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  • Stephanie Busari: President Ameenah, thank you for joining us.

  • Even as TED speakers go, you're something of an overachiever.

  • Ameenah Gurib-Fakim: (Laughs)

  • SB: You have a PhD in organic chemistry,

  • you were vice chancellor of the University of Mauritius,

  • a successful entrepreneur,

  • you've won numerous awards for your work in science

  • and you're the first Muslim female head of state in Africa.

  • (Applause)

  • And of course, you're no stranger to the TEDGlobal stage;

  • you gave a talk in 2014.

  • Did you have any political ambitions at that time?

  • How did you go from academic to president?

  • AGF: OK, thanks, Stephanie.

  • First of all, I'd like to thank TED

  • for having given me the opportunity to be here today.

  • And I would also like to thank the government of Tanzania

  • and the president for the welcome.

  • And also, I'd like to thank the contribution of our consul,

  • Mr. Rizvi, who's here,

  • has been very supportive for all our stay here.

  • Now, to answer your question,

  • did I have any ambitions in politics?

  • The straight answer is no.

  • I did not choose the world of politics;

  • the world of politics chose me.

  • So here I am.

  • (Applause)

  • SB: So, was there ever anything in your journey

  • that ever made you think

  • that one day you would become president of your country?

  • Did you ever imagine that?

  • AGF: Absolutely not.

  • I think the journey started immediately after TED, actually.

  • When I went back, this journalist called me and said,

  • "You know, your name has been cited for the president of the republic,"

  • I said, "Ma'am, you must be mistaken,

  • because I have no ambition whatsoever."

  • She said, "No, it's serious.

  • Can you come and tell me this in the form of a declaration?

  • So, OK, you'll come?"

  • So, of course, as good journalists go,

  • the next day I see my TED picture

  • and, with my name, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim,

  • "For president?"

  • A very small interrogation mark --

  • and people don't see the interrogation mark,

  • they just see my name and they see my picture.

  • And that was a sounding board.

  • And again, as you have just said,

  • it was a very interesting scenario

  • because it was a scenario where they wanted to have somebody

  • who was credible,

  • had this political neutrality

  • and at the same time, was for a minority

  • because Islam is a minority religion in Mauritius,

  • because in Mauritius, we stratify people's origins

  • by virtue of their religious belief.

  • And -- I was a woman.

  • So this made it all very interesting.

  • So there we go, and this whole campaign started,

  • and then people said, "Why not?"

  • Now, this is very important to note, Stephanie,

  • because normally, the president is elected after the election.

  • And here we had a scenario

  • where the name of the president was flagged before the election process,

  • during the campaign.

  • So when people voted, they knew that at some point,

  • they would have this Muslim woman president.

  • SB: Does it feel significant to you as a woman

  • to be the first female president of your country?

  • AGF: It's important for many reasons.

  • I think, obviously, you just mentioned the terrible statistics

  • of two female presidents in the whole of Africa.

  • But more importantly,

  • I think it's important also coming from the background I come from --

  • by background I mean not ethnic, but more academic and entrepreneurial --

  • to be there,

  • to be that role model for that little girl growing in my village

  • to say, "Yes, it's possible."

  • It's possible.

  • (Applause)

  • It's also important, Stephanie,

  • while I talk about diversity --

  • diversity in the widest sense of the word.

  • We've seen that whenever there was diversity,

  • whenever there was openness,

  • whenever there was dialogue,

  • this was the time when societies have been most productive.

  • When we talk about the Arab Golden Age,

  • we cannot not think of Ibn Sina,

  • al-Haytham,

  • Averroes,

  • Maimonides.

  • This was a time when cultures, religions --

  • they were talking to each other.

  • They were at peace with each other.

  • And this was a time when they were highly productive.

  • So I would say: bring down these walls.

  • SB: Absolutely, absolutely.

  • (Applause)

  • AGF: Virtual or otherwise.

  • SB: Let's also talk about another conflict area

  • which you straddle quite interestingly.

  • As a woman of faith and also a scientist,

  • you know, faith and science seem to be at loggerheads.

  • It wasn't always so,

  • but I'm interested to get your thoughts on how you reconcile both

  • and how they coexist for you personally.

  • AGF: They're not mutually exclusive.

  • I mean, if you're a scientist,

  • you tend to really look at the perfection of the human body,

  • the way it functions.

  • If you look at nature as a whole.

  • I'm still amazed at the perfection

  • with which the entire ecosystem functions together.

  • However, to the purists, to those who are of faith,

  • they will tell you, "Yes, there has been evolution."

  • Even the Pope has agreed that evolution exists.

  • But there's always the question: What came first?

  • What came before this?

  • When we talk about all the various strata of evolution,

  • we'll always be asking the question,

  • there must be something before.

  • So I'm of the opinion that yes,

  • there is this great spiritual force which is guiding the process,

  • and things like this don't happen by chance.

