When Dutch sailors first landed in Mauritius in 1598, they discovered an island paradise rich in lush, tropical vegetation and with abundant supplies of fresh water. They also famously found the dodo, which has been described as a “feathered tortoise,” a bird so fat that it could not fly. It provided an easy target and a ready supply of meat for even the most lethargic Dutch sailor. Soon supplies of dodo meat ran out, the bird became extinct and the Dutch sailors left the island.
The story of the dodo is an early environmental tragedy and Mauritians have regretted the loss of the bird ever since. It is perhaps hardly surprising, therefore, that the first female President of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, should be a biodiversity scientist. The Mascarene islands, which include Mauritius, are one of the world’s ‘biodiversity hotspots’ and the President is passionately keen on preserving their unique flora and fauna.
Speaking to participants in a TED conference in 2014, the year before she became President, she said “We tend to overlook the diversity and the variety of the natural world. These particular habitats are unique and they are host to a whole lot of plants. We don’t realise how valuable and how precious these resources are and yet, through our insouciance, we keep on destroying them… Our health and our survival are closely linked to the health and resilience of our ecosystem and that’s why we should be very careful about preserving biodiversity. Every time a forest is cut down, every time a marsh is filled in, it is a potential lab that goes with it and which we will never, ever recover. And I know what I’m talking about, coming from Mauritius and missing the dodo.”
Ms Gurib-Fakim is one of the world’s most highly qualified heads of state. A former professor of organic chemistry at the University of Mauritius, before assuming office, she was also Managing Director of the Centre for Phytotherapy Research (Cephyr) rebranded later as the “Centre International du Developpement Pharmaceutique” (CIDP) Research and Innovation.
Her passionate belief in defending the ecosystem is accompanied by an awareness of the importance of a growing economy and a conviction that Mauritius can be an example to fellow member states of the African Union. The growth of the Mauritian economy and its steady transformation can act as a model for others, she believes.
“The Mauritian model is small but it has shown results over the years. We gained our independence in 1968. In the 1970’s GDP per capita was only $200. We were a low-wage economy, a sugar economy. Education was not free and agricultural workers only had access to basic education. The decision was taken to have free education in 1976. Then we saw the movement into manufacturing and a more diversified economy. New pillars are coming in. Now we have a service industry at the heart of the economy. Now we are a middle-income economy.
“The question is where we can move with a science base and develop a nation of entrepreneurs. We have seen the evolution of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing and services. Now we are aiming to become a knowledge economy.”
With her long, dark hair, big eyes the colour of almonds and the sort of smile that can light up a room, President Gurib-Fakim has what Americans used to call “a winning personality.” Enthusiasm oozes from every pore. She speaks quickly, her words giving form to thoughts that have clearly preoccupied her for years.
“We have to make our human capital work if we want to go into the knowledge economy,” she says. “If we want to develop as Singapore, Mexico and other countries have done, we have to create an enabling environment… We need a new mind-set and new thinking to attract brains, as well as investment; leverage our diaspora so we can engage in brain circulation”.
She shares the African Union’s 2063 Vision of a “transformed continent” and is convinced that the key to success for both Mauritius and other African countries is investment in science, education and technology.
“ICT is a huge enabler. First we need to build the infrastructure and increase the bandwidth. We need to invest in both our infrastructure and our human capital. A 10% increase in bandwidth can lead to a 1 per cent increase in GDP. There is a direct correlation. What goes into ICT drives growth and there are numerous examples of this across the continent.”
Her emphasis on infrastructure and bandwidth might suggest that she shares the criticism of some projects, initiated by outsiders, that have persuaded African governments to invest heavily in expensive hardware, such as Kenya’s one-laptop-per-child. She is, however, quick to dismiss the suggestion.
“The principle of investing in infrastructure and investing in hardware is not mutually exclusive,” she says. “One-laptop-per-child does not exclude investing in infrastructure.”
She is optimistic about Africa’s prospects. “Countries like Kenya and Malawi are doing well. Things are happening in West Africa and North Africa. There is good progress and it is translating into growth in the region. I’m a prudent optimist. The signs are there.”
However, she is convinced that, if the present generation of African leaders do not invest in the continent’s “human capital” – particularly young people – they will fail collectively.
“Investment in human capital is investment in the economy… People, countries and regions are aware that, if they don’t invest, they will fail… We must not fail future generations again as we know that development takes time. We cannot fail this generation. This positive demographic can also become a powder keg, if we don’t act.”
She knows that perhaps the most important challenge facing African leaders is to empower Africa’s youth and unleash its potential. With Africa’s population expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, the continent is set to enjoy a “youth dividend” and a period of growth in which an increasing percentage of the population is of working age. However, President Gurib Fakim knows that the rosy picture of a “transformed continent” enjoying sustained economic growth could easily turn into a nightmare unless African leaders focus on how to deal with Africa’s youth.
“The youth dividend can be a downside, if we don’t empower youth properly. We need the right technologies, the right training, the right education. We need an education that does not ‘format’ youth. Youth must be armed with education, critical and lateral thinking – whether with vocational courses or higher education. We must empower our young people.”
Mauritius has a duty to show the way – “it is best to lead by example.” She lists important areas on which Africans should focus their attention – good practices, gender parity, good quality and knowledge and wealth creation.
“Mauritius must lead by example and we must ensure higher education is an enabler” she says.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim’s vision is of a country, which supports innovation and is open “with new partners across the world.” It is a vision, which is similar to both the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the African Union’s 2063 Vision.
“Both are visions,” she says. The potential benefits are easy to identify – “prosperity for all, peace, security and allowing our youth to have a future.”
Sharing the vision is the easy part; turning vision into reality is more difficult. How can Mauritius help to inspire Africa?
“We must keep on building.”
Determined to build on the success of small business ‘incubators’ and a new technology park, BioPark Mauritius, the first of its kind in the region, she has no doubt that Mauritius can offer a positive example to Africa, as it seeks to transform itself.
The course of history has often been marked by the actions of statesmen, who have been either great builders or great destroyers. At a time of rapid technological change, fraught with both danger and opportunity, Mauritius, and Africa too, can be grateful that President Gurib-Fakim is a builder.
Written by Harold Elletson