“Saying that Mauritius is part of the African continent is not enough: nothing in Mauritius proves it”

Encounter

Vidur Ramdin – Director of Communications and Marketing, ASF

‘Our strategies to position Mauritius as the ‘gateway to Africa’ has been a myth. We have been good at talking the talk without really walking the walk’


The African Solidarity Fund (ASF), a multilateral financial guarantee institution based in Niamey, Niger, plays a key role in the financial systems of its 14 African member states by facilitating the access of public and private enterprises to credit for investments through ASF-supported credit facilities for investment projects, which span a broad range of sectors, including mining, infrastructure, telecommunications, energy, healthcare, and agriculture.

Vidur Ramdin joined Fonds de Solidarité Africain (African Solidarity Fund) in 2017 as Director of Communications and Marketing. He has earlier worked on a World Bank project designed to support over 600 SMEs locally and in the region. In this Qs & As he tells us more about the African Solidarity Fund and makes a case for greater interest on the part of Mauritian public bodies and private enterprises to take advantage of ASF-supported credit facilities.


* As a member-state of the ASF, Mauritius has benefited from support from the ASF for its Bulk Sugar Terminal and NHDC projects in 2002, but that was more than 20 years back. It would also seem that few of our private enterprises and SMEs have gone to the Fund for assistance. Is the climate and conditions for better and deeper collaboration better now than they were two decades back?

We did intervene in these projects and I agree it has been a long time! ASF has recently enabled a local entrepreneur in the health sector raise more than MUR 1.2 billion. The project was well documented and is now in the implementation phase. We are also processing a few more requests in sectors such as Real Estate, Health, Food Processing and Hospitality respectively. But compared to other countries, it’s really timid.

In the wake of the pandemic and uncertain times, to guarantee a project for up to 80% is what is needed for both the banks and the economy. This is the primary role of ASF, which is a strong multilateral financial player in Africa, its credit rating is AA+ with stable perspective and has been recently certified ISO 9001:2015 by the bureau of Veritas Certification, UK.

We are here to guarantee projects and help raise funds. I think start-ups or SMEs need further hand-holding or need to be more professional in preparing their documentation/project plans before submitting same. They may seek assistance through their banks or directly to the ASF, provided they have a complete set of statutory documents and proper business plans for evaluation purposes.

*The narrative about Africa generally has improved, the climate and conditions for doing business and investments are said to be much better than they were earlier, so much so that it’s now said that ‘the place to be is in Africa’. The Chinese and the Indians seem to have understood that, but that has not been without its pains and in some instances backlash from the Africans to what was perceived as another form of colonialism, especially in the case of the former. Are there lessons there for Mauritian businessmen and investors?

Mauritian entrepreneurs or future investors in Africa do not have many success stories to their credit. We need to accept the fact that we have mostly failed in Africa; be it the Mauritius-Africa air corridor, the creation of Smart City projects in African leading cities, SBM’s miserable failure in Kenya, our inability to draw maximum benefits for SMEs or local enterprises from AGOA, or being the driving force in the implementation of the AFCTA- African Continental Free Trade Area.

There are various reasons for these and many lessons for Mauritian businessmen and future investors to learn. Africa is not a country, it’s a continent and I don’t believe in managing a project from long distance; if you want your project to be a success, you have to be present there, understand the business culture, traditions and values of the Africans.

No one, in my opinion, can claim to know Africa as a whole as this continent is not monolithic. From the Maghreb to South Africa to sub-Saharan Africa, it is so vast, and we need to understand the ground realities and each country’s specificities.

As far as Mauritians are concerned, we are stuck with clichés or possess very superficial information on Africa. Saying that Mauritius is part of the African continent is not enough: nothing in Mauritius proves it; on the other hand, we have our eyes constantly focused on Europe. In fact, we look at Africa with colonized eyes. We are wrong, because the Indians and the Chinese have long understood that the future is in Africa and are doing extremely well in different sectors – ICT, infrastructural development, logistics and transport, Fintech just to name a few.

