The government has invited expressions of interest for the development of 23,500 hectares of land which the government of Mozambique has put at our disposal. Prospective single developers are expected to indicate their interests with respect to the employment of plots of the land not exceeding 5,000 hectares from the Mozambican concession for either agricultural activities, support services or renewable energy. This appears to be a step in the right direction for various reasons. First, the available land will be put to productive use. It was high time. Second, it carries the prospect of Mauritius being able to set up an exo-economy, it being given that our own land resources, already scarce, are increasingly coming under pressure for non-agricultural use. Land has assumed a property value in Mauritius far in excess of whatever returns can be had from pursuing agricultural activities. The price of land has reached the point as to make it inaccessible to those starting a family or having modest incomes. We can therefore pursue in Mozambique supplementary agricultural activities (such as food self-sufficiency) which would otherwise be prohibitive in terms of cost and supply of land and labour resources in Mauritius. Third, and most important, by establishing direct production contacts in Africa, we will start doing what we have been claiming to be doing for decades without putting substance into those claims: that is, developing sufficient proximity with Africa that could put us as a privileged partner of potential economic allies from Asia in need of substantive joint partners having an intimate knowledge on doing business with the neighbouring continent. This could become a key to opening up of our economic space on a continent that is courted by the emerging economic powers as a key supplier of commodities, land resources and minerals.
Mozambique is probably not the only country of the African continent with which we can grow our ties about lands that hold a promise not only for primary level activities but also for more sophisticated technical development. Parts of Africa (e.g. South Africa) are asserting themselves in newer fields of technology. There has taken place a boom in mobile phone services in certain countries of Africa, for example. Some phone companies in Africa have already overtaken us by giving users the means to make secure payments using mobile phones. No need to go to distant banks. We have remained aloof from all of this because we have concentrated too much on profits that can be made through telephony and the wireless medium from Mauritius’ internal market. We have preferred not to form real alliances with companies going out to conquer those promising newer markets. Meantime, India’s Bharati and Airtel have been bidding hard to secure the business of MTN of South Africa; other more venturesome global companies have been chasing the business of another African network services provider of some scale, Zain. Companies from Qatar have made certain parts of Africa one of their new hunting grounds. In other words, we have been losers because we did not join hands with the Asian companies ready to churn business out of Africa. We need to overcome this neglect.
We understand that the Republic of Congo has approached us to partner in its economic development. Answering that call, the Prime Minister would have suggested that it would be better to tie up Singapore as well in a Congo-Mauritius-Singapore venture. It is said that the matter will be progressed. If outposts like this take concrete shape, there is no doubt that we will identify wider areas to cooperate with African partners and consolidate relationships that have been rather loosely tied up so far. Singapore gained critical mass in its initial years of development by working on the vast economic hinterland that its neighbouring countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines constituted for it to become a meritorious intermediator and supplier of high quality services. Similarly, Mauritius is well placed to serve its natural hinterland, notably Africa.
The difficulty is that we have been late in coming up to fully assume that role. Countries like China and India, star economic performers from the Asian continent, have been going directly to Africa when they could have used expertise and critical links we might have forged with counterparties on the African continent to put us into the equation as well. While we understand that the process of changing governments every 5 years in Mauritius may not have created the necessary impetus for us to strengthen our ‘Africa Mission’, we wonder what the public servants and private sector firms have actually done to affirm this natural association. This priority should have been maintained despite alternating changes of government.
We are actually members of two regional African groupings. One is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which is spearheaded by South Africa but has a membership of 12 countries, not including the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Seychelles which operate on the fringes of this Community. The other is the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a grouping of 20 regional countries some of which have overlapping membership of the SADC. The aim of these groupings is to develop a cohesive framework for the closer economic and operational integration of member countries. Their fields of interest span from forming customs union to adopting common monetary policy and eventual currency union.
Much diplomatic effort has been expended over decades to reach final and concrete forms in terms of the missions the two groupings have given themselves. Public and private sectors have sat together extensively to heighten intra-community trade and technical exchanges. We do not know how long it will still take to get down to more concrete results that start making a difference in the lives of the peoples in the member countries even though it is suspected that internal exchanges have not progressed to the desired extent. Mauritius can go on working together under the aegis of SADC or COMESA but this does not prevent it from getting on bilaterally with countries such as Mozambique if only to pose as a serious interlocutor for emerging Asian countries intending to use Mauritius as a knowledgeable and intelligent hub as far as working together with Africa is concerned.
It is evident that working together with Asian countries (or for that matter with any other continent) on Africa will reflect better on Mauritius and Mauritian companies than relying on our strength and goodwill based on the narrow confines of the Mauritian market. But for us to play the role of a credible gateway to Africa, we need to demonstrate that we are capable of higher than average standards of business and allied practices, including setting down exemplary rules and parameters of good governance.
This means that those in charge of driving our Africa agenda should be high flyers by virtue of their capacity to formulate ideas and policies that are not ordinarily available by the bucketful. Such people will have to understand and find solutions to existing and future constraints multinationals face by working through Africa. They have to develop a familiarity with the expectations of such multinationals wanting to find market space in and through Africa. They need to understand the cultural factors which keep African countries from moving forward consistently, in order to offer the way out of those complications. Unfortunately, we have not groomed up such high profile and no-nonsense executives of business in the country. We need to do away with accommodating short term advantage seekers who are not so competent and should develop instead a nucleus of truly capable executives in the public and private sectors who have a flair for breaking new grounds to advance our economic interests. Can we take up this challenge? If yes, we can start building up a meaningful Africa-Mauritius-Asia nexus for the coming decades. Our horizon would then have grown many-fold. Our relative economic and geographic isolation would in the process have disappeared.
* Published in print edition on 27 August 2010