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TEDGlobal 2017

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim and Stephanie Busari: An interview with Mauritius's first female president

Filmed:
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Ameenah Gurib-Fakim has been an academic, an entrepreneur and is now the president of Mauritius -- the first Muslim female head of state in Africa. In a wide-ranging conversation with journalist Stephanie Busari, Gurib-Fakim discusses the humble beginnings of her political career, what it's like to be both a person of faith and a scientist and why we need to value traditional African knowledge, among much more. "I don't think you should take yourself seriously," she says. "You need to have trust in what you can do, have confidence in yourself and give yourself a set of goals and just work towards them."

- Biodiversity scientist
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim explores the medical and nutrition secrets of the plants of her island, Mauritius. Full bio

- Journalist
Stephanie Busari is a journalist and editor at CNN International Digital. Full bio

Stephanie Busari: President Ameenah,
thank you for joining us.
00:12
Even as TED speakers go,
you're something of an overachiever.
00:15
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: (Laughs)
00:21
SB: You have a PhD in organic chemistry,
00:22
you were vice chancellor
of the University of Mauritius,
00:25
a successful entrepreneur,
00:28
you've won numerous awards
for your work in science
00:29
and you're the first Muslim
female head of state in Africa.
00:33
(Applause)
00:37
And of course, you're no stranger
to the TEDGlobal stage;
00:42
you gave a talk in 2014.
00:45
Did you have any political
ambitions at that time?
00:48
How did you go from academic to president?
00:51
AGF: OK, thanks, Stephanie.
00:55
First of all, I'd like to thank TED
00:56
for having given me
the opportunity to be here today.
00:58
And I would also like to thank
the government of Tanzania
01:01
and the president for the welcome.
01:04
And also, I'd like to thank
the contribution of our consul,
01:08
Mr. Rizvi, who's here,
01:11
has been very supportive
for all our stay here.
01:13
Now, to answer your question,
01:16
did I have any ambitions in politics?
01:19
The straight answer is no.
01:22
I did not choose the world of politics;
01:24
the world of politics chose me.
01:26
So here I am.
01:28
(Applause)
01:29
SB: So, was there ever
anything in your journey
01:32
that ever made you think
01:34
that one day you would become
president of your country?
01:36
Did you ever imagine that?
01:39
AGF: Absolutely not.
01:40
I think the journey started
immediately after TED, actually.
01:41
When I went back,
this journalist called me and said,
01:45
"You know, your name has been cited
for the president of the republic,"
01:48
I said, "Ma'am, you must be mistaken,
01:52
because I have no ambition whatsoever."
01:54
She said, "No, it's serious.
01:56
Can you come and tell me this
in the form of a declaration?
01:57
So, OK, you'll come?"
02:01
So, of course, as good journalists go,
02:02
the next day I see my TED picture
02:05
and, with my name, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim,
02:07
"For president?"
02:10
A very small interrogation mark --
02:11
and people don't see
the interrogation mark,
02:13
they just see my name
and they see my picture.
02:15
And that was a sounding board.
02:18
And again, as you have just said,
02:20
it was a very interesting scenario
02:23
because it was a scenario
where they wanted to have somebody
02:26
who was credible,
02:30
had this political neutrality
02:32
and at the same time, was for a minority
02:34
because Islam is a minority
religion in Mauritius,
02:37
because in Mauritius,
we stratify people's origins
02:40
by virtue of their religious belief.
02:43
And -- I was a woman.
02:46
So this made it all very interesting.
02:48
So there we go, and this
whole campaign started,
02:50
and then people said, "Why not?"
02:54
Now, this is very important
to note, Stephanie,
02:55
because normally, the president
is elected after the election.
02:58
And here we had a scenario
03:02
where the name of the president
was flagged before the election process,
03:03
during the campaign.
03:09
So when people voted,
they knew that at some point,
03:10
they would have
this Muslim woman president.
03:12
SB: Does it feel significant
to you as a woman
03:16
to be the first female president
of your country?
03:18
AGF: It's important for many reasons.
03:22
I think, obviously, you just mentioned
the terrible statistics
03:24
of two female presidents
