In a case of David against Goliath, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim beat her male opponent by a landslide to become the first female president of Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Africa that has a population of just over 1.2 million. No one expected her to win.
Gurib-Fakim, who joined the presidential office on June 5, relishes shuttering glass ceilings. In Africa, there aren’t many women at the helm of countries.
“When the people voted, they voted for a package, they knew that they would have a lady president and yet they voted massively for a party that has not made any provision for constitutional change,” says Gurib-Fakim.
Born into a Muslim Indian family, Gurib-Fakim, 56, is also a former bio-scientist and the Vice Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute, an international NGO and charity that builds a path for the scientific independence of Africa.
Gurib-Fakim published more than 28 scientific books that have been devoured around the world by students and researchers. She graduated with a bachelor of science in chemistry from the University of Surrey in 1983. She then obtained her PhD in organic chemistry at Exeter University in Britain.
“I became interested in sciences at a very young age because I had good motivated teachers who infected me with the virus of science. I went into sciences following my heart because passion was there.”
Back at home, she worked at the University of Mauritius before becoming the Managing Director at CEPHYR, a centre for phytotherapy research that focuses on using plants in cosmetics, nutrition and therapy.
“When I went back to Mauritius, I realized that the work I was doing in synthetic chemistry, the infrastructure wasn’t there and yet in the academic world you either publish or perish. I chose to publish. To publish novel things you have to have novel avenues,” she says.
This is when she started to probe into the biodiversity of Mauritius. The Indian Ocean island nation is known as a global biodiversity hotspot – it is home to about 300 plant species that can only be found on the island, which are under threat as a result of human activity and climate change.
Gurib-Fakim says she wants to drive science and technology in Africa.
“We believe a scientifically independent Africa is one with science, technology and innovation fully embedded in governmental policies and priorities, delivered by properly resourced and empowered educational institutions. A scientifically independent Africa will have both the ability to train and keep brilliant scientists on the continent, and create an inspiring new generation of academic leaders. Ultimately, we believe scientific independence means that African problems can be solved by African-led solutions,” it says on the Planet Earth Institute website.
Gurib-Fakim is also an entrepreneur.
“I didn’t stay in the academic world because my second life was that of an entrepreneur. I translated that research work on herbal medicine into a business so I can safely say I am now living my third life.”
In Mauritius many girls couldn’t go to school. After 1976, this changed and yet transformation is still the biggest problem.
“Coming back to tertiary education this is again an area where we find many women coming to do studies at tertiary level but still find the gap and where we find the downside of this, is for them to get jobs, for them to be leaders in their respective fields because society in Mauritius remains fairly conservative,” she says.
According to Gurib-Fakim, science is still dominated by males in many parts of the world.
As African countries aspire for economic growth and socio-economic transformation, Gurib-Fakim says: “It is becoming clear that any innovation or ambition to become a knowledge economy has to be driven by talented African scientists and with the knowledge that innovation is not instructed!”
She has a strong passion for protecting nature, fostering research and creating a better environment for women scientists.
This year Gurib-Fakim is nominated for FORBES AFRICA’s Person of The Year in recognition of her drive to protect her nation’s environment. She was listed by FORBES in June as being the 96th most powerful woman in 2016.
Her motto is: “Follow your heart, do what you enjoy best and you won’t have to work a day in your life.”