William Otim-Nape HKSEE 2004 grew up certain there was an easier way to farm. He was right.

By Robert O'Neill
Winter 2015

William Otim-Nape HKSEE 2004 remembers the time he first knew what his life’s work would be. In a sense, it had been staring at him all along, but he was too young to know it. He was born to peasant farmers in a small village in northern Uganda, and his father supplemented their meager income through the sale of homemade pottery. Then, one year, disease brought on by heavy rains destroyed their crops.

“The food was not enough,” says Otim-Nape. “But I saw a challenge. I wished I could do something about it. And the only way to do something about it was to make agriculture my profession.”

He was certain that there was a way to make it easier for farmers to grow their crops. That has been his life’s path ever since. He overcame terrible adversity to make it through school and eventually university and graduate school, rising to become head of the country’s National Agricultural Research Institute and eventually creating his own research institute. For the past decade, the Kennedy School, where Otim-Nape attended the executive education program Innovation for Economic Development in 2004, has been a companion on that journey.

Otim-Nape came to the school as an experienced man of science and the director general of Uganda’s agriculture research institute. But the rigorous program, focusing on the intersection of science, technology, and policy and aimed at practitioners from developing countries, gave him a new way of seeing both the problems and the solutions.

“It opened my mind to a lot of things,” Otim-Nape says. He realized the importance of marrying science, innovation, and commerce. After returning to Uganda, he went on to found the Africa Innovations Institute, a nonprofit aimed at helping small-holder farmers in Africa by supplying them with knowledge and tools.

“It became clear to me that for us to make an impact on farmers’ lives, we needed to do research differently,” Otim-Nape says. He remembered that farmers had been reluctant to adapt some of the disease-resistant and higher-yielding crops developed in state research labs because they didn’t taste as good or were more difficult to cook, and he realized that the institute would need to get farmers involved in the research. He also realized the importance of commercializing innovation and helping farmers farm as a business.

Professor Calestous Juma / Photo by Martha Stewart


For Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development and head of the executive education program on Innovation for Economic Development for the past decade, this is exactly the way the program is supposed to function.

“I see it as a way of influencing public policy,” Juma says. “It’s a very powerful tool. People like Otim-Nape are a very good example.”

There are other examples among the 420 alumni who have taken the program in the 10 years since it was first offered, including half a dozen cabinet ministers such as Jamaica’s science minister and Tunisia’s minister of agriculture.

The course is just one of more than 60 executive education programs offered by the school, ranging from crisis management to national security. One goal of the capital campaign is to offer more programs and attract more students, boosting the number of participants from 3,000 a year to about 4,000.

Juma, who keeps in close touch with many of his former students, sees the importance of the network the class creates — beyond the value of the ideas and experiences shared in the classroom.

But Otim-Nape’s work is particularly close to Juma’s interest in transforming African innovation. Juma has been a vocal advocate for the role of research universities in helping African economies in general and agriculture in particular. His work in this field has been influential with African leaders, and he is now encouraging Otim-Nape to develop his research institute into an agricultural university, a journey on which Otim-Nape has already embarked.

“It’s a complete virtuous cycle: We have influenced him, and he is influencing us,” Juma says.