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AfricaMoney | October 16, 2017

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Scientific ExpertSpeak: Mauritius must join hands with Africa to boost agriculture

Scientific ExpertSpeak: Mauritius must join hands with Africa to boost agriculture

Scientific expert Ameenah Gurib-Fakim highlighted that Mauritius must rethink its strategy around food production as the future of the island economy depends on it. (Image: Company)

Mauritius’ renowned scientific expert Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, who is the cynosure of all eyes as the next President of the Republic and will be the first woman to take over this role, shared her views with AfricaMoney on the commercial possibilities rife in organic crop cultivation. Our scientific expert highlighted that Mauritius must rethink its strategy around food production as the future of the island economy depends on it. To make headway in the agricultural sector, Mauritius would be well served to join hands with African economies, she noted. She also spoke about promoting Mauritius’ image as a sustainable and intelligent island by putting all-out efforts to power bio and cultural tourism.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview with AfricaMoney:

You are a woman of substance that the Mauritian nation is proud to have as a citizen and you represent a laudable role model for women in our society. Can you please give a message for women on the island?

Thank you for your compliment. Although I do not consider myself to be anyone special, but I do like a job well done. If there is any message that I can give to the ladies, it is is first to enjoy what you do, then surround yourselves with competent and capable people, and never cut corners or compromise on the quality of your work! Remember, quality transcends time!

You have won many awards as a researcher and contributed to many projects, with the latest being the Bio Business Park at Phoenix. Given the thrust of the government on Maurice Ile Durable, can you comment on how Mauritians can make plants and nature a part of their daily lives and ensure a sound future for the coming generations?

Our new entity is CIDP International (a holding company for the wider group) within the newly created BioPark of Mauritius located at Socota Phoenicia, Phoenix. CIDP Research & Innovation (ex-CEPHYR Ltd.) that I head is part of that holding group of companies. As you are already aware, I was a faculty at the University of Mauritius (UoM), where I created the very first database on the Medicinal Plants of Mauritius and Rodrigues. I had validated quite a few of these herbal remedies against 2 main areas: communicable (infectious diseases) and non–communicable diseases like Diabetes, for example. Most of my work in the public domain ended in the form of publications, as there is no research policy locally. When I moved to CEPHYR in 2010, I decided to translate this research into a business and CEPHYR has been rebranded CIDP R & I so that at the level of the holding company, we speak as a group. This is the first time that an academic research project has translated into an enterprise. Now to answer your question about plants and livelihoods, most certainly yes. We can use our flora and fauna to respond to the needs of industry in their search of innovative ingredients. This is where CIDP R & I comes in. We are probing our ‘Green and Blue Gold’ for new leads!

Do you feel a thrust on bio tourism might make it more viable for the island economy to push ahead with its agenda of Maurice Ile Durable and make the island achieve both sustainable development and self-sufficiency in funding such development?

Mauritius is in this highly enviable position of being part of the Mascarene Archipelago, which is a Biodiversity hotspot. Hence, bio or green tourism should have been part of our DNA. Yet so far, Mauritius has promoted the image of sun and sea. This image of sun, sea and palm trees has been replicated at beach destinations across the world now. So, we need to differentiate ourselves by creating the added value which comes with what unique biodiversity we have, and that the rest of the world might not boast of. This means adding value to our biodiversity and our people. We are blessed with a rich cultural heritage that we have not explored enough. So yes – green and cultural tourism would provide this edge and help rebrand Mauritius as an ‘intelligent island’!

What are your upcoming projects as the managing director of CIDP R & I as well as in terms of future contribution to bio-projects in Mauritius?

With the setting up of the BioPark, as I mentioned earlier, CIDP R & I has given me the physical infrastructure — in terms of space, equipment and human resources — to dig deeper into this unique biodiversity of ours in the search for new and innovative bio resources that will respond to the ever-evolving needs of the industry. Along with the other clusters in the holding, we can go that extra mile in terms of R&D and provide more services like formulation, preclinical testing and finally clinical testing. This is how we can avoid exporting low value raw material but add value to the base material through biotechnological tools and provide job opportunities for young graduates in the process.

With the latest Budget showing a thrust on ecological balance with a boost to bio-food, how important is bio cultivation and its environmental impact for a country, especially a Small Island Developing State like Mauritius?

There is no doubt that, over the past few years, there has been an increased use of pesticides in our food crops. The effect on our health and on our environment is already being felt. It is time to rethink our strategy in our food production as our future depends on it. Any form of agricultural practice (subsistence or otherwise) along with a stricter control on the use of pesticide will help improve the quality of our foodcrops and sustain a healthier lifestyle.

In your view, does commercial agriculture mean only growing sugar cane or food crops, or can growing of medicinal plants be a viable avenue of exploration for Mauritian cultivators. Is there any nation you would like to hold up as an example that Mauritius can emulate, especially in terms of the revenue generating potential of medicinal plants?

Agriculture will always remain an important area. At the level of the African continent, it has been estimated that a 2-point increase in agricultural productivity will get over 20 million people out of absolute poverty! At some point in our history, agriculture through sugar was the backbone of the economy and now sugar contributes less than 10% of the economy. Socially, people are still attached to their lands and this land can be put to good use by ensuring our food security – through cultivation of fruits and vegetables, amongst other food commodities. Cultivation of medicinal plants is not part of our culture as it is the case in Madagascar or the other islands of the Indian Ocean. Yet through the project that we are doing at CIDP R & I, we can become a key player in changing this landscape. We can add value by producing organic crop or by adding other certifications like Fair Trade, among others.

You have often worked with African economies in the sphere of medicinal plant cultivation. What makes the continent stand out in this domain, and what potential does it offer that Mauritius can help bring to the fore by joining hands with relevant economies?

One of World Bank’s reports on agriculture in Africa has revealed that 60% of untilled land globally is found in Africa! As I have mentioned earlier, a 2-point increase in production will take millions out of dire poverty. It is also being recognised that investing in agriculture in Africa is perhaps the only way of absorbing the youth coming out of universities and colleges. By 2050, Africa will be the youngest continent in the world and the agricultural sector is being heralded as being the only sector that will absorb unemployment. It is therefore in the interest of Mauritius to join hands with many of these economies and make headway in this sector. One country that has shown the way in African agriculture is Rwanda, and the next is Nigeria.

Finally, and this is a question that I cannot stop myself from asking: What will be your first step as the premier lady President of Mauritius?

I personally think — and this is entirely my own opinion and vouches only for my involvement in the process — that the Office of the President should be called upon to act as a ‘Think Tank’ and engage in issues that are relevant to the economy and country at large. There is a lot that can be achieved if only we put our minds behind solving critical economic issues!

- By Wazna Gunga

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