Guest speaker was Dr Ameenah Gurib- Fakim, a scientist whose prolific works have garnered world recognition. She led two successive conferences: one at the National Institute of Science and Management of Gabon (INSG) and the other at Shell’s Libreville offices.

An experienced researcher, Dr Gurib-Fakim is known at international level for pioneering research into the therapeutic properties of African plants. On arrival in Libreville on Wednesday 6 May 2015, she visited the Arboretum at Sibang, a site which conserves many specimens from the equatorial forest, including a collection of most of Gabon’s cropping trees for the timber trade.

Leading this visit was Dr Bourobou, Director of the Institute of Pharmacopoeia and Traditional Medicine (IPHAMETRA) in Gabon. Our guest urged the researchers present to keep careful written records of their research work, to ensure that it would be usable on an international scale.

Next day, Thursday 7 May, Dr Gurib-Fakim chaired a conference at INSG entitled “the importance of tropical biodiversity: why we must exploit our grandmothers’ recipes.”

Stating her case eloquently, she convinced her student listeners of the need to conserve the abundance of local flora. Dr Gurib-Fakim stressed the key role of plants in healthcare, based on validation of recipes dating her grandmother’s generation. These plants, she added, can heal illnesses such as diabetes, malaria and high blood pressure.

“We know that plants with special properties grow on our soil, and that our forebears used them for medicinal purposes. But which ones did they use? What was their chemical blueprint? We don’t know, and this knowledge eludes us because it is not being handed down,” she asserted.

That afternoon, our guest went on to chair a second conference on Shell’s premises in Libreville. Her subject was: “Science, Technology and Innovation: New Agenda for a New Era.”

She addressed an invited audience of prominent figures, in particular Dr. Lee White, of the Gabonese National Agency for National Parks (ANPN), Professor Franck Idiata, of the National Centre for Scientific and Technological Research (Cenarest), Shell Gabon CEO Godson Njoku and representatives of international development aid institutions. Dr Gurib-Fakim explained the need for African countries to grasp the potential of their biodiversity and exploit it, to drive their own economic development.

“Preserving our ancestors’ exceptional knowledge, which derives from an oral tradition without archives, has indeed proved difficult. […] Although a wide range of medicines sold in the world are produced from African plants, the continent gains nothing from this,” the 2007 winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO award noted.

She therefore encouraged African governments to patent their knowledge and discoveries to benefit their economies. She added that the world market for aromatic and medicinal plants is estimated to be worth USD 64 billion. Over 35,000 plants are used in industries such as pharmacy, in phytotherapy, in herbal medicine and in healthcare. Preserving biodiversity is therefore the best and most sustainable guarantee of the productivity and stability of our ecosystems, which supply the goods and services we need for our daily lives.

Dr Garib-Fakim’s visit concluded on Friday, 8 May with a discussion with women who work at Shell in Libreville, at which they pooled their experiences of how to establish a work-life balance. The meeting offered the women present some tips on reconciling career success with a successful home life.

The Conférences Shell series is inspired by the vision of Shell Gabon: to be the most innovative and competitive partner for Gabon in the energy sector. The conferences seek to familiarise their audiences with a range of scientific subjects with a bearing on sustainable development.