This African Nation’s First Female President Is Doing Something Pretty Entrepreneurial

July 27, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
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Last year, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim achieved what only three other women in Africa did before her: She became an elected head of state. In June 2015, she was sworn in as the first female president of Mauritius, an island nation roughly 1,200 miles off the continent’s southeast coast. But what really sets her apart isn’t her gender — it’s her business acumen.

Before becoming president, a ceremonial position that carries no executive power, Gurib-Fakim had never held elected office. She was surprised when the current Prime Minister asked her to join his ticket but the now president says serving her country was an offer she couldn’t refuse. Before that, her focus was science and business, not politics. After leaving Mauritius to attend university in the U.K., where she received a PhD in chemistry, she returned to teach and, later, start her own bioresearch and pharmaceutical company.

Now, Gurib-Fakim intends to use the president’s high-profile platform to expand Mauritius’ economy. The country’s GDP has grown at an average rate of 3.2% a year, but she thinks this could be higher. The secret? Enabling the country to capitalize on its wealth of native plant and animal life.

“Our biodiversity is a unique treasure,” she says. “It’s time we take advantage of it.”

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Located in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is what’s known as a “biodiversity hotspot,” i.e. an area where the teeming biodiversity is threatened by human activity. Growing up, Gurib-Fakim enjoyed the beaches and lush tropical forests, but it wasn’t until she returned from the U.K. that she realized the island’s natural beauty had value outside tourism. When placed under the microscope, flowers used by locals as an antiseptic showed promise in the development of a new type of antibiotic; meanwhile, an unassuming local plant proved to be a natural remedy for asthma.

Her home was no longer just a pretty collection of plants and flowers, but a reservoir of ingredients that could be worth millions to the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and nutritional sectors. And so in 2004 she founded the Centre for Phytotherapy Research to identify and catalogue the medical and nutritional elements of the island’s natural sources. The company, which sells its discoveries and clinical research to companies making cosmetics, drugs and food products, has grown its revenue over 10% annually for the past decade, and employs 120 people across the globe.

Since taking office, Gurib-Fakim has stepped down as CEO and shifted her focus to training the next generation of Mauritian scientists in the fields of agriculture, pharmacology and clean energy. To that end, she launched a grant program in partnership with and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to provide 10,000 PhD Scholarships to local researchers in the coming decade.

As part of her presidential duties she advocates for the importance of biotech in Africa and promotes Mauritius’ new Biopark – the first bioresearch hub of its kind in the Indian Ocean. The public-funded center is home to half a dozen laboratories, which work together to develop solutions from agricultural development to epidemiology. Gurib-Fakim hopes this hub will expand on her previous research to monetize Africa’s wealth of flora. The Hoodia Cactus, for example, acts as an appetite suppressant and could be used to help combat obesity, while protein-rich Baobab tree flowers could be used as a supplement to ward off malnutrition. To this end, she has embarked on a relentless campaign in cities like Paris or London to convince companies to shop for product ingredients native to her island.

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Her grand aspirations of harnessing Mother Nature to fuel the country’s economic engine may have a shelf life, thanks to climate change. Mauritius is already experiencing unprecedented flash floods, coral bleaching and violent cyclones, according to Daneshwar Puchooa, a professor of biotechnology at the University of Mauritius. And thanks to rising temperatures, “we will soon start to see the emergence of pests and diseases,” she warns. Such diseases could disrupt the delicate equilibrium of the island.

To this end, Gurib-Fakim joined an alliance of small island states lobbying larger nations for stronger legislation against global warming. “We must protect our biodiversity at all costs,” she says. Otherwise, it’s likely many of the island’s species will meet the same fate as its most famous animal, a flightless bird that went extinct in the 17th century and is now featured on Mauritius’ presidential coat of arms: She’s fighting from keeping her island’s lush life from going the way of the Dodo.