in the whole of Africa.
03:29
But more importantly,
03:32
I think it's important also coming
from the background I come from --
03:34
by background I mean not ethnic,
but more academic and entrepreneurial --
03:39
to be there,
03:45
to be that role model for that little girl
growing in my village
03:46
to say, "Yes, it's possible."
03:50
It's possible.
03:51
(Applause)
03:53
It's also important, Stephanie,
03:57
while I talk about diversity --
03:59
diversity in the widest sense of the word.
04:01
We've seen that whenever
there was diversity,
04:04
whenever there was openness,
04:08
whenever there was dialogue,
04:10
this was the time when societies
have been most productive.
04:12
When we talk about the Arab Golden Age,
04:16
we cannot not think of Ibn Sina,
04:18
al-Haytham,
04:22
Averroes,
04:24
Maimonides.
04:25
This was a time
when cultures, religions --
04:26
they were talking to each other.
04:29
They were at peace with each other.
04:31
And this was a time
when they were highly productive.
04:33
So I would say: bring down these walls.
04:35
SB: Absolutely, absolutely.
04:37
(Applause)
04:39
AGF: Virtual or otherwise.
04:42
SB: Let's also talk about
another conflict area
04:45
which you straddle quite interestingly.
04:48
As a woman of faith and also a scientist,
04:51
you know, faith and science
seem to be at loggerheads.
04:55
It wasn't always so,
04:58
but I'm interested to get your thoughts
on how you reconcile both
05:00
and how they coexist for you personally.
05:05
AGF: They're not mutually exclusive.
05:09
I mean, if you're a scientist,
05:11
you tend to really look
at the perfection of the human body,
05:13
the way it functions.
05:17
If you look at nature as a whole.
05:19
I'm still amazed at the perfection
05:20
with which the entire
ecosystem functions together.
05:24
However, to the purists,
to those who are of faith,
05:27
they will tell you, "Yes,
there has been evolution."
05:32
Even the Pope has agreed
that evolution exists.
05:34
But there's always the question:
What came first?
05:38
What came before this?
05:41
When we talk about all
the various strata of evolution,
05:42
we'll always be asking the question,
05:46
there must be something before.
05:48
So I'm of the opinion that yes,
05:50
there is this great spiritual force
which is guiding the process,
05:51
and things like this
don't happen by chance.
05:56
Now, whether you call it religiosity,
05:59
whether you call
this great spirit by any name --
06:02
Brahma, Allah, the Holy Trinity --
06:05
you name it --
06:08
but I still think that these two
are not mutually exclusive.
06:09
They can still coexist with each other.
06:13
SB: So let's move
to one of your passions -- science.
06:16
You've made no secret of that.
06:20
And you've always been
passionate about science.
06:21
I read that when you were
a very young girl,
06:24
you went to a career guidance counselor
06:26
and told them you wanted
to become a chemist,
06:29
and they said, "No, it's for boys.
06:32
Boys do science."
06:35
Did that make you even more
determined to study science
06:37
and to succeed in that field?
06:41
How did you respond to that?
06:43
AGF: Well, to begin with,
06:45
I must say, before I came
to that career guidance officer,
06:47
I had great teachers who motivated.
06:50
And this is something I would like
to draw attention to again,
06:53
to our education system.
06:56
We have to do away
with this rote learning.
06:58
We have to ensure that we drive
this curiosity in the child,
07:00
and they need to be curious.
07:04
And if we want to move along the line
for them to become great scientists,
07:06
they need to become more and more
curious in everything they do.
07:10
So every time -- exactly --
I went to see the careers guidance,
07:13
he looked at me and said,
"What do you want to do?"
07:16
I said, "I want to study chemistry."
07:19
"Well, you shouldn't study chemistry
because this is for boys.
07:20
And the next thing, when you come
back, there'll be no job for you."
07:23
So I went back home,
07:27
and I had a great cheerleader at home
who happens to be my father.
07:28
He said, "What do you want to do?"
and asked, "What did he say?"
07:31
I said, "This is what he said ..."
He said, "What are you going to do?"
07:34
I said, "I'm going to do chemistry."
07:37
So there I was.
07:39
And one thing I will say:
one must always follow your heart.
07:41
And my heart was always in chemistry.
07:44
I did what I was passionate about,
07:46
and I thought at some point
that I had developed this thinking
07:48
that if you're passionate
about what you do,
07:51
you will not have to work
a single day in your life,
