“Wherever you go, up and down the country, you hear, and you feel, a very compelling cry for change…

Interview: Jyoti Jeetun, CEO – Mont Choisy Group

people want change… They want to see meritocracy, they want to see honesty, they want to see authenticity”

* ‘Loss of values is a major problem in our society. Values of hard work, values of integrity, values of trust’

* ‘We are exporting our best brains, our best and brightest business and political leaders of the future. This is certainly one thing we should not be proud of’

*’Where we do have to be cautious in policy making is not to allow foreigners to buy just anywhere on the island, that can push locals out of the market’

Mrs Jyoti Jeetun had a successful record of setting up and piloting the SIT to become the largest shareholder company in the sugar sector before she had to find her living overseas for several years. She is now back in Mauritius as CEO of the Mont Choisy Group, involved in development of smart cities. She credits her achievements to the strong values that were inculcated in the family and social environment where she was raised, namely the village of Triolet where hard work was the order of the day for anyone who wanted to go up the social ladder. She shares her views on the current problems facing the country and youth such as drugs, lack of opportunities, etc., which are making talent flee from the country. She hopes for better days to come. She would like to build a society where there is integrity, meritocracy, and fairness and no left-behinds.

Mauritius Times: You started off from humble origins in a Bhojpuri-speaking environment in Triolet and went on to head the Sugar Investment Trust as its founding CEO. You are now involved, as the CEO of the Mont Choisy Group, with the development of a Smart City. Tell us about your journey and how you made it happen?

Jyoti Jeetun: My life is the story of countless people of my generation who grew up in poverty around the independence era. I grew up in Triolet at a time when the standard of living was quite basic, people lived off very little and almost everything in the village was centered around sugarcane cultivation.Yet the whole village was like a small community of diverse ethnic groups and religions, a bit like a miniature Mauritius. We only spoke Bhojpuri at home.When I started primary school, I did not speak a word of Kreol, let alone English and French.

It was also the time when few girls progressed beyond primary education, and I was inevitably predestined to stay at home helping mum with house chores. Had it not been for the fight of my elder brothers, I would never have gone to college.

I had, and still have, a deep hunger for learning and knowledge. In fact, the story of my life is built on Education, Education and Education. Every step of my journey has been shaped by investment in education. Thus, free education in 1977 was a game changer for me and for thousands of young people of my time, especially girls, as often parents had to make a choice about who to send to college, and boys would always win the battle. It was my first step on the social mobility escalator.

I think what growing up in that environment provided me with was a culture of hard work, determination and resilience. Our parents and all the people in our neighbourhood were very hardworking people, toiling in the fields to feed their families. There was a sense of discipline and rigour that was ingrained in our way of life. We went to afternoon classes in the baitka which enriched us not just with knowledge of Hindi but also with cultural values – “sanskar” – and humility.

And I continued investing myself in learning throughout this journey combining studies with work and raising a family.This led to my MBA and a PhD. I started my career as a Government Civil Servant and this journey took me to the Sugar Investment Trust (SIT), then to the City in London, to Brussels and now back to Mont Choisy Group. There were lots of challenges, struggles and adversities on the way. But I would like to believe that all these are valuable experiences in life that shape the person you become.

I have come a long way on that social mobility escalator but to be quite honest, deep down, I remain ene zenfant villaz and I am very proud of my humble background.

* Besides personal merit and a lot of hard work, were such things like meeting the right people, being there at the right time, obtaining some form of patronage, especially political — which many people now believe is necessary for career advancement or even for obtaining a breakthrough in the first place — important considerations when you started off or even along the way?

Absolutely and unequivocally not. There is no shortcut to achieving long-term success other than hard work coupled with the right attitude and values. When you are passionate about something, whether it is a personal venture or your work, you put 200% of yourself into it. You do not chase success; success comes your way as a result or as an outcome of your work.

Yes, there have been many people in my life who have held my hand – my brothers, my teachers, my husband, my chairmen and my friends, some of whom stood by me during our dark days. 

To me, the most important value that I have retained in my life is that of integrity. You have to believe in what is right and stand up for what is right. Patronage does not fit in my vocabulary. Political patronage can only take you so far.

