The Pacific scientist banking on Samoa’s natural resources

Meet the Pacific scientist banking on Samoa’s natural resources

Fiso Pousui Dr. Fiame Leo, the newest CEO of Samoa’s Scientific Research Organisation (SROS), is waiting for a breakthrough.

The food toxicology scientist has been leading the Pacific nation’s top research body for less than a month, guiding a team of around 50 Samoan scientists.

SROS was launched in 2006 by Samoa’s government, with the explicit mission to use science to fuel technology and innovation throughout the nation, and in turn grow its economy. 

The organisation has turned out many successful projects in its 17-year history – from developing the world’s first taro whisky, to identifying potential medicinal compounds in Samoa’s native plants.

Now at its helm, Fiso believes the organisation’s landmark discovery – one that he hopes will put Samoan science on the map – is just around the corner.

Samoan scientist with necklace in front of colourful curtains
Fiso Pousui Dr. Fiame Leo, CEO of Samoa’s Scientific Research Organisation. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

“I want to create something more,” he says.

Agriculture is Samoa’s major industry and as a result, much of SROS’ work is in food science – developing techniques to extend the shelf-life of vegetables, for example, or using science to “add value” to produce in other ways. One of the organisation’s most well-known products has been a gluten-free flour made from the local species of breadfruit.

The scientific body relies on public funding to operate – more than 95% of SROS’ revenue comes from the government, the other 5% from consultancy work for other organisations. 

But Fiso, who earned his doctorate in Hokkaido, Japan before returning to Samoa to work at SROS, dreams the organisation will someday be self-sufficient.

“That’s something that we have to look at – to try and maybe decrease the dependency of government funding and increase our revenue,” he says.

But he admits such a goal is “very hard”.

Samoan scientist with bottle of whiskey
Notise Fuamuima, Food Labratory principal scientist. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

By government mandate, SROS is unable to commercially sell the products its scientists create. Instead, the organisation must wait for private companies to take enough interest in its patents to buy the formula and market them. As a result, many of SROS’ most iconic products – like the taro whiskey – can only be found in its labs, locked behind glass cabinets dotted around SROS headquarters.

“We’re just like an incubator, we produce products … for the private sector to come and have a look and to fill them with confidence that this product is useful, and there’s a potential market for it,” Fiso says. 

Top-secret plant research holds ‘exciting’ promise

SROS is split into a handful of divisions, ranging from food and agricultural research, to corporate services, to hosting one of the region’s few internationally-standardised testing facilities.

Each building is a hub of activity.

In the food laboratory, research scientist Aitaua Okesene is checking on electric grinders making a dark brown paste from fermented cocoa beans. The beans were collected by Samoan villagers, who have been working with SROS to develop their chocolate products for export.

Samoan scientist checking on chocolate paste in pot
Aitaua Okesene from the Food Science and Technology division checking on the chocolate paste. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

Next door, researchers are conducting experiments on top-secret plant extractions, pipetting muddy green liquids from one vial to the next. Their work is confidential – and for good reason. Fiso explains that he hopes SROS can eventually patent some of this bioprospecting work.

The team has been close to doing this before. A couple of years ago, SROS was on the cusp of publishing research on the potential diabetes-fighting properties of guava leaves – but were beaten to the punch by a team of Chinese scientists.

Though he’s disappointed they didn’t make the discovery first, Fiso says the experience has filled the team with new-found confidence in their work.

“It is one of the reasons why this organisation was first established, to do research on our own resources,” Fiso says. 

So that whatever the benefits, whatever the good outcomes, they will stay with us in Samoa

Dr. Fiame Leo, CEO of SROS

“I’m looking at these medicinal plants to give us something exciting.”

Despite the ambition, operating an organisation like SROS isn’t easy.

It can take months, sometimes years, to receive shipments of technical equipment to the small Pacific island, delaying progress on many SROS projects. Training staff is also difficult, and Fiso says there’s a constant worry that once the workers develop their research skills, they will migrate abroad to Australia or New Zealand for better-paying jobs.

“We can’t keep the staff from moving out if there’s greener pastures overseas,” Fiso says.

“But it’s kind of a loss to us, because we train them, we upgrade their skills and then later on, they’re gonna use those skills for the development of other countries.”

Unlocking secrets of Samoa’s traditional healers

Without scientists actively working in Samoa, Fiso believes global medical development could also be at a loss.

He recalls a case decades ago, where researchers from the United States took interest in Samoa’s Mamala plant, long used by traditional healers (called fofo) to treat diseases like yellow fever.

After working on samples taken back to American laboratories, the US National Institutes of Health isolated and patented a protein called Prostratin, extracted from the plant’s bark and found to have potential in treating HIV. 

Whiteboard with table and numbers in an office
Keeping track of cocoa beans at the food lab. Credit: Prianka Srinivasan.

Since the discovery, the Samoan government has signed a profit-sharing agreement with the AIDS Research Alliance and the University of California’s Berkeley campus to study Prostratin in the hopes of developing it into a drug.

“Many overseas researchers have come to Samoa to take our plants to study,” Fiso says.

“And when they find something useful, they never come back.”

Such incidents prove to Fiso that Samoa has much to contribute to global pharmaceutical development. He simply hopes when the next discovery is made, it will be local SROS researchers taking the lead.

“So that whatever the benefits, whatever the good outcomes, they will stay with us in Samoa.”

As a government appointee, Fiso will lead SROS for three years, until his term ends and another CEO is chosen. He acknowledges his intent to develop world-class research in Samoa might sound far-fetched to people in wealthier countries. But he doesn’t care.

“They always have that kind of thinking, they want to belittle what we’re doing here,” he says.

“But we have the knowledge with us. All we need to do is be confident.”

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