07:54
until I realized it was
Confucius who said that.
07:56
(Laughter)
07:59
SB: So do you feel a responsibility,
as someone in your position,
08:01
to encourage young girls,
especially on this continent,
08:07
to study STEM subjects?
08:10
Is that something
that you actively work --
08:14
AGF: You know, over the past
two days, Stephanie,
08:17
we've been hearing a lot of conversation
08:19
about the sustainable development goals.
08:21
We've seen that, for example,
08:23
Africa must be food secure,
08:25
Africa must be energy secure,
08:26
Africa must be water secure.
08:28
If we want to get
to that level of development --
08:30
Agenda 2030 is not very far away --
08:33
if you want to have success,
08:36
we need to have
an educated youth in Africa.
08:38
And again, to be very cliché:
08:43
you cannot achieve,
you cannot win a football match,
08:45
if you're going to leave 52 percent
of the team outside.
08:49
It's not possible.
08:54
(Applause)
08:56
SB: Yes.
08:59
AGF: So we need highly educated,
09:00
we need female intuition,
09:02
and we need to get them there.
09:04
And this is where a great deal
of effort has to be done
09:06
to actually motivate
them from a very young age,
09:09
to tell that girl
that she can do anything.
09:12
And if the message comes from her father,
09:15
if the message comes from her brother,
09:17
it's even much more powerful.
09:20
We need to tell her
that anything is possible
09:21
and she can do it.
09:24
We need to build her self-confidence
from a very early age,
09:25
but more importantly,
09:28
we also need to actually
look at the books,
09:30
because there are too many stereotypes.
09:32
Last year, I was very shocked
when I went to a debate on Women's Day.
09:35
They had a survey,
09:38
and they were asking these girls
how many women inventors we have,
09:40
how many women scientists do we have.
09:44
And you'd be shocked
that hardly anyone knew
09:47
that Ada Lovelace was there
behind computer science,
09:50
that Marie Curie still remains iconic
with two Nobel prizes.
09:53
So there's a lot of homework to do
to actually make --
09:57
to remove all these gender biases
at a very young age;
10:00
instill that confidence in that girl;
10:05
to tell her that she can do as well
if not better than her brother.
10:07
SB: Yes.
10:11
(Applause)
10:12
Thank you.
10:16
So, let's move on to an area
that I know you've been very active in,
10:17
which is the issue of biodiversity.
10:22
You've been quite clear that this
is an area that Africa must embrace.
10:24
We have an abundance of rich
herbal traditions and plants
10:30
that could be developed
into a big pharmaceutical industry.
10:34
Can you tell us a little bit
of how you've been using your expertise
10:39
to harness growth in this area?
10:43
AGF: Thank you.
10:46
Yesterday, I was listening
to one of the talks;
10:47
it was the talk about the need for Africa
to turn into a knowledge economy.
10:49
Africa has got very rich traditions.
10:54
Sub-Saharan Africa, southern Africa,
10:57
has got over 5,000
medicinal plant species,
10:59
not harnessed.
11:03
And, in fact, at the TED talk
I gave in 2014,
11:04
I came out with one sentence:
11:07
"Biodiversity underpins life on earth."
11:09
And if we don't look after
this biodiversity,
11:12
if we don't protect it,
11:15
if we don't actually
harness it in the right way,
11:16
we are threatening
our own livelihoods on this planet.
11:20
When we talk about the contribution
from countries of the north
11:24
to the Green Fund
for the protection of our planet,
11:28
it is not charity.
11:32
It is to ensure our own collective
livelihoods on this planet.
11:34
So this is something
that must be addressed.
11:39
Now, again, when you talk about
11:41
getting this biodiversity
of Africa working for us,
11:43
you'd be shocked to know
11:47
that out of the 1,100 blockbuster drugs
that we have on the market,
11:48
only 83 come from African plants.
11:55
Why is this so?
11:58
Because we are responsible;
12:00
us Africans.
12:02
We don't value
our own traditional knowledge.
12:03
We don't give it the same status
as allopathic medicine.
12:06
Look at what China has done.
12:11
China has given the same status
for traditional Chinese medicine
12:12
as allopathic medicine,
12:17
as of 2016.
12:18
Our governments, our people,
have not documented,
12:21
have not taken this knowledge seriously.
12:24
If you want to get serious about Africa
becoming a knowledge continent,
12:27
this is something that we need
to address very seriously,
12:34
we need to start documenting,
12:37
we need to start codifying this knowledge,
12:38
and unfortunately,
we are racing against time