Let us take the example of the SIT. When I was recruited as its first employee, few believed in it, including perhaps those who had conceived it. And yet, we made an absolute success story of it, with three rounds of successive equity raising and building a model of economic democratisation vehicle with 55,000 planters and workers of the sugar industry making it the largest shareholder-based company on the island.

We made history with almost one in every four households in the country becoming a shareholder. It required a lot of determination and hard work with strong beliefs as there was much adversity. It required hundreds of meetings, going from village to village and from one sugar factory to another to convince people that something historical was happening.

Although many politicians criticised the SIT initiative, the truth of the matter is that from Rama Sithanen and Sir Anerood Jugnauth (who were the founding fathers) to all the successive governments, be it Labour, MSM or MMM, they all contributed to its success. Every Prime Minister, every finance minister and every Minister of Agriculture supported it despite the fact that the government did not own a single share, nor did it control the Board at that time. The then captains of the sugar industry contributed enormously to its success through their commitment to the concept.

My philosophy has always been to keep your head down, work hard and bring results.

* Your own appointment as CEO of the Mont Choisy Group on the basis of your personal merit could be credited to the Group’s employment policy with respect to the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Do you find these two considerations are gradually making their way in the corporate sector?

It is hard to believe that a conservative family company like Mont Choisy Group took such a bold and audacious decision to recruit someone who is not from the family, who is not from the community and who is a woman and that also a woman of colour. There are several drivers of the success of Mont Choisy Group, and I would like to believe that meritocracy-based recruitment at all levels is one of them. We have a very skilled and hardworking team of people who are transforming and shaping the landscape of the North today.

Is this a trend in the corporate world? A friend recently reminded me that “unehirondelle ne fait pas le printemps”, and he is indeed right. There are few organisations that are going for the best talent at the CEO level. But much remains to be done. And more importantly the pipeline for a more inclusive and diverse pool of talent at senior executive level needs to be built. Not just in terms of gender but also in terms of race and ethnic diversity.

I hope that we are setting a trend for the rest of the corporate world that putting the right people at the top is the right thing to do. Having the right people steering the ship during the turbulent times is a recipe for success in an increasingly turbulent world.

But why stop at the corporate sector only? Why not also have a more diverse representation of the population in the public sector? Why should meritocracy not apply to public sector organisations?

There is a real remise en question to be done at the national level of how we build a fairer and more equitable society.

* It would seem that the Mont Choisy Group owes much of its success from the transformation of “a century old family-owned company” into a “sustainable corporate model” to effective governance structures. Is that correct?

Our governance model is quite unique. A tightly owned family company, a board of directors comprising ten family members and one executive who is not from the family, a totally independent executive and a workforce recruited purely on merit; corporate governance structures in place for executives to be accountable for results and performance. Sounds obvious? Sounds easy? We, as executives, focus on bringing results, Covid or not, storm or not. It is not always easy to navigate in stormy waters. It takes a lot of drive and energy. It takes a lot of skills and competencies.

I must hasten to add that the government and many authorities like the Economic Development Board have been extremely instrumental in terms of being à l’ecoute to help us steer the ship out of the storm. Often people criticise the public sector organisations, but my personal experience with each public sector organisation that I have dealt with is that there are many very hardworking people out there – the unsung heroes I would say.

Success is never a one-man, or one-woman show.

And succeeding in the real estate sector is even trickier as the line between success and failure is very fine – such are the risks. Like a chef d’orchestre you have to permanently aim to put all the puzzles in the right place at the right time or else you run the risk of going underwater, very quickly.

* Would you therefore say that if such “effective governance structures” and other considerations like leadership, corporate ambition, etc., were present at the SIT and other government-run business entities like Mauritius Telecom and in particular Air Mauritius, things would have been different?

Let me rectify something at the onset. That has always been a perception that SIT was a government owned or government run organisation. In fact, the Government does not own a single share in the company and until a few years ago, 6 out of 9 directors were elected by the shareholders who were planters and employees of the industry. What is true is that it is a strange corporate animal as it was set up under an Act of Parliament but is actually regulated under the Companies Act.

During my time, there was never ever any political interference in its management, nor would I have allowed this to happen. What is true is that all the governments and respective ministers during my eleven-year tenure supported the initiative and often helped advance certain projects.