* There are a number of factors which are said to explain why the potential of trade and business between the continent and Mauritius has not been fully exploited – like trust deficit, liquidity issues, etc. Are things improving now?

Having worked in numerous important projects since 2017 in different parts of Africa and interacted with several heads of states, one common factor is that most of the Africans have high regard for Mauritius and often cite it an example to follow in several areas such as quality education, ease of doing business, free media, etc.

Concerning the trade potential, we have to start with two initiatives: first, we need to set up an African information and investment agency in Mauritius, similar to the Economic Development Board. Second, we also have to open consulates in some African capitals like Dakar, Accra, Abuja, Nairobi, Addis Ababa and a few others. The agency I am referring to should be peopled/run by a team of consultants, business people, but also seasoned diplomats – not political nominees — familiar with African realities, its political systems, local traditions, language of business, common barriers amongst others.

The agency and consulates would be the main poles to work out Mauritian investment strategies in Africa and will provide all essential information to the local entrepreneurs, start-ups and future investors. I see no other way to achieve long-term ambitions in Africa.

* What do you think is coming in the way of Mauritius’ Africa Strategy? Poor understanding of Africa, its traditions and cultural and business mores? Or is it plainly and simply due to a lack of conviction amongst Mauritian businessmen and government politicians and officials in the African potential?

The potential is there and we must take the audacious African bet now! We do not have any other choice, in view of our current situation with the country on the black list of the EU and the UK, and with the termination of tax treaties with India and Senegal amongst others. If the superpowers of the world are in Africa right now, it is because they have understood the potential it represents in view of its young population, ever growing demand for technology and economic and political stability.

There have been several budgetary measures in favour of Africa in the recent past. However, there is no real impetus to drive the African Strategy – probably because of a poor understanding of the African continent, particularly its business culture and tradition.

In my view, besides the measures stated earlier, we need to have a strong ‘Mister Africa’ who understands the markets and is conversant with the cultural, language and political barriers and can put up a realistic and realisable African strategy in place.

* Mauritius had been regarded as a leader on the African continent in diverse sectors for many years. That does not seem to be the case anymore; we are being overtaken by a few Africa countries in different fields, which by the way explains the improved narrative about Africa. What are they doing right?

Mauritius is a country adept at reinventing itself. Not blessed with abundant resources, we have successfully transformed from an agrarian to a manufacturing to a services-based economy through a series of smart decisions and pragmatic policies. Yet, despite this progress, our strategies to position Mauritius as the ‘gateway to Africa’ has been a myth. We have been good at talking the talk without really walking the walk.

At the heart of this criticism is the perceived ‘identity crisis’. Simply put, there is still huge skepticism about whether Mauritius really wants to be part of Africa. We still view Europe or Asia as preferred partners and this is reflected in trade and investment numbers, which indicate that both contribute the lion’s share of trade with Mauritius.

On the other side Rwanda’s major banks have experience and a major footprint on the rest of the continent, while Morocco, with a traditional focus on Francophone Africa, is extending its trade and commercial interests and trying to lure stock exchange listings from south of the Sahara.

Togo, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda: these countries have also implemented measures to strengthen transparency, improve governance and attract business. We have, for example, the newly established Casa Finance City (CFC) in Morocco which is trying to replicate a bit of what Mauritius has done in the past by becoming an economic and financial hub aspiring to become a bridging platform between the north and the south. CFC seeks to attract and encourage international institutions and investors to invest and operate in North, West and Central Africa and to choose Casablanca as a gateway to access this region.

Africa as a whole, being the world’s No.1 resource-rich continent has experienced rapid growth over the last couple of years. Growth has been present throughout the continent, with over one-third of African countries posting 6% or higher growth rates, and another 40% growing between 4% to 6% per year.


* Published in print edition on 13 April 2021

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