Building on its strategic location between Africa and South Asia, Mauritius has become the latest country to jump on to the information technology bandwagon.
Efforts are in full swing to develop Mauritius into a cyber-island and to make information and communication technology the fifth pillar of the economy after sugar, textile, tourism and financial services.
But, researchers warn, an exciting planned link with software giant India needs to be forged carefully – how it is done could determine whether Mauritius's late entry into the world of software ends in tears or cheers.
The island-nation's vision is to become a regional IT or 'dotcom hub' and kick start its flagging economy, hit hard by fierce international competition and the removal of preferential access to European markets for sugar and textiles. Richard Heeks, researcher at the University of Manchester, Britain, has looked at Information Technology strategies in his paper, Software Strategies in Developing Countries. He explains:
"IT will be a cornerstone of every national economy in the 21st century, and the sooner developing countries recognise this, the better."
But "not just any old IT will do," he adds. "Trying to copy Microsoft as a major package producer will bring 'all pain and no gain', and countries just looking to their own local markets will be small fish in a small pool. Exports, especially 'smart' exports will be critical."
Mauritius is taking a smart export road with three lanes:
- First it hopes to export IT services by attracting Indian and other international firms to set up call-centres, back-office operations, and programming centres.
- Second, Mauritius will build on its unique domestic strengths – French is spoken throughout the island – to create software packages for French-language markets in Africa, Europe and Canada.
- Third, and most ambitiously, it hopes to become a regional centre for manufacture of computer hardware.
A cyber city is being built at Ebene, 15 kilometres south of the capital Port Louis, to attract foreign firms. Those firms currently investing in the island are offered low corporate tax of 15 per cent, free repatriation of profits and exemption of customs duties on equipment and raw materials.
"We have set ourselves the task of putting Mauritius on the digital map," said Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth at the launch of the cyber city project in November 2001.
In all cases Mauritius is making the most of its status as a regional – even global – bridge, its dual Anglo-French heritage and its strategic location between Africa and South Asia in the Indian Ocean.
These links are not just virtual. In 2000 Mauritius was connected to the South Africa Far East (SAFE) Submarine Fibre-optic Cable Project which is to link the island to Malaysia, South Africa, and then onwards to West Africa and Europe and bring high-speed connectivity.
Such projects are a reminder that cyber islands and 'e-strategies' aren't conjured out of thin air. Heeks says, "Despite the selective amnesia of some Western countries, the fact remains that every significant IT player today was nurtured by government."
"Without government vision and government support, no IT strategy will work. It is therefore critical that the Mauritian government has placed itself at the forefront of IT strategy."
Under current plans, India will supply the technical expertise, having already provided a $100 million credit line to start the information and communication technology sector.
Dev Manraj, chairman of the Business Park of Mauritius Ltd (BPML), explains why the Indian government backs the Ebene cyber city project.
"Infosys, Pentasoft and Wipro, leaders in the Indian ICT sector, believe that the India-Mauritius-France axis will allow India to have access to French-speaking countries in the African continent, Europe and part of Canada.
"Mauritius as a bilingual country is seen as a golden opportunity for the Indian operators to exploit these markets," he says.
For Heeks, "this link with India is like sharing your house with a lion. It could be an exciting experience, but you get gobbled up. Only with skilful steering, will Mauritius ensure a win-win outcome."
Part of that skilful steering will be action on manpower.
To address the shortage of qualified manpower in IT, the government – like many others around the world – has encouraged foreign IT professionals, mainly from India, to come and work in Mauritius under a newly introduced Green Card.
Kothanbaraman Shrikanth is one of them. "We have come because Mauritius is starting a new cycle of its economic development and because we feel it has got the potential to succeed," he said. The company plans to recruit 500 people in Mauritius to develop French-speaking software in a bid to open new branches on the African continent.
Companies are being encouraged to set up training centres for Mauritians.
The finance ministry's 2000 review of the economy warns that "although Mauritius has attained a high literacy rate, the quality of its labour force falls far short of what is needed for the country to move onto a higher plane of development."
Senior lecturer at the University of Mauritius, Lindsay Dookhit is concerned that Mauritius may end up taking the jobs that the India IT industry does not want. "Locals risk being exploited by working long hours to bring in foreign exchange. This is business, and in this field competition is fierce around the world," he said.
Heeks agrees that Mauritius – as a latecomer in IT services – will start at the bottom of the chain. "However, following the Indian experience, one could indeed envisage a time when Mauritian firms themselves start to sub-contract to other locations in Africa: a kind of poacher turned gamekeeper."
Dr Raj Lutchmeah, executive director of the Tertiary Education Commission compares IT to the development of the textile industry in the 1970s.
"There was no [home grown] textile industry at that time. We worked with Koreans and with people from Hong Kong. Joining forces with India does not mean that we would not have our own niche in the world The enterprises for the development of software will come after a few years," he said.