You know people often criticise politicians for the poor performance of state-owned and state-controlled organisations. I do not know about other entities but let me share with you my personal experience. Besides being CEO of the Sugar Investment Trust, I was the founding chairperson of the New Co-operative Bank in which the Government had a 90% shareholding and SIT had a 10% shareholding.

We later pushed for the merger with the Post Office Savings Bank to scale up and the bank became the Mauritius Post and Cooperative Bank. I had on my Board the Financial Secretary and several senior public servants. But let me tell you this, we never had any interference from politicians or Government ministers, be it for recruitment or for loans. People would sometimes use the names of politicians, but I always pushed back. We were the fifth largest bank making healthy profits and no non-performing loans.

But in all fairness to your question, we also know what happened when I was fired and where the institution is today.

Let’s make no mistake, the success of an organisation, whether it is public or private, rests with the people at the top. It does not help politicians’ agenda to have incompetent people at the helm as they will inevitably run into trouble sooner rather than later. As regards companies like Air Mauritius, airline is a complex business with many inherent risks, many of which may be outside their control. What we know for sure is that the Air Mauritius situation was decades in the making and Covid-19 was only la dernière goutte d’eau.

* Your involvement in the property development sector started with the SIT where you were tasked with, amongst others, democratising land access and facilitating the participation of sugar cane planters and employees of the sugar industry in the equity of sugar milling companies as well as power generating companies. How much success has been achieved on those counts?

I must admit that I have put a mental block on the past and not followed SIT’s advancement.

More generally speaking, land ownership and democratisation is a multi-layered and complex matter. Parcelling has unintended consequences such as abandonment of agricultural usage as small plots are economically not viable. So, on the one scale, there is concentration of land ownership but which land is put to productive use and, on the other scale, there is parcelling of land which gives access to land ownership but then abandoned as economically not viable. Which parameter do you use to measure success?

* You are now leading the Mont Choisy Group with the mandate of converting agricultural lands into a Smart City for a high-end clientele. Even if there is no denying that Smart Cities have brought to the country their fair share of FDI, boosted the construction industry and created jobs, directly and indirectly, land prices have as a consequence gone up to the extent of crowding out the less well-off from the land market. What’s your take on that?

In addition to the benefits you have mentioned, it is important to emphasise the urban master planning that goes into the creation of smart cities and the investment in large infrastructure works that would otherwise have been done by the Government. Unfortunately, our villages and our towns are growing in an unplanned and ad-hoc manner that is not sustainable. In my view, with social mobility and economic development, people will start moving out towards these planned developments in the quest for a better lifestyle and this is not good for our towns and villages which need better planning and regeneration.

Land price inflation is not a new phenomenon and is probably caused by demand and supply. With decades of restrictions on land conversion due to the Sugar Protocol, land supply has been restricted. We are a small country and a nation that has a culture of land ownership. We must not forget that home ownership is very high in Mauritius. There is a group of people who live in precarious conditions but that requires social initiative.

Where we do have to be cautious in policy making is not to allow foreigners to buy just anywhere on the island, that can push locals out of the market.

* Access to land especially for housing and for agricultural production has and is likely going to remain a highly sensitive issue in a land-constrained country like Mauritius – and it’s unlikely we’ll have another Illovo deal any time soon. Does your experience in this sector inform you that we might have reached a point which can only be resolved through the State’s intervention?

Indeed, the Illovo deal was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime deal for Mauritius. It also allowed land democratisation through the 7,000 arpents that we acquired in SIT, some of which were sold to individual shareholders through parcelling. But I do wonder about the productivity of the land before the Illovo deal and after.

Mauritius has a fairly free market economic model where the private sector and the public sector each have their roles. State intervention in land ownership will only scare investors – see what happened in Zimbabwe. Having said that, admittedly land ownership is highly concentrated and creates the perception of an unfair society.

* On the other hand, you would know that lots of young people, many highly qualified, are demotivated by lack of career opportunities – be in the public or private sector – and are looking towards Canada for better opportunities. This issue may or may not be tied up with politics, but it’s getting worrying. But the question is what can be done about it? Or does it require a political solution?

