Mauritius’ First Female President on Science, Biodiversity, and Climate Change

In Conversation: President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim made history in June when she became the first female president of Mauritius, a small island state in the Indian Ocean. She was appointed to the ceremonial position by parliament, and took office on June 5.

Photo courtesy of Ameenah Gurib-Fakim Gurib-Fakim is the first female president of Mauritius.

Gurib-Fakim has a background in chemistry and ethnobotany rather than in politics. After earning her PhD in chemistry from Exeter University, she returned to her native Mauritius in 1987 as a professor at the University of Mauritius. She left the university in 2010 to open a research center, Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutiquem (CIDP), where she served as managing director. CIDP conducts research on the medicinal, nutritional, and cosmetic uses of plants.

Gurib-Fakim believes her background in science will come in handy as president. In particular, she thinks that innovation and research can facilitate sustainable economic growth in Mauritius. In the field of ethobotany alone, the country’s incredible biodiversity offer a vast resource for research and development. Noting that the small island nation is already feeling the effects of climate change, she also hopes Mauritius will receive the support it needs from other countries for climate adaptation efforts.

What inspired you to pursue a career as an ethnobotanist?

Actually, I did not intend to go into ethnobotany. I got drawn to ethnobotany while I was still following my passion for chemistry. I returned home to Mauritius with a PhD in organic chemistry and realized that I could not do organic chemistry the way I was used to so I started exploring plant chemistry and eventually discovered the beauty of ethnobotany. Ethnobotany, examines the relationships between people and plants, and links culture, traditions, and the sciences. It is a short cut towards the discovery of new potential biologically active molecules from natural sources that can be used in modern medicine, as well as in other fields.

As president of Mauritius what issues are you focusing on?

As president, I am limited by what the constitution allows me to do. But I think there is still a place to focus on issues that are important for the country. I am very keen to drive the science, technology, and innovation agenda, which can be transformative for any economy. After all, the difference between the North and the South is the science gap.

What is the most promising research being conducted currently at CIDP, the research center you founded?

At CIDP, we are focused on the development of innovative ingredients for the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and nutrition sectors using plant resources. This approach is entirely new in Mauritius, where academic research has been published on the subject but never translated into a business.

What are Africa’s biggest challenges in increasing research output?

Africa is reported to produce only 1.1 percent of global research. One of the reasons for this low output has been the fact the local governments have not prioritized research and development as a prime mover of the economy. Fortunately, things are changing, and if you look at research output for the past five years, you will see that output in the health sector has increased dramatically. This can be partly attributed to the inherent disease burden in Africa. Increasingly, governments are prioritizing science, technology, engineering, and math education, and I am confident that in the next few years, this landscape will begin to change.

What policies need to be put in place in order to create an autonomous and sustainable scientific research community in Africa?

Research has been happening on the African continent, albeit on a smaller scale than in other regions and driven mainly through donor funding. However, some countries are doing better than others. One of the reasons for this is the availability of funds. Other reasons include the need for expanded infrastructure in Africa as well clear government vision. If governments matched funding for donors, for example, and had clear research and development policies, scientific research would be more sustainable.

How do you emphasize the importance of biodiversity to the international community?

Biodiversity underpins life on earth. Tropical regions, like Mauritius, are known to be especially diverse and have provided a wealth of information and resources to the medical, nutritional, and cosmetic sectors. Biodiversity hotspots, which constitute just [2.3 percent] of Earth’s land surface, account for an estimated 35 percent of ecosystem services. Threatening this biodiversity is undermining our own existence.

Photo of MauritiusPhoto by Sofitel So Mauritius Gurib-Fakim hopes that Mauritius will receive support from other nations in the development and implementation of its climate adaptation strategy.

How has climate change effected Mauritius and what is being done to diminish its effects?

Mauritius, just like any other island state, will be impacted by climate change. We are already being impacted by climate change. We have witnessed sudden torrential rains, more dangerous cyclones with winds exceeding 200 kilometers per hour, and increased temperatures during the summer. In my opinion, these are symptoms of a warming climate. The question is, how do we adapt? We need to access the appropriate technologies, increase awareness about climate change, and develop a policy of preparedness. It is an expensive process and I hope that my country, like other island states, will benefit from the appropriate support of other nations in the development and implementation of our adaptation strategy.

What obstacles have you faced as a woman in a male dominated field, and what advice would you give young girls and women pursuing science careers?

There are indeed many obstacles to being a woman in science. However, when one develops a culture of quality and excellence, there is no limit to what a woman can do. Quality and excellence transcend gender. Also, never give up in the face of adversity and learn to always dare and take risks.

What are your hopes for the future of Mauritius?

My wish for my country is that it continues to operate as a well-governed country where peace and social justice prevail. It is important to diversify the economy so that more and more opportunities are created for the young people. One of the ways to help make it happen is to embrace science, technology, and innovation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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