Calestous Juma says Africa CAN feed itself, and the world, by harnessing new science

Calestous Juma is a funny guy.

Calestous Juma, center, jokes with one of his leading critics, Phil Bereano, at left

The Harvard University professor of international development is author of The New Harvest, a book (free online) in which he makes his case for how agricultural reforms offer the most promise for positively transforming African economies.

Juma spoke Tuesday at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall at an event sponsored by the World Affairs Council. Outside the event, protesters from the local organization AGRA Watch handed out leaflets challenging his views — which also were challenged in a Q&A after his talk.

There’s a good reason this jovial and charming Kenyan provokes controversy.

Juma, though entertaining, doesn’t mince words — “Africa is already doing organic farming … and it isn’t working very well.” He describes himself as a bit of ‘techno-optimist,’ a believer like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the fundamental power of science and technology to transform agriculture in poor countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa.

“Agricultural reform is the key to economic development in Africa, and it is already happening,” Juma said. Many African nations lead the world in economic growth rates and new approaches to old problems are transforming the continent. “Technologies destroy ideologies.”

But it is Juma’s enthusiastic support for science and technology as the key to agri-reform — indeed, to development in general — that makes him a target for those who contend such a strategy ignores, or at least glosses over, a lot of the political, economic and social reasons why so many people remain in poverty.

One of Juma’s critics, retired UW professor of technology policy Phil Bereano, asked why Juma doesn’t describe in his book all of the political work he does behind the scene with African leaders to get them to make agricultural reform a priority.

Bereano: “The reality is that these technological choices are skewed by power …. Why do you leave this out of your presentations?”

Juma: “Yes, power matters … I wrote this book as a memo to African leaders …. If these guys are not engaged, nothing will happen.”

And if he focused his book trying to provide his own perspective on African politics rather than the promise of agricultural reform, Juma said, he would have been much less effective. In short, he explained, he had to leave the power politics out of the book in order to be heard within the corridors of power.

“Nothing is perfect,” Juma had said earlier. There’s plenty to debate and lots of conflicting ideologies, he said, but he is trying to stay focused on the practicalities of finding the best solutions to Africa feeding itself — and, if things go as well as he imagines, helping to feed to world.

For more of Juma’s thoughts, and responses to his critics, listen to the audio interview above.



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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.