Emigration has always been a fact of life in Mauritius and, in fact, I was reminded recently that in the 1980s we even had a Ministry of Emigration. Having said that, year after year, starting with the laureate system, we now see a trendwhich ismore widespread – we are exporting our best brains, our best and brightest business and political leaders of the future. This is certainly one thing we should not be proud of.

Our students go abroad to study at the best universities and do not come back. Every household you meet today – either their children are abroad or aspire to emigrate for a better future. Our professionals are leaving for better opportunities and a better future for their children. I think it is a good thing for the country that our people get exposure to the world as let’s admit it, we are a very small island in the middle of the ocean.

In a highly connected global environment where countries are competing for the best talents, the opportunities are many and they are not difficult to find. Years ago, I myself searched the internet and three months later I was on a plane with my family, emigrating to the UK. Post Covid-19, there is tremendous demand for skills globally and it is only legitimate for people to look for better opportunities.

The challenge for the country is two-fold. First, how do we retain talent? Second, how do we attract the talent that has left to come back? It is not a simple exercise, although over the past few years several thousands have come back under the Diaspora Scheme. It requires understanding the core issues behind this phenomenon – is this frustration with the country and the perceived lack of opportunities in the private sector or the perceived lack of meritocracy in the public sector? Is this just an individual need for a better future in terms of better education for the children, better quality of life and better opportunities? Is this because of the political climate where locals and those abroad have become disillusioned with what future Mauritius may hold for them?

* The discerning reader going through your different press interviews would sense a certain measure of disappointment with the way things have been going in the country, and that politics is failing us. If that’s correct, what would do you think it would take to change course and do things better?

Loss of values is a major problem in our society. Values of hard work, values of integrity, values of trust.

Drugs are killing our youth and destroying families. Skills training is another major issue, our children are taught how to pass exams, not how to think critically and they do not get real life experiences.

Wherever you go, there is a crying need for change in the country. 55 years after independence, the country and its people have come a long way. We are living in an era where people are demanding, and rightly so, transparency and accountability. We must be able to restore trust in public life.

But my take is that rather than criticising politicians and political leaders, should we not start with ourselves first? For me, our destiny, our tomorrow, is in our hands. Too often, politicians are promising more and more and giving the impression that the state can perform miracles. But, as we all know, there is no such thing as free lunch.

There is also a paradox. When one travels abroad, you realise the pains out there and you say how lucky we are in Mauritius. On the other hand, foreigners want to come and live in Mauritius. But we see problems everywhere and we complain. I think many of the issues that affect peoples’ lives, and the complaints are legitimate.The problem I often have with these complaints is that we are always looking for someone else to blame. We need to get up and do something about it and not expect politicians to resolve everything. We need to get back to our core values.

* If we go by general elections results, few women candidates have made it at the polls. But if you do decide to take the plunge, you would surely want to be in the right party, but you’ll also will have to overcome the barriers to entry, much like what obtains in the private sector. It would appear that’s still a tall order. What’s your view in this regard?

This is a difficult one… the political terrain can be ruthless, and you need very thick skin to enter and to survive.

What I will say is that wherever you go, up and down the country, in the villages and in the towns, you hear, and you feel, a very compelling cry for change. Half a century after independence, it is legitimate that people want change in the political class – in the government and in the opposition – they want to see a younger breed of politicians, they want to see more women, they want to see credible new faces with track record and values. They want to see meritocracy, they want to see honesty, they want to see authenticity. There is a mood of an end of era at the moment with veteran politicians who have been in the forefront of our political lives for the past five decades and more.

There is a void in the democratic space, and many see this as a window of opportunity. However, anyone wanting to join politics will have to listen to the peoples’ voices. Politics is not about doing what we want, it is not about our own personal ambition, it is about listening to the grassroots and delivering on people’s aspirations. I hope it is not going to be yet another episode focusing on the art of persuasion with promises and more promises, that is, more of the same.

If I do decide to take the plunge, as you say, my philosophy will be to build a society where there is integrity, meritocracy, and fairness. We will work for the well-being of everybody irrespective of class, colour and ethnic community. Hard work would be the motto and the national cake would be shared on the basis of meritocracy and equality. There would be no left behinds.

But for now, I live a day at a time… we shall see what tomorrow is made of.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 22 September 2023

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