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Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: Scientist, Entrepreneur And President

Published 4 years ago
By Renuka Methil

The interview is at State House, the office of the President.

We drive past the armed guards and the imposing gate bearing Mauritius’ coat of arms emblem and enter a world far away from the azure waters and sandy beaches this African island-nation with a little over a million people is known for.

On the grounds of the State House or ‘Le Château du Réduit’, is the country’s most prized attraction that tourists don’t get to see – a lush roughly 100-acre tropical garden in every shade of green.

The State House itself is one of Mauritius’ most iconic buildings, conceived as an impregnable fortress surrounded by large expanses of landscape in the interior of the island, and built during the French colonial period. It has served as the official residence of governors, now Presidents and was even at one time used by the military.

Famed for its gardens with its old camphor trees, rose bushes, bamboo, fountains, ponds, even a peacock pen and turtle pen, it is an environmentalist’s dream, with an ecosystem reflective of rare flora and fauna found only on the island.

It’s the perfect setting for a President who has in her previous role as a biodiversity scientist spent all her time around plants, experimenting with them.

By the formidable fortress that is the State House, we are greeted by a swarm of men in black suits from her security team.

Back from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Durban, South Africa, only a week ago, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius – also the country’s first elected female President – is seated on a leather sofa in her stately office, a temporary one we are told as the main building is undergoing renovation.

It’s no surprise she has chosen a lime-green blazer and an emerald bracelet – green is an all-pervasive color in Mauritius.

The conversation revolves around “the three lives” she has led, the first as a scientist, then as an entrepreneur, and now as an African President for the last two years.

“I hope I have more lives,” she laughs in the end. “I think I would really like to keep on operating in that space where you can touch the lives of your people.”

Early years

The President grew up in a modest home in a small village in Mauritius located next to the airport. Except for the Roman Catholic school she and her brother attended, the village had few facilities or amenities.

“There was not that much in terms of leisure so the only thing we did was watch planes land and fly,” says Gurib-Fakim. Her father, a school teacher, and her mother, a housewife, insisted she read. A lot.

“They knew the power of education and were determined both my brother and I would have equal opportunities. It’s also worth pointing out at the time when they took that decision, education was not yet free.”

Education became free in Mauritius in 1976. Luckily, Gurib-Fakim had teachers who “demystified science”.

“When I was in secondary school, I had fantastic teachers and they in fact, infected me with the virus for science. As young kids, you would have all these silly questions as to ‘why plants are green, why are flowers this color, why is the sky blue?’ There was hardly any infrastructure for science [at school], so what the teacher used to do was to take us to the field.”

This was a time when knowledge about ecosystems and biodiversity was also just beginning to unravel.

By the time she finished secondary education, Gurib-Fakim’s father said to her: “What do you want to do? Do want to stay here in Mauritius and get a job?”

He gave her the option of either working or going abroad for higher studies, and despatched her to meet the career guidance officer.

“So the career guidance officer looked at me and said ‘what do you want to study’ and I said ‘chemistry’, and he said ‘why do you want to study science, because first of all, that’s a job for boys’. I listened politely and went home. My father said ‘so what are you going to do’? And I said ‘I am going to study chemistry, because that’s where my heart is’.”

She listened to her heart, and opted for a chemistry course at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom (UK). Her father, her “biggest cheerleader”, accompanied her on her first voyage outside of Mauritius.

Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim poses in front of the State House for FORBES WOMAN AFRICA; photos by Monnakgotla Motlabana

“It was one of the most daunting moments of my life. Because there I was growing up in a cocoon in a small village in Mauritius and was [now] left in the big white world with a completely new language, new food, new lifestyle… But I was determined that I will not sink, I will rather swim.”

She subsequently did industrial training with a big American organization, which is where she says she got “bitten with another virus – research”.

She signed up for a PhD in organic chemistry.

“Then I went to the University of Exeter and this is when I learned how important the link with industry was.”

Back home, she applied for a lecturer’s position at the University of Mauritius, and was appointed in 1987.

“You know the motto in academia is ‘publish or perish’. This is when I started thinking the only way I could survive in an academic environment was to try to carve out a niche in the world of chemistry which was my passion and still is. Then I started looking and got training in synthetic organic chemistry.

“I went into the chemistry of plants because I knew we were in a biodiversity hotspot – unique plants, and unique molecules not found anywhere else in the world,” says the scientist-President.

As luck would have it, there was a project being funded by the European Development Fund in 1989 on the study of aromatic and medicinal plants in the Indian Ocean.

“So because I was dabbling with plants at the time and I had a background in chemistry, the government and the university had signed this MoU, so I got involved with that project.

Between 1990 and 1995, I documented and studied the medicinal and aromatic plants of Mauritius, and that was a fantastic journey.”

In 1992, Gurib-Fakim set up the very first laboratory to look into the anti-infective potential of plants. She traveled to villages, interviewed people on symptoms and the plants they were using, and developed the very first database, as there was no documentation of herbal medicine at the time.

