Gurib-Fakim's vision for African science and innovation

Amman Gurib-Fakim, the first elected woman President of Mauritius, which is ranked Africa’s third most developed country, is a champion of higher education and research in Africa and was listed in the world’s top 100 most powerful women by Forbes earlier this year.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

A former biodiversity scientist, she has leadership experience as an academic and a business woman. Before she became head of state, she established CIDP Research & Innovation (formerly Cephyr, Centre for Phytotherapy Research), where she devoted her time to researching the medical and nutritive implications of indigenous plants of Mauritius.

Before that she was dean of the faculty of science and pro-vice chancellor at the University of Mauritius, where she was a professor in organic chemistry.

In her role as president she has been given a unique opportunity to advocate for science and innovation to a wider audience at a time when her country has been expanding its higher education system to attract students from across Africa and, like Rwanda, is attempting to build a knowledge economy based on science and innovation for development.

Here Ameenah Gurib-Fakim talks to University World News about her vision for investing in science, technology and innovation through higher education to transform lives across the African continent.

UWN: You have an interesting background as an academic, a business leader and a politician. You are champion of African research. What is your vision for science and innovation in Africa? How would like to see it change over the next 10 or 20 years?

Gurib-Fakim: Africa is a very rich continent, one well-endowed with many natural resources, but ever since I have been at the level of presidency I have said that Africa’s main resource is the youth of Africa. Now how will this youth help to transform the continent? This is the big question.

Everyone says you need the resources to do that. But we have seen many successful countries making it without having many resources underground. If we look at countries like Korea, Switzerland, Singapore, Israel and all these countries, they have made it because they have been able to leverage whatever resources they have through the development of human capital.

And if we adopt the same parallel for Africa we can see sea changes happening in terms of the landscape of the improvement of livelihoods through the talents that Africa has and through science, technology and innovation, because at the end of the day the difference between North and South will remain the science gap.

UWN: What type of leadership is needed to ensure those changes happen in Africa – in government, in industry and in universities?

Gurib-Fakim: The leadership has to come from government. Going back to the Korean example, what we have seen from the leadership successively has been a focus on education, on high-quality education at all levels, all the way from pre-primary to tertiary, and also investing in the people, investing in infrastructure, developing the eco-system.

The way that emerging countries like India, China and Brazil have been able to do it is when they have been able to attract the brains back to their countries. So this requires vision and leadership at the level of government, and when they have this they will also prepare the enabling policies and enabling environment for these people to come back, because one question heard is: "What do these people come back to in these countries?"

So this leadership cannot happen only with the private sector, or with the NGOs, it must happen with the government – but of course in partnership with the private sector and any enabling leaders or enabling institutions that will make this a vision a reality.

UWN: There is a problem in Africa in that its students are the most mobile in the world in the sense that they go elsewhere to study and they study other people’s curriculum and not necessarily a curriculum that is most helpful to Africa and then they may not come back, or they may not find the appropriate jobs if they do, because theirs was not a curriculum geared to their country, back home. So what is the role of universities in Africa in helping this change and within that, does internationalisation play a key part?

Gurib-Fakim: Universities in Africa really need to focus first of all on delivering quality education. They need to benchmark with the best of the world. They need to look at the problems for the African continent. They also need to invest quite a bit in fundamental research and development – or blue skies research as I call it.

Why is it important to do this? Because it is only when they are able to focus on Africa’s needs that they will be able to develop data, and eventually information that will shape government policies.

So there has to be this transformation within the African higher education landscape so they start to become producers of knowledge, and not just passive consumers of knowledge that has come from elsewhere and has been topicalised for whatever aims and purposes but does not address the fundamentals of Africa’s problems. So this is going to be the transformative power that the universities have.

