneurship and improve the governance of innovation.”
On his way to a Harvard professorship, Juma skipped an undergraduate university education entirely. He attended teachers’ college in central Kenya, and taught elementary school kids in the morning so he could keep his afternoons open for studying and writing.
His early writings took the form of frequent letters to the editors of newspapers, so “I was one of Africa’s first bloggers.
That led him to a one-year stint writing for the Daily Nation in Nairobi on environmental issues, which brought him a job offer from the Environmental Liaison Center International, a non-profit chaired by Wangari Maathai, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. He soon won a Canadian scholarship to Sussex University in England — where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in three and half years.
Juma went home to Kenya in 1988 and founded Africa’s first independent think-tank. He ran the African Center for Technology Studies for eight years, earning a reputation as one of Africa’s innovative voices in leveraging science and technology for economic growth in developing countries.
He also was the first permanent executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a role that helped him forge ties with influential officials across Africa.
He arrived at the Kennedy School as it grappled with how to confront issues of African underdevelopment. Professors John Holdren and Bill Clark were strengthening research on science, technology and sustainable development policy within the Belfer Center.
Juma’s work has always focused on what he describes as “evolutionary technological change.” His early research examined how technology changes over time as part of a wider system of innovation. For example, he did his doctoral research on the introduction of fuel ethanol technology in Brazil, Zimbabwe and Kenya. “I developed an evolutionary approach for understanding economic growth is shaped by the co-evolution of technology and institutions.”
That’s one reason he is working not only with nations in Africa but with regional economic blocs and other cross-border organizations.
“Africa hasn’t fully tapped the power of technology because economies are organized around nation-states with small markets,” he said.