“I thought the best way to add value to that piece of research was to bring in that component of validation… This is when we set up the laboratory for testing for anti-infectives because we are in the tropics and of course infectious disease is a very important component.”

By 1997, she had published the entire database of the traditional knowledge of plants. The four books are in the public domain and she also set up the very first publication of the medicinal plants of Rodrigues Island, part of Mauritius.

By 2001, she was promoted as professor of chemistry at the University of Mauritius, “the very first time a woman became a professor”. By 2004, she was appointed dean of faculty, and by 2006, deputy vice chancellor of the university.

In 2007, Gurib-Fakim received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.

“That was a very important moment because it added a lot of credibility, as people were still looking down on herbal knowledge; they called it witchcraft… so that was very important also in opening doors for more research grants. That really put the spotlight on Mauritius.”

But what was more important for Gurib-Fakim was a meeting before that with a French gentleman who had incorporated a company in Mauritius to do clinical trials.

“He said to me the area I was working in was very important for him because he was going to be able to use this or we could do it together to bring in innovative ingredients for these very important sectors, be it cosmetics, pharma, especially in the light of resistance to antibiotics and all that… That got me thinking that maybe there is something to do in that space as I didn’t know how to do it.”

Turning entrepreneur

Gurib-Fakim decided to take the plunge.

In 2010, with a consortium of colleagues, she had published the very first African Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which provides botanical, commercial and phytochemical information on important African medicinal plants.

She applied for a leave of absence at the University of Mauritius and by 2011, turned entrepreneur.

“I decided to put in my money, my ideas and my heart and joined the company. It was interesting as at the time people thought it was academic suicide because nobody had done it before. No project in fact had really crossed the valley of death, as we call it, to get to the other side. So I thought you know you live once; at least one day, I will know I tried and it didn’t work; so be it because I have tried,” says Gurib-Fakim.

The business started creating a buzz. Initially called CEPHYR, it pioneered cosmetic and pharma research and development, and in 2014, went in for rebranding when it moved into a bio-park, the very first in Mauritius.

It’s now called CIDP (Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutique), a state-of-the-art facility with sophisticated labs. Gurib-Fakim is not part of the business anymore, but Claire Blazy-Jauzac, Group Managing Director of CIDP, says about her: “I have known Ameenah closely for years. She has a vision for the country; she promotes research and she pushes for women and young people to innovate and believe in their potential.”

More on Mauritius

Life in politics

The next phase of Gurib-Fakim’s life was when the elections were coming up in 2014 in Mauritius. She received news of her Presidency from a reporter. With virtually no political experience on her CV, she was selected to be the Presidential candidate of the Alliance Lepep.

“I remember coming back from a global TED Talk in 2014 in Brazil and one journalist came up to me and said ‘you know ma’am, your name has been cited for Presidency in Mauritius’. I said ‘no ma’am, I think you must be mistaken, because I have no political ambition’. The very next day, I see my picture in the daily [and next to it] ‘Ameenah Gurib-Fakim for Presidency’ with a very small interrogation mark. I didn’t know. I was shocked,” she says.

“They came to me and said we need a neutral person with some credibility and we are going to run.

“So I said ok if I can serve my country at the highest level, why not?”

It was a “risk”, but she decided to take it.

“The one thing I have to say to young people is embrace the idea that you have to take risks because no business school will teach you to take personal risks.”

The party won with a landslide victory, and she had a week to prepare for the Presidential post. Gurib-Fakim was sworn in on June 5, 2015.

“This is when you realize you are in a position where you can make a difference. You can be the voice for so many things.”

She decided to push for sustainable development, women in science and the diversity of Mauritius.

“We are a country which is a microcosm of the world. We have shown to the world that we have diversity but we have managed to live with each other… we have again taken a pledge to advance the cause of science, because science, technology and innovation will be the tools we have to embrace to face climate change, to face job creation, to face the youth bulge, and women, because women feed Africa.”

Gurib-Fakim has reiterated the issues of climate change, global warming and innovation on global forums, and says building collaborations and partnerships is the way forward.

“At WEF in Davos in January, we launched the Coalition for African Research and Innovation [CARI] and this has been done with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with the Wellcome Trust, NEPAD, so all these agencies are coming together recognizing the potential that the youth has, and more importantly, the need to create the ecosystem to leverage diaspora as well.”

Speaking of diaspora, Gurib-Fakim says her family goes back four generations to a village called Mirzapur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She travels to India often, and says is currently in talks to get India’s biotech pioneer Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw to Mauritius in July for a forum connecting art and science.

“There is plenty to do,” says Gurib-Fakim, who is also working towards promoting sustainable conservation of germplasm for food, especially in light of climate change.

She is also pushing for Africa’s scientific independence.

“Africa should own her agenda in terms of generating Africa-centric data, Africa-centric projects but we need to leverage collaborations and partnerships with institutions where these things are already happening,” she says, adding that the youth needs to be empowered through education in science-technology-innovation.

