By Sandra Nomoto
Politician, scientist, author, lecturer, and entrepreneur Ameenah Gurib-Fakim served as the sixth and first female and Muslim President of Mauritius from 2015 to 2018, without a political background.
Born in Surinam, Mauritius in 1959, Gurib-Fakim grew up in the small village of Plaine Magnien, a place of ethnic, social, and cultural diversity, which she considers a microcosm of the world.
Gurib-Fakim earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Surrey (UK) and doctorate degree in organic chemistry at the University of Exeter. Prior to teaching as the first female professor of organic chemistry and Dean of the Faculty of Science, and serving as Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Mauritius, she led a research project on the documentation and study of medicinal and aromatic plants and flora of the Indian Ocean, financed by the European Development Fund.
During this time, she spoke to elder African female healers and documented their herbal recipes. Despite being ridiculed as a woman in science, her observations were confirmed in lab settings. She would speak of this early ethnopharmacology work to TEDGlobal in 2014.
In the talk, which has been viewed over a million times, she stressed the importance of preserving rare and vulnerable plant species in isolated islands and regions of Africa, used for potential health, nutritional, and cosmetic applications, including treating cancer and diabetes.
After serving as the National Coordinator for the Indian Ocean University, she participated in several consultation meetings on environmental issues, speaking on the importance of biodiversity with the World Bank, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Canadian International Development Agency, European Union, and the United Nations.
Her additional roles include Chairperson of the International Council for Scientific Union – Regional Office for Africa, Independent Director on the Board of Barclays Bank of Mauritius Ltd., and Chair of several National Committees in Mauritius. As the Founder and Managing Director of CIDP Research & Innovation (formerly Cephyr, Centre for Phytotherapy Research), she became the first academic to translate research work on medicinal plants into a business.
In a 2017 TEDGlobal interview, Gurib-Fakim spoke about the continuing need to document and codify biodiversity in Africa, including the plant knowledge that has traditionally been passed orally.
In her autobiography published in August 2019, she stresses the need to invest in STEM education in African youth.
Her recent articles and talks allude to the potential for economic growth and international investment in Africa, contrary to the narratives that have traditionally been associated with the continent.
Gurib-Fakim and Landry Signé wrote the following in Project Syndicate in August 2019: “Agriculture (including agribusiness), projected to be a $1 trillion USD industry in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, is attracting a growing amount of private-sector investment. Africa is also expected to receive almost $2 trillion in investment in natural resources by 2036.”
A founding Member of the Pan African Association of African Medicinal Plants, Gurib-Fakim has authored and/or co-edited 28 books, book chapters, and scientific articles on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, including co-authoring the first African Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
In 2018, she wrote an article for The Guardian on the baobab, Africa’s ‘tree of life’, which is becoming an endangered species due to climate change and human development.
Gurib-Fakim has received five honorary doctorate degrees in science, and was elected Fellowships by the Linnean Society of London, Islamic Academy of Science in Jordan, the African Institute of Science & Technology, and the African Academy of Sciences.
She has received both national and international awards from the Royal Society of Chemistry, CTA/NEPAD/AGRA/RUFORUM, African Union, L’Oréal-UNESCO, and the National Economic and Social Council of Mauritius. Foreign Policy named her one of 100 Global Thinkers in 2015.
The French government named Gurib-Fakim to the Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Palmes Academiques in 2009. Upon her presidency, former President Anerood Jugnauth elected her as Commander of the Order of the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean (CSK), the highest civilian award in Mauritius.
Gurib-Fakim continues to advocate for opportunity and growth in Mauritius, spread awareness of the effects climate change, and promote investments in science and technology in Africa.
Recently, she became Associate Editor of Frontiers in Ethnopharmacology, which lauded how her political experience has facilitated the translation of research into health benefits on a global scale.
Gurib-Fakim lives in Quatre-Bornes, Mauritius with her husband and two children.