12:40
because tradition in Africa is that
the transmission has always been oral.
12:43
So we need to get our act together
and make it happen.
12:48
SB: So there's really a sense
of urgency around this.
12:51
AGF: Yes.
12:54
(Applause)
12:55
SB: And have you done anything yourself
in respect to documenting --
12:59
AGF: Yes, I definitely did.
13:04
When I started my career in academia,
13:05
one of the first things I did
was I documented precisely these plants.
13:08
And I'll tell you one thing --
it was not perceived to be very serious,
13:12
because here I was,
in synthetic organic chemistry,
13:15
going out there,
talking to these grandmothers,
13:18
documenting their recipes.
13:22
I mean, you can't be serious --
bringing weeds in the lab,
13:24
and say, "We're going
to be working on these."
13:27
Are we going to get results?
13:29
So it was really a race against prejudice
13:31
to try to take people's --
13:35
bring them to the table and say,
"Look, this is very important."
13:37
But I'm glad I did,
13:41
because by that time, you start
developing a crocodile skin,
13:42
especially when you're a woman in the lab
doing different things.
13:45
You know -- you become suspect.
13:48
So I documented it; I'm very happy I did.
13:49
And now, almost 20 years
since the documentation,
13:52
it now constitutes prior art,
13:55
and is now very well-documented at WIPO,
13:57
and it is now the information which,
13:59
subsequently, my company actually
started working on as well.
14:02
SB: So, I watched you in the makeup room
14:07
taking selfies with the makeup artist,
14:11
and just being generally very accessible.
14:13
And it strikes me
14:16
that you're not the kind of typical,
big-man, African leader.
14:17
You seem very --
14:21
AGF: You just demoted me.
You called me a man.
14:22
(Laughter)
14:24
SB: I mean your style --
14:26
(Applause)
14:27
Your style seems to be very accessible
and quite unassuming.
14:28
So is this --
14:34
I mean, people tend to ask women leaders
14:36
if their gender has a bearing
on the way they rule,
14:39
or the way they lead.
14:44
Does that apply to you?
14:46
AGF: You know, I've never
taken myself seriously.
14:49
SB: OK. That's good.
14:51
(Laughter)
14:52
AGF: I still don't.
14:54
And I don't think you should
take yourself seriously.
14:55
You need to have trust in what you can do,
14:58
have confidence in yourself
15:00
and give yourself a set of goals
and just work towards them.
15:02
So the goal I've given myself is,
OK, I'm leading my third life --
15:05
because I've been an academic,
I've been an entrepreneur, now I'm here.
15:10
I'm hoping to have a fourth life.
15:13
So put these to work for the continent.
15:15
And this is why I have chosen
to give my voice to so many initiatives
15:18
that would help the youth of Africa
become tech-savvy,
15:22
become science-savvy,
15:26
because as I said earlier on,
15:27
up until they get to grips with science,
15:29
with whatever is around --
media, technology, you name it,
15:33
all calls for a good grounding in science,
technology and innovation.
15:38
I think we'll be here,
15:42
10 years, 20 years down the line,
15:44
having the same conversation.
15:45
SB: Let's talk quickly
about the challenges
15:48
of leadership and governance.
15:50
It's hard to ignore
that there's corruption on this continent
15:52
with some of our leaders.
15:57
How have you confronted that in your role,
15:59
and what experiences can you
share with us around this issue?
16:03
AGF: We've had corruption --
16:08
corruption doesn't exist only in Africa.
16:10
Where there is a corruptee,
there is a corrupter.
16:12
Right? It's always a two-way process.
16:14
We have focused in my country,
16:18
we are working very hard towards
doing something about corruption,
16:20
but, you know, they also have
great people in Africa.
16:24
Why do we always focus on the negative?
Why don't we talk about ...
16:27
I want to bring on board, for example,
the great quotes of Nelson Mandela.
16:30
His legacy is still very much alive.
16:34
We have people in -- even in Tanzania,
we've had Julius Nyerere,
16:37
he have Nkrumah,
16:40
we have Kenyatta,
16:42
we have all these people
who have been champions of Africa.
16:43
I think we need to take
pages of their book and see.
16:46
In fact, Julius Nyerere himself
had been a great advocate for science
16:48
when he said that "science
will make deserts bloom."
16:52
So these are some of the founding
fathers of this continent;
16:56
we need to take pages from them
17:00
and move ahead.
17:02
(Applause)
17:03
SB: Thank you very much,
President Fakim.
17:05
AGF: Thank you.
17:07
(Applause)
17:09

