Princeton University

October 5, 2017

Thank you for your welcome. It is a pleasure to be your guest here at Princeton. Beyond the natural draw to an academic like myself of one of the world’s most distinguished centers of higher learning, I’ve looked forward to visiting Princeton since the 2013 publication of a case study by Gabriel Kuris, ‎Deputy Director at the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at the Woodrow Wilson School.  

It took a hard look at the economic evolution of my country in the past forty years, from a GDP per capita of $350 and exports consisting of 92% sugar cane, to an economy today where ITC, offshore finance and upscale tourism together account for 72% of GDP, and Purchasing Power Parity is at the global average of about $15,000.

Mauritius is a tiny island country of 1.3 million inhabitants 680 miles off the East coast of Madagascar. Yet it plays an outsized role in the economic development of the Continent as the global financial hub for much Foreign Direct Investment: from the developed world, increasingly from Africa and China, and particularly from India -- 40% of FDI in India flows through Mauritius. 

This is achieved through a system of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements across Africa and the world, based on a commitment to transparency, integrity, and treaties that eliminate double taxation and cut red tape. These strategies have attracted the expansion of the world’s most respected banks to Mauritius. 

Aspiring to and achieving this world class standard is reflected in our place as Number One in Africa in the Legatum Prosperity Index global ranking – accounting for the economy, business, governance, education, health, safety & security, personal freedoms, social capital and the natural environment.   

The thriving service sector has played a critical role in the strong national economy of Mauritius, and Mauritius in turn has played a critical role in the growing economy of Africa. 

At the same time, as a scientist, I believe in one guiding principle: that the separation between the haves and the have-nots across the globe in the years to come will be defined by investment in research and innovation to battle our current challenges and develop new opportunities for growth. This is what I’d like to discuss here with you today.

As you know, Africa starts at a deficit. Our continent is home to 15% of global population, but produces only 3% of its GDP while carrying 25% of its disease burden. Africa accounts for just 2% of world research output, 1.3% of research spending and zero-point-one percent of patents.

The challenges are fundamental, starting with public education, especially in rural communities, which tends to teach memorization more than deep, independent analysis and thinking. 

This limits the potential of students for creativity and entrepreneurship. At the other end of the education spectrum, the virtual absence of post-doctoral science training opportunities on our continent forces our new PhDs who aspire to a research career to go overseas. 

Many never return professionally, which is their loss, and Africa’s loss. African research universities must serve as incubators to set up a virtuous cycle of highly-trained researchers who can in turn provide guidance and practical training to graduate students and post-docs. 

On a macroeconomic level, we are persistently dependent on short-term aid, undermining the obligation of our own governments to create the right conditions to attract private investment and venture capital. This in turn dilutes our ability to create robust infrastructure, set our own agenda, take control of our research activities and fully profit from our own economy.

Moreover, the effects of climate change are already acute in Africa. Observable effects on water resources include flooding, drought, change in distribution of rainfall, drying-up of rivers, melting of glaciers and receding bodies of water.  

Droughts, heat stress and flooding have led to a reduction in crop yields and livestock productivity, and to the destruction of homes, shelters and villages across the Continent. 

Conflicts over resources also exacerbate these impacts and, in turn, contribute to ongoing migration within and between countries in Africa. A United Nations report predicts that access to water may be the single biggest cause of conflict and war in Africa in the next generation. 

Climate change and its impact on agriculture and therefore food security adds urgency to our fundamental challenges of poverty and disease in Africa. 

A recent study by Ezekiel Mugendi Njeru and colleagues found that agrobiodiversity conservation is vital to attaining sustainable agricultural systems in the context of limited external inputs and climate change. This is why the scholarly community assembled at the first International Agrobiodiversity Congress last year and adopted the Delhi Declaration of Agrobiodiversity Management. 

The evidence is robust and growing that we must invest in and improve Sustainable Food Systems to meet many of our Sustainable Development Goals. The broad elements of healthy, diverse diets, seed and crop diversity, improvements in seed and crop delivery and cultivation, and the maintenance of our agrobiodiversity must be optimized to ensure a healthy and prosperous future for all our people.  

The magnitude of the task cannot be overstated. There is no scholarly consensus even on the number of plant species on Earth – much less on the best strategy to protect and benefit from them. The Kew Royal Botanical Gardens estimates that there are over 5,500 food plant species and almost 18,000 medicinal species, though some credible estimates for the total are over 75,000. Biodiversity scientists such as myself know that solutions require knowledge, and knowledge starts with good data. That is why we need a universal agrobiodiversity index, another consensus imperative. This will be an important step toward developing the common understanding necessary to find global solutions to the human challenge of sustainable health and prosperity across the world.

Ann Tutwiler and her colleagues have summarized the key deliverables we expect of agrobiodiversity monitoring and implementation of sustainable practices. They are: 

to reform food systems to nourish people while nourishing the environment; 

to use agricultural biodiversity as a source of nutritious foods which are culturally acceptable and often adapted to local and low-input agricultural systems, and which also produce important traits for breeding resilient, nutritious crops and animals;

to improve farming and breeding systems, and

to support policymakers and the private sector by providing reliable data to be used to guide interventions and investments for sustainable food systems.

Another factor that sits squarely at the nexus of agricultural health and nutrition is climate. A major finding of the post-Paris Climate Accord UN FAO study is that hunger, poverty and climate change need to be tackled together. Farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk and community foresters depend on activities that are intimately and inextricably linked to climate – and these groups are also the most vulnerable to climate change. 