“The youth is our biggest asset and the sooner we add value to that asset the better it is going to be for the continent… This is something I keep saying all the time. If you index your dollar to raw material it will go down. If you index your dollar to knowledge, the growth will be exponential…

“My biggest success will be if I have touched the lives of so many youth to make them successful,” says Gurib-Fakim, a mother of two. Her son, 25, and daughter, 19, are both at university in the UK. Her husband Anwar is a surgeon, who specializes in general surgery and urology.

“I say he’s a plumber,” laughs Gurib-Fakim, who says he supports her in her work by “being indifferent”.

“He doesn’t meddle with what I do and by being busy himself, he’s left me plenty of space to do what I want to do.”

One of only two female African presidents on the continent (the other being Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is retiring later this year), in 2016, FORBES listed Gurib-Fakim one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

You can tell her staff enjoy working with her. Her head of security says she has “an infectious positive disposition”.

Rachna Seenauth, the State House’s Assistant Maintenance Officer, who has worked with Gurib-Fakim long enough to know her well, says: “She is a great mentor and most helpful. She makes you dream and brings out the best in people. Being a person of science, she does things differently. She is putting the country on the international map.” But praise apart, like any African President, Gurib-Fakim has had her share of ups and downs and political trouble and controversies at home. More excerpts from the interview with her:

Gurib-Fakim On Being A Scientist, Entrepreneur And President

Mauritius has a 3.8% growth rate, which is fairly good…? 

Growth matters but the quality of the growth matters more. Because we can have jobless growth as well, this is where developing the medium for entrepreneurship is very important.

What are the new pillars of growth?

Now, we are going into the high end of the financial services… We are looking at the high end of education; we are starting to build an education hub. And then go into the ocean economy, which should not be perceived as fisheries alone even though it is an important component.

For me, the ocean economy is renewable energy; it’s exploration of the fauna and flora of the marine environment.

And then, bio-tech. Again, the pilot we did with the bio-park is proving to be very interesting, capitalizing on our diversity because we have a diverse population.

There is the perceived threat of rising sea-level in Mauritius…

We are number 13 on the world’s risk report, but we are working quite a bit. If you look at the hotel sector, we have to be ISO-certified, it gives a lot of plus… When we try and build for example, we are now mindful of the fact that the sea or ocean might rise. In fact, it’s already happening in the Pacific; if you look at some of the countries, they are already under water. And you are talking about climate refugees, and that is already happening on land.

Most people think Mauritius is not Africa… why?

Some people have called us ‘outliers’ (laughs). We are very much a part of the community, we belong to the Indian Ocean Commission, we belong to SADC, we belong to COMESA, we are very active in the African Union.

But you know we are very important as well. We straddle two continents. This is where we are also using our strategic positioning to build the infrastructure, for example, for financial services, because we would really like to see Mauritius being the bridge between Asia and Africa. And if Asia can go through Mauritius to Africa and vice versa, it is going to be very important for us and for both continents.

Do you aspire to be a Singapore?

We aspire to be a small country of high earners and improve the lives of our people. And I still think we have a good quality of life here in Mauritius. Everything to me is work in progress; we can’t afford to sit down on our laurels because the day you sit still is the day you’re going back.

You have said before you have never worked a day in your life…

I thought I was being original and realized it was Confucius who said it before me. But I will say it until my last breath – always be passionate about what you do. There is nothing worse than coming to a job you don’t like. In fact, this has been the way I have run my life. People say to me ‘how do you manage your time being a mother, being a career woman’… You have to have priorities and I decided from a very young age that I will have a career and a family.

How did you do it?

Just stay focused; being a woman is not easy in that space, that’s for sure. As women, we like to do everything, but in one day, there is only 24 hours, so you have to make choices. You can’t do it all.

And in politics, as President…?

Stay focused, and know what you want to do. I identified a few pillars I would like to do at the beginning of my mandate and I will do it; I will keep on doing it even after I finish my mandate as President. That’s in three years. I think it’s still long enough to be able to do many things. But again, it’s a question of staying focused and knowing what you want.

Can you apply for a second term?

Constitutionally, you can get renewed one more time, but we’ll see. Right now, I am enjoying the ride of doing things.

Do you think it’s difficult for a woman in politics?

It’s not easy for women; there is a lot of misogyny.

In politics, you have had a lot of trouble coming your way… do you think it is because you are a woman?

It can be attributed to being a woman.

How have you handled it?

You just stay focused and have to look at yourself and your conscience and say to yourself, ‘have I done anything that is wrong, which is not proper?’ And if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.

Mauritius is a conservative country, but has a female President, and this is unprecedented…

Again, this is a paradox, because when people voted, I was the only President whose name was flagged before the elections. Because usually, it’s a parliamentary election, and after the elections, they propose a name. But when they voted, the people voted for a package, they voted for a woman President and that’s maturity.

What do you envisage doing once your term ends?

To be honest, I have no idea. Just like I came into this post having no idea at all what to expect, here I am. My life has changed but I think it’s a very powerful position to make a difference and that’s what I want to do.

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