Mauritius: A Cyber-Island in the Making

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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, textiles, tourism and financial services. But, researchers warn, an exciting planned link with the nearby country of India, a software giant, needs to be forged carefully. How it is done could determine whether Mauritius's late entry into the world of computer software ends in tears or cheers. Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean with a population of 1.1 million people drawn from diverse backgrounds.

The island-nation's vision is to become a regional IT or 'dotcom hub' in order to kickstart its flagging economy, hit hard by fierce international competition and the removal of preferential access to European markets for sugar and textiles. Richard Heeks, a researcher at the University of Manchester, 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: it hopes to become a regional centre for manufacture of computer hardware. This is the most ambitious of the country's projects.

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. Richard 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 if strategy'. …