These people – all of them survivors and providers -- will require far greater access to data, technologies, markets, information and credit for investment to adjust their production systems and practices to our changing climate. 

Economic modelling of the impact of climate change on Africa predicts a mean average global temperature rise of 1.5°C by 2040, with costs equivalent to 1.7% of Africa’s GDP. 

As the mean temperature rises 2.2°C by 2060, economic costs increase to the equivalent of 3.4%. By the end of the century, with a mean temperature rise of 4.1°C, the economic costs are equivalent to just under 10% of the Continent’s GDP.

We must look beyond fossil fuels and the extractive industries to develop renewable resources to curb climate change and ensure sustainable economic development. 

Think about the potential of our oceans as a source of food and energy and incubator for biodiversity. The oceans are home to about 2 million species, from the largest animal that has ever lived to the tiniest bacterium. 

Marine biodiversity far outweighs that on land. Oceans cover 71% of our planet’s surface, are a life-support system for Earth and provide more than half of the oxygen we breathe. They are central in the planetary water cycle that produces rain and snow, and nourish more than 1 billion people with their primary source of animal protein.

The oceans also regulate the global climate; mediate temperature, and drive the weather, determining rainfall, droughts and floods. They are the world’s largest store of carbon: an estimated 83% of the global carbon cycle is circulated through marine waters.

Africa’s flora and fauna is a similar source of natural wealth. This is especially critical in Mauritius, with a relative lack of oil and mineral resources compared to many other African countries. I recently wrote an article published in Nature to underscore how our plants and animals can produce big human and financial dividends. 

Today, 60% of commercially available drugs are based on molecules derived from natural sources. 

As an organic chemist and biodiversity scientist, I find it significant that while about 25% of all plant genetic resources reside in Africa, just 83 of the 1,100 plant-derived drugs marketed globally are synthesized from African species. 

On our continent, 45,000 plant species are unexplored for their potential to serve as the molecular basis of pharmaceuticals. And African species are disappearing at almost twice the global rate, driven by climate change, habitat loss and development. 

Opportunities for innovation are also emerging from biotechnology and the life sciences. This is the premise of CARI, the Coalition for African Research and Innovation, for which I serve as Chair of the leadership council. 

CARI will be an important driver of African science in the coming years. With seed funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the NIH, it is based on the premise that world-class, pan-African science and innovation can and will be led by Africans, in Africa, with priorities set by Africa, for Africa. 

CARI is gathering public and private investment in basic scientific research and R&D to build a dramatically scaled-up infrastructure for science. It also advocates for the policy and governance conditions that enable Africa to claim her rightful place as a global driver of prosperity.

Even though Mauritius and nearby islands are designated as biodiversity hotspots, almost 100 species have become extinct since the arrival of people in the seventeenth century, and only 2% of the native forest remains. 

Mauritius, by any standard, is tiny. Yet with the right priorities, small countries can punch above their weight. While African nations are a rich and growing source of fossil resources, home to six of the top ten global discoveries in the oil and gas sector in 2013, alternatives to extractive industry sources of energy are essential for a sustained African economy. 

Effective investment in these priorities requires the right technical, legal, regulatory and cultural conditions.

To this end, I helped found what is now the Centre International de Dévelopement Pharmaceutique, which searches for ingredients from our local species with the potential for development. 

A recipe from the San people of southern Africa has led to standardized extracts of the plant Sceletium tortuosum to be tested for their tranquillizing properties. 

An extract of the hoodia cactus-like plant, also long used by the San to control hunger, has been explored as an appetite suppressant by Pfizer and Unilever. Other extracts of African plants — including nuts of the shea tree and seed oil of the baobab -- are used commercially in skin and beauty products. 

All this opportunity is leveraged perhaps most critically at the point of development known as the ‘valley of death’, the transition from lab bench to marketplace. At this critical juncture, significant resources are necessary to overcome the research, regulatory, economic, clinical, legal and other barriers to drug development, such as they did in containing the Ebola outbreak before it became a global scourge. 

Paradoxically, one factor that positions us to succeed is that in many industries, we have little or no legacy. This relative lack of robust infrastructure and vested financial interest means little resistance to and greater agency for Africa to use innovation as a mechanism to leapfrog to better solutions. 

Addressing these challenges involves many moving parts. Our health and prosperity are a function of interdependent, transdisciplinary scientific research, and, in a broader context, of climate, nutrition, agrobiodiversity, health, agricultural management on all scales, environment, governance and the economy. 

It requires sustained operational resources and capital support, and the capacity to engage successfully with funders, governments, policy makers, communities and other stakeholders.

Only significant investment in all these elements – public-private investment in basic and translational research, development of sustainable resources, creation of the legal, regulatory and policy conditions to encourage research and development, and the right education and training for the next generation of scientists on the Continent -- will result in a sustainable research and innovation environment that leads to less disease and displacement, more prosperity and more independence in Africa.   

My own small country of Mauritius provides a proof-of-principle that intelligent, strategic investment, based on a dispassionate view of the powerful forces at play, can yield important returns. The challenge is not easy: reaching it depends on the contributions of highly-skilled individuals and ambitious initiatives such as CARI and the cultivation of sustainable agrobiodiversity. But it can be done, because it must be done. Our ability to create a sustained future for ourselves isn’t optional: it’s existential. 

There’s an African proverb that says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." Bring your seedlings and your shovels, and we will plant that tree together.