  • Now, whether you call it religiosity,

  • whether you call this great spirit by any name --

  • Brahma, Allah, the Holy Trinity --

  • you name it --

  • but I still think that these two are not mutually exclusive.

  • They can still coexist with each other.

  • SB: So let's move to one of your passions -- science.

  • You've made no secret of that.

  • And you've always been passionate about science.

  • I read that when you were a very young girl,

  • you went to a career guidance counselor

  • and told them you wanted to become a chemist,

  • and they said, "No, it's for boys.

  • Boys do science."

  • Did that make you even more determined to study science

  • and to succeed in that field?

  • How did you respond to that?

  • AGF: Well, to begin with,

  • I must say, before I came to that career guidance officer,

  • I had great teachers who motivated.

  • And this is something I would like to draw attention to again,

  • to our education system.

  • We have to do away with this rote learning.

  • We have to ensure that we drive this curiosity in the child,

  • and they need to be curious.

  • And if we want to move along the line for them to become great scientists,

  • they need to become more and more curious in everything they do.

  • So every time -- exactly -- I went to see the careers guidance,

  • he looked at me and said, "What do you want to do?"

  • I said, "I want to study chemistry."

  • "Well, you shouldn't study chemistry because this is for boys.

  • And the next thing, when you come back, there'll be no job for you."

  • So I went back home,

  • and I had a great cheerleader at home who happens to be my father.

  • He said, "What do you want to do?" and asked, "What did he say?"

  • I said, "This is what he said ..." He said, "What are you going to do?"

  • I said, "I'm going to do chemistry."

  • So there I was.

  • And one thing I will say: one must always follow your heart.

  • And my heart was always in chemistry.

  • I did what I was passionate about,

  • and I thought at some point that I had developed this thinking

  • that if you're passionate about what you do,

  • you will not have to work a single day in your life,

  • until I realized it was Confucius who said that.

  • (Laughter)

  • SB: So do you feel a responsibility, as someone in your position,

  • to encourage young girls, especially on this continent,

  • to study STEM subjects?

  • Is that something that you actively work --

  • AGF: You know, over the past two days, Stephanie,

  • we've been hearing a lot of conversation

  • about the sustainable development goals.

  • We've seen that, for example,

  • Africa must be food secure,

  • Africa must be energy secure,

  • Africa must be water secure.

  • If we want to get to that level of development --

  • Agenda 2030 is not very far away --

  • if you want to have success,

  • we need to have an educated youth in Africa.

  • And again, to be very cliché:

  • you cannot achieve, you cannot win a football match,

  • if you're going to leave 52 percent of the team outside.

  • It's not possible.

  • (Applause)

  • SB: Yes.

  • AGF: So we need highly educated,

  • we need female intuition,

  • and we need to get them there.

  • And this is where a great deal of effort has to be done

  • to actually motivate them from a very young age,

  • to tell that girl that she can do anything.

  • And if the message comes from her father,

  • if the message comes from her brother,

  • it's even much more powerful.

  • We need to tell her that anything is possible

  • and she can do it.

  • We need to build her self-confidence from a very early age,

  • but more importantly,

  • we also need to actually look at the books,

  • because there are too many stereotypes.

  • Last year, I was very shocked when I went to a debate on Women's Day.

  • They had a survey,

  • and they were asking these girls how many women inventors we have,

  • how many women scientists do we have.

  • And you'd be shocked that hardly anyone knew

  • that Ada Lovelace was there behind computer science,

  • that Marie Curie still remains iconic with two Nobel prizes.

  • So there's a lot of homework to do to actually make --

  • to remove all these gender biases at a very young age;

  • instill that confidence in that girl;

  • to tell her that she can do as well if not better than her brother.

  • SB: Yes.

  • (Applause)

  • Thank you.

  • So, let's move on to an area that I know you've been very active in,

  • which is the issue of biodiversity.

  • You've been quite clear that this is an area that Africa must embrace.

  • We have an abundance of rich herbal traditions and plants

  • that could be developed into a big pharmaceutical industry.

  • Can you tell us a little bit of how you've been using your expertise

  • to harness growth in this area?

  • AGF: Thank you.

  • Yesterday, I was listening to one of the talks;

  • it was the talk about the need for Africa to turn into a knowledge economy.

  • Africa has got very rich traditions.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa, southern Africa,

  • has got over 5,000 medicinal plant species,

  • not harnessed.

  • And, in fact, at the TED talk I gave in 2014,

  • I came out with one sentence:

  • "Biodiversity underpins life on earth."

  • And if we don't look after this biodiversity,

  • if we don't protect it,

  • if we don't actually harness it in the right way,

  • we are threatening our own livelihoods on this planet.

  • When we talk about the contribution from countries of the north

  • to the Green Fund for the protection of our planet,

  • it is not charity.

  • It is to ensure our own collective livelihoods on this planet.

  • So this is something that must be addressed.

  • Now, again, when you talk about