More importantly, another thing universities have to do, following on from what you have said about brain drain, is talk about brain circulation with universities linking up with the productive sectors of the economy, linking up with the private sector, so the training that they are incorporating, doing, imparting, has relevance to Africa’s problems, and academic youth have somewhere to go back to, be it in academic positions or in the private sector, so that the brain circulation – the brain gain – will happen for the continent. So they have a very vital role to play.

UWN: Going back to the issue of internationalisation of higher education in particular – because that can skew things one way or the other in terms of brain drain or gain, depending on how it works – how do you think internationalisation should be developed in the best interests of Africa?

Gurib-Fakim: Internationalisation of African universities has to be done through partnership. We want to have this exchange with the rest of the world, because anything to do with in-breeding is very bad. We don’t want this. We want a good leverage of south-south collaboration.

This is again where Africa has a lot of homework to do, be it in exchange, be it in mobility of people, be it in business, and especially intra-Africa. We want to see this intra-Africa dialogue because we can’t keep on repeating mistakes, we have to learn from mistakes other people have made and do it better. We have to fast track, we have to start running and to be able to do that we have to see what are the best practices happening.

So the dialogue has to happen with the African continent. But at the same time, we need also to look at what is happening elsewhere, what are the benchmarks in the best universities, what is going on in other best universities and try to see again how we develop this collaboration, this partnership with universities.

It is only when we have this kind of vision that we will see real transformation happening at the level of the African continent.

UWN: Your country, yourself in fact, and Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, both have been champions of science and innovation, and both your countries are more knowledge oriented. I just wonder what impact do you think that can have in advancing science, research and innovation through higher education at the political level across other African countries?

Gurib-Fakim: You mention two countries, Mauritius and Rwanda, and Rwanda is a good case study, in as much as the country had been destroyed in 1994 and if you look at what has happened in the 22 years since this very dreadful event, it has been the leadership empowering people with the necessary tools, for instance in agriculture.

One of the important things Kagame has done is put science at a very, very high level. The ministry of science was answering directly to the president in shaping the policy, in shaping the way the country should move forward and the country has done very well, also in empowering women.

Rwanda remains a good example with over 60% of cabinet comprising women leaders. So this is the leadership we want to bring in terms of modelling for the continent, because unless we empower women as well, we will not make much headway.

You mention Mauritius, it’s small, as is Rwanda, but what we have also done is have access to education from a very early age. Free education has been the mantra for many of the successive governments. We haven’t touched this, we have not taken away the protective, social nets.

We should make sure this is available for the poorest section of the population, for those living below the poverty line, having access to food, healthcare, school, education. These are the basics, the fundamentals that have to be addressed, the minimum. These are key issues to making this human capital emerge in the best possible way.

We are a very small country at a crossroads in development. We know that the future will be in the knowledge economy. If you take what knowledge you have and share it among others this will grow exponentially and this is what we want to see, this sharing of knowledge, this great resource of grey matter, across the continent.

And this can be done through sharing of best practices and sharing of all sorts of data and information, speeding up the spread of knowledge. This is the way we will be leapfrogging or running as opposed to just being incremental in our approach.

UWN: So the transformative change you are aiming at is social as well as economic?

Gurib-Fakim: It has to be social as well; and government has a big role to play in this. We are also increasingly talking about more governance and less government but government has a fundamental role to play in ensuring the needs of the poorer section of the population are seen to also.

UWN: If we could get back to the role of universities, it is interesting that they have on their curricula particular disciplines, but it is not often you see clear attention paid to actually developing leaders. Is there a role for universities to play in that, in science and innovation in particular? How can they do that?

Gurib-Fakim: We need to empower, to recognise talent, to shape, to mentor these people. We need to do exactly what you have seen in other parts of the world, where there is an emerging talent, emerging star – we have to help them along, mentor them and shape them as leaders.

They are few and far between but we need to recognise this. But this can only happen when our education system is merit based. This is something we have to flag up, that access to university, access to excellence, has to be merit based.

