Ten years ago, the idea of a live interview with a Harvard Professor and one of Africa’s foremost scientist and development expert would be of interest to all Africans but such would be aired on either the BBC or CNN, both of which 80% of Africans, especially those at home do not have access to. The story changed today through a social-media based platform: #OmojuwaMeets, an idea conceived by Japheth J. Omojuwa, the Editor-in-Chief of AfricanLiberty.org and CEO of omojuwa.com, Nigeria’s Best Political Blog (2011).
Japheth Omojuwa is an advocate of change, good governance and accountable leadership with focus on Africa and Nigeria. He is a social media expert, a gifted writer and one of Africa’s foremost bloggers. #OmojuwaMeets is a platform for meeting with some of Africa’s best brains via live twitter interviews.
Calestous Juma is an internationally recognized authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development worldwide. He is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School. He also directs the School’s Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recognition of his work, Juma has been elected to the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), the Royal Academy of Engineering, the African Academy of Sciences and the New York Academy of Sciences. He is a member of the Kenya National Academy of Sciences and as in 2007 listed by Kenya’s Standard newspaper as one of Kenya’s 100 most influential people.
Juma has made significant contributions to understanding the dynamic role of technological innovation in economic transformation in developing countries. He developed the concept of “evolutionary technological change” to explain how socio-economic environments shape the adoption and diffusion of new technologies. This approach was elaborated in his early works such as Long-Run Economics (Pinter, 1987) and The Gene Hunters (Princeton and Zed, 1989) and remains central to theoretical and practical work. Juma’s contributions to science and technology policy have focused on the role of technological innovation in sustainable development.
A recipient of the honour of the Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear (EBS) from President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya in recognition of “his achievements and distinguished service to the nation”, Juma received the 1991 Pew Scholars Award in Conservation and the Environment for dedication in preserving global biodiversity; the 1992 Rweyemamu Prize for broadening Africa’s knowledge base for development; the 1993 UN Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement for important contributions to Africa’s quest for solutions to the complex issues of biotechnology, biodiversity and the transfer of technology; and the 2001 Henry Shaw Medal for significant contribution to botanical research, horticulture, conservation or the museum community.
Omojuwa started off on the issue of food security in Africa and what should be considered as the biggest threat to achieving same and Professor Juma didn’t mince words in his reply. “Poor infrastructure is possibly the most significant limiting factor to Africa’s agricultural production” he said. “In Nigeria, for example, only about 30% of the people live within two miles of an all-weather road. Without roads farmers grow just enough to carry – their mode of transportation is head luggage! Infrastructure is the motherboard on which all economic activities are mounted; the road to prosperity is just that – roads! No economy can grow by bypassing roads. But you need more: energy; transportation; irrigation and telecommunications. Africa needs to invest $93 billion a year over the next decade to meet its infrastructure needs”.
Professor Juma returned to his gospel of infrastructure when the question was asked of how his knowledge has benefited his home country (Kenya) as a world leader in policy research on biotechnology. He stated that his work on biotechnology has focused on improving the policy environment for Africa as a whole and that biotechnology has to be put in the context of the overall agricultural system. “A country that cannot use traditional seeds due to poor infrastructure can hardly use biotechnology” was his submission.
And he was not yet done on the subject of infrastructure, this time with the focus on how Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital can use innovative technology to meet its food needs. “Lagos can serve as a major stimulant for food production on its periphery and neighboring states. But to achieve this rail and road networks will need to be built to connect those states. If you rank Africa countries by economic size and add Lagos it would come fourth. This is a serious market!” he said.
When asked if Africa is on the right developmental path, the Harvard Professor said that all development paths are the result of experimentation and cannot be predetermined. “When the World Bank tried to predetermine Africa’s growth path it did not work well. What is important is be entrepreneurial and capture opportunities as they emerge. Who would have thought a decade ago that Africa would be a world leader in mobile money systems? In economic matter, the space and courage to experiment is more important that the wisdom of the past. The advantage of being a diverse continent like Africa is that every country is an experiment.” He advised African countries to learn more from each other than before and that the meeting of African Union and regional bodies should help with this.
Focus returned to Nigeria and its leadership responsibilities to the rest of Africa, and in Juma’s opinion Nigeria has made remarkable progress from where it was a decade ago. “It is a country to watch” he chimed. “The fact that its economy is in reality 40% bigger than originally thought counts for something”. This response provoked Omojuwa to ask how the anomaly that Nigeria’s ‘big’ economy also housing 112 million people can be balanced and Prof’s response was short, personal and proverbial: “Japh If you wake up to reality that you’re 2 feet taller you might as well start playing a new sport, basketball”. He however went on to explain further saying “Poverty has to be addressed through short-term measure like major infrastructure projects. The second is to spread opportunities for business development, especially among the youth. There is a need for a different type of education where young people learn how to create enterprises. We are launching a global consortium on technology and enterprise that includes Yaba College. I’m a strong believer in the power of technical training in giving the youth a fighting chance against poverty. The inability to capture opportunities as they emerge is the bane of Nigeria’s underdevelopment”
The teacher in him arose as he delivered the punchline that I consider to be the highlight of the interview. “Greatness comes from innovating. Taiwan used to be a mushroom exporter. Nokia used to make rubber boots. Innovation involves adding something new to the economy, however modest the start might be”. Those words, I think, should be engraved on a marble board in bold letters and placed in the office of every African President. We cannot develop as long as we refuse to look inwards and run after foreign aids.
The interview was gradually coming to an end as Prof stated that he had just 10 minutes left at that point, an announcement that didn’t go down well with several thousands of people from all over the world who were tuned to the interview. Ten minutes was however enough to advise Nigerians and Nigerian leaders to learn from Brazil. “I lived in Brazil when it was emerging from hellish times. There are many parallels with Nigeria; Brazil is now the world’s sixth largest economy. It is because Brazilians retained faith in their future. I see the same level of energy, hope and determination in Nigerians despite current challenges”
And he wasn’t yet done on Nigeria as he gave us an insight into his relationship with Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who incidentally wrote a blurb for Prof’s new book. “I first met GEJ after being elected VP and I have maintained contact with his office. I also know a few of his cabinet members and understand the challenges they have to deal with. I was raised on cassava so delighted to Nigerian researchers move it to a new product level. I am pleased to see that GEJ is supporting innovation by eating cassava bread himself”.
When asked how useful social media is to him and his work Professor Calestous delivered another punchline: “Twitter is a great teacher provided you respect the views of your followers”
One hour had lapsed, but nobody wanted the interview to end, Professor Juma expressed his appreciation to all and especially the host Japheth Omojuwa for the leadership to propose the interview, and with a smile on his face which we couldn’t see but felt, he parted with these words: “I also want to thank all our loyal followers who have been with us for an hour. Bye for now”.
Like a true African man, he didn’t part without a gift, he made his groundbreaking book available free of charge “The New Harvest” You can download your copy via this link http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/20504/new_harvest.html