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About the speakers:

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim - Biodiversity scientist
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim explores the medical and nutrition secrets of the plants of her island, Mauritius.

Why you should listen

She calls herself a chemist and a gardener (and she has a collection of 200 bonsai), but Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is the leading scientist studying the flora of one of the world's key biodiversity hotspots, the island of Mauritius. As the managing director of the Centre for Phytotherapy Research (Cephyr) and a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Mauritius, she explores and analyzes plants from the island and their health, nutritional and cosmetic applications.

She co-authored the African Herbal Pharmacopoeia, the first resource of its kind, led the first regional research project on the inventory and study of medicinal and aromatic plants of the Indian Ocean, and was the lead coordinating author on the international assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development, spearheaded by the World Bank. 

Ameenah was honored as one of Foreign Policy's 2015 Global Thinkers .

In June 2015, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim became the first female president of Mauritius.

More profile about the speaker
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim | Speaker | TED.com
Stephanie Busari - Journalist
Stephanie Busari is a journalist and editor at CNN International Digital.

Why you should listen

Stephanie Busari moved to Lagos from London in July 2016 to pioneer CNN's first digital and multimedia bureau. She also reports on-air in breaking news situations for CNN International.

In April 2016 Busari exclusively obtained the "proof of life" video that showed that the missing Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria in 2014 were still alive. She was also an instrumental member of the CNN team that won a Peabody Award in May 2015 for the network's coverage of the missing girls. Busari recently won a Gracie Award for her persistence in covering this story, and she's also a previous recipient of the Outstanding Woman in the Media Awards.

Busari is a passionate community activist who curated TEDxBrixton for three years before she left London. She founded TEDxBrixton in 2013 driven by a desire to bring disparate elements of her community together and to create a platform for those who wouldn't normally have one to share their ideas worth spreading.

A passionate and adept public speaker, Busari is regularly invited to share her insights and host panels. She has spoken at UN Women, Said Business School, Oxford, Africa Gathering among others.

Over a 15-year career, Busari has worked as a news reporter, entertainment and features writer, court reporter and columnist, and she has been published in many of the UK and international media's most influential outlets, such as the BBC and Daily Mirror.

During a six-month stint in Northern Ireland in 2003, Busari spent time in some of the worst affected areas of "The Troubles" and secured interviews with a crucifixion victim, government ministers and paramilitaries. While there, she also launched and edited an award-winning lifestyle column.

A native Yoruba speaker, Busari also speaks fluent French and is currently learning Hausa.  

More profile about the speaker
Stephanie Busari | Speaker | TED.com