The Congo Prospers

PharmAfrican ensures the region's vibrancy by investing its botanical materials in business and international trade

A look at a botanicals nursery developed by BDA ecopreneurs.

Success is born when preparation coincides with opportunity and sometimes a little bit of chance. Such was the case in 2004, when in the first week of January a significant series of events unfolded, paving the way for the pharmaceutical applications of botanical materials. Looking on was Carole Robert, who had the experience, ability, and vision to capitalize on this confluence of forces. Drawing upon a rare combination of work in international trade and familiarity with pharmaceutical terminology from a background in nursing, Robert developed two organizations, the Biotechnology for Sustainability in Africa Foundation (BDA), a nonprofit dedicated to working with Africans in rural communities, and PharmAfrican, a company that promotes the research and development of products derived from botanical materials found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Carole Robert, founder.

Robert’s international work began in the early 1990s, when she made a name for herself as a courier and exporter in the former USSR, where she was first exposed to trade being a powerful tool for change. “I was impressed by the speed and ability of trade to move the population forward after over 70 years of communism,” Robert says. Her expertise in the field grew, and she became chairperson of the World Trade Centre in Montréal, a position she held for six years despite that fact that the original bylaws called for a single-year limit. Robert was attaining her MBA when, in the beginning of 2004, the World Health Organization issued its Good Ethical and Cultural Practices Plan, and the FDA authorized the use of “soup of element” botanicals in the same week, essentially opening the door wide open for the development and commercialization of botanical pharmaceuticals. “I thought this was a major development,” she says. “This was where the medications for tomorrow were going to come from. We have to go back to nature.”

After determining the Amazon to be too depleted, Robert set her sights on the rainforests in the Congo and, after a two-month exploratory mission that she paid for out of pocket, found the location ripe with potential. She set up the two organizations—BDA and PharmAfrican—to realize the business opportunity.

While the two entities are wholly separate with different boards and different missions, one thing they share is Robert’s philosophy on environmental responsibility. She is a firm believer in the triple bottom line, operating a business while providing benefits to economical, environmental, and social issues. “Businesses should deliver return on investment for the shareholder, of course, but also the stakeholder,” she says.

Robert also thinks that the line between profitable businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is beginning to blur. “For a long time, businesses made money, and NGOs satisfied the need for social good,” she explains. “Now, businesses won’t make money if they’re not responsible, and NGOs can’t continue to operate without being profitable. Both are moving towards the centre, and the future belongs to companies that can do both.”

At the centre of Robert’s work in Africa is the desire to engage the local population. BDA accomplishes this through its Plant-Action Program, a three-phase training program that teaches candidates how to develop a bankable business plan, cultivate and process harvested quality-controlled botanical materials for export, and finally put their know-how into action by starting their own sustainable enterprises in their own rural communities.

Upon graduation from the Plant-Action program, the candidates become their own self-sufficient eco-entrepreneurs, or “ecopreneurs.” BDA estimates that each of these new enterprises generates approximately 100 jobs for the local population. Local profitability is also vitally important to the success of a sustainable overall business model. Unlike the development that led to the deforestation of the Amazon, botanicals for pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and cosmeceutical applications use nontimber forest products that actually depend on keeping the trees of the rainforest intact, as opposed to cutting them down.

“In order to work from a position of [conservation], you need to show the local population financial gain,” Robert says. “For decades, financial value was measured by the tree; we believe that nontimber forest products have much more value, and they are much more renewable as well.” By involving the population in the process, Carole is illustrating the fact that the financial future of the Congo is tied to the future of its rainforests—and ensuring that both of those futures will be bright.