UWN: Is being a leader in science and innovation simply about being the best at it or do you need to learn leadership skills? Should that be part of the learning process?

Gurib-Fakim: You need to have this mentoring ability as well, so you can be shaping the policy, you can be shaping the enterprise, but you also need to have this pastoral care. This is where women leaders come in to the fold. Women have the ability to do that, to mentor, to do the pastoral care as opposed to going straight for the final objective, which is success, the career and all the rest of it. We need to nurture this environment.

UWN: Are you suggesting some university staff should be devoted to mentoring leadership skills?

Gurib-Fakim: No, you just have to be dedicated. If everything is merit based, you will get the best people out there and these best people will have the responsibility of nurturing. And of course natural leaders will emerge – because you can’t force it, you can’t say this person is a leader; the person has to emerge. We need to have this enabling environment that recognises this talent, that nurtures it so that we grow as a continent, grow as a country, grow as an institution that will shape these leaders.

At same time we need to have a space for those who are not so endowed at an early stage but have the ability to grow, so that young people are able to emerge differently.

At the end of the day, for a society, a country it is not only the sciences, the talent is also elsewhere, it can be in sport, arts. All these have to go together because we are increasingly moving towards a multidisciplinary approach to things.

The silo way of doing business is no longer the order of the day. We need to go multidisciplinary. Where the subject matter comes in is where we are looking at the fundamental research, the blue skies research, but a lot of the impact research, all this will come through the interdisciplinary approach to things.

UWN: Coming back to that point about innovation, there is another side to not enough women emerging in science and innovation, which is that the whole field of research in which you work is already biased, in that it is all set by men. How hard is it for women to change research so that it also reflects women's experiences and interests and needs, and how would that change the world if there was a more level playing field there?

Gurib-Fakim: You know quality of science knows no gender. As I say to women, you know when your work is being assessed by peers it is assessed anonymously. So cultivate this thought of going for excellence all the time. It will take longer. It will not happen overnight. But don’t settle for half measures and mediocrity. Always go for excellence. And once you build your portfolio through excellence, you can challenge any promotion, you can challenge just about anything, but go for excellence all the time.

UWN: You have an interesting background in that you have leadership experience as an academic, and on the business side of research and now as head of state, the highest office of the land. What makes a good transformative leader and has anyone inspired you as a leader?

Gurib-Fakim: Yes, I was inspired by a very prominent scientist who has made a difference or impact. And one thing as well that I strongly believe – this is something I pass on to the young people – is to be passionate about what you do and enjoy it. I have never thought with my head, I have always thought with my heart into doing things I have always wanted to do. And that is what kept the flame going for so long.

I have always tried to look for the science in whatever I was doing, whether creating an enterprise or doing my basic research – it was the passion for the science.

And going two steps back, it was my teachers who have been able to motivate me to sustain that interest in science. So this is what we have to build, an entire pipeline, from a very young age, to nurture that child, to nurture that girl child, to give them equal opportunities to emerge.

At the same time I am not saying it is going to be rosy, but when that person has the confidence from a very early age, that person can confront and can challenge anything. We must make them mindful of the fact that they have to learn to think and challenge the status quo.

UWN: You mentioned scientists who inspired you?

Gurib-Fakim: Rosalind Franklin out of Cambridge, and Marie Curie, who was iconic. Why is she is iconic? Whenever you think of her, you think of her only in a grey dress, because she was self-effacing. She had to do this because of the context in which she was living, where women were not appreciated at all.

In fact she was refused an academic position, but still managed to go against all odds and earn two Nobels. This is not given, she had to fight for it, but she did it through sheer brilliance, through sheer determination and I am sure through sheer bloody-mindedness as well.

So these are some of the people, but of course there have been so many others. Some who have been university dropouts; I am thinking of Steve Jobs. But again we have to nurture, and we have to fan that flame through innovative thinking. And we have to reward innovative thinking, reward excellence: we cannot reward conformity.