The Republic of Mauritius, a small island nation off the coast of Madagascar, showcases a high level of biodiversity, making it particularly appealing for natural products chemists interested in exploring the possibilities among its flora for the supplement and cosmetics industries. Independent from British colonization since 1968, the republic’s 1.3 million citizens enjoy one of the highest gross domestic products (GDPs) of an African nation, with a growing financial sector and tourism industry. On June 5, 2015, research scientist and American Botanical Council (ABC) Advisory Board member Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, PhD, was sworn in as the nation’ s first female president.
Prior to her appointment as president, Dr. Gurib-Fakim served dual roles as researcher and academic. At her company, Centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR), she used her background in organic chemistry to perform clinical trials on pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and dietary supplements, developing innovative ingredients from the abundance of plants unique to Mauritius. Over the course of her career, she has authored or co-authored several notable texts documenting the traditional knowledge of the area, including African Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AAMPS, 2010), Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of the Indian Ocean Islands (MedPharm, 2004), and Novel Plant Bioresources: Applications in Food, Medicine and Cosmetics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014). She also served the University of Mauritius for 23 years, beginning as a lecturer for the faculty of agriculture and, from 2004-2010, holding the position of vice-chancellor for teaching and learning.
Dr. Gurib-Fakim gave a TED Talk in 2014 emphasizing the importance of preserving and actively conserving natural resources titled “Humble plants that hide surprising secrets.”1 In her talk, she highlighted five plants from Mauritius with documented traditional uses and possible pharmaceutical applications — but pointed out that Mauritius also was the home of the famously extinct dodo bird, and human interaction with the environment could precipitate similar tragedies in other delicate and diverse regions of the planet. She has been a passionate advocate for a proactive approach toward urbanization, climate change, and the study of natural products.
The road to the highest office of Mauritius, however, was an unusual one. “I did not choose politics,” said Dr. Gurib-Fakim. “Politics chose me!” Her appointment to the role, which is largely ceremonial, followed the resignation of former president Kailash Purryag. Going into the recent election, leaders of her party, Alliance Lepep, approached her and asked if she would be willing to accept the position. “They wanted a person who was politically neutral,” she explained, “a woman, and one who had some form of credibility. I had the scientific credibility and was known internationally. My name was proposed and the party won.” The opposing party also approved her appointment, making the official parliamentary vote only a formality. Dr. Gurib-Fakim described politics as a “national sport” in Mauritius, with a population that is actively involved in the general elections. Voter turnout can be as high as 80% of the electorate. (As a matter of comparison, voter turnout for the 2012 US presidential election was estimated to be 57.5%.)
Her credibility is well-documented. Dr. Gurib-Fakim’s work has international recognition, as she has lent her talents to a number of different organizations, including the following: International Council for Science (formerly the International Council of Scientific Unions), Mauritius Research Council, the Indian Ocean University, Pan-African Association of African Medicinal Plants, the Reference Group of the International Science Programme of Uppsala University in Sweden, and the International Foundation for Science in Stockholm. She has also served as a member of the Expert Panel on Infectious Diseases of the Special Programme convened by the United Nations Development Program, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization and World Bank, the Scientific Advisory Council of NTembi, the Nuclear Energy Commission of South Africa, the International Advisory Committee for the Cyclotron Project of the Indian Ocean based in La Réunion (a French island southwest of Mauritius), and American Botanical Council Advisory Board since 2010. She has used her education and passion for her country to build a reputation first as a scientist, then as an academic, and most recently as a political leader. She hopes that her current role will inspire other women to follow in her footsteps and emphasize the importance of science and conservation in education.
In a statement before parliament presenting the motion to elect Dr. Gurib-Fakim, Mauritian Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth called her “the perfect role model and a source of inspiration for our youth.”
“Science, technology and innovation [STI] creates opportunities and improves the GDP,” explained Dr. Gurib-Fakim. “If institutions build capacity, have a strong STI policy in place, and promote the entrepreneurial spirit among the young people, we will improve economic indicators and create opportunities and jobs.”