Mauritius becomes a model for innovation-driven development in Africa
Despite a turbulent year of inflation fuelled both by the war in Ukraine and the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mauritius has retained its crown as Africa's most innovative country, besting the likes of South Africa, Kenya, and Senegal. In its annual Global Innovation Index for 2022, which evaluates an economy's level of innovation based on its institutions, technology, and human capital, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has ranked the island nation 45th globally – the continent's only "top 50" country.
Having already made significant strides in its journey from a low-income, agrarian economy to a high-income, knowledge and service-based economy, Mauritius has continued to focus on its ICT and emerging technologies sectors to fuel innovation-driven development and complete its transformation. With local tech start-up scenes and digital connectivity on the rise in Africa, the rest of the continent should learn from the Mauritian Government's role as a catalyser of innovation to capitalise on the long-term growth potential presented by the digital economy.
Strong institutions for a stable Internet
At the heart of Mauritius's economic sea change has been its government's early recognition of digital infrastructure, particularly high-speed Internet, as a driver of innovation and growth. As the host of AFRINIC – Africa's Regional Internet Registry (RIR) responsible for IP address allocation – Mauritius has played a vital role in the stable expansion and governance of the Internet domestically and continent-wide. In recent months, the Mauritian Government has had to display its resolve in the face of a cynical powerplay from AFRINIC's suspended CEO, Eddy Kayihura, that has put the effective, democratic operation of this vital organization at risk.
Facing a series of legal challenges in the Supreme Court of Mauritius involving one of its Resource Members, Kayihura pressed the CEOs of the world's other four RIRs into signing a joint letter addressed to Mauritius's Minister of Foreign Affairs Alan Ganoo and Attorney General Maneesh Gobin last July requesting that AFRINIC be granted "international organisation" status. In effect, this would entail the conversion of AFRINIC into a United Nations (UN) specialized agency, like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
While cloaking its self-serving motives in Internet protection rhetoric, a recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that Kayihura secretly made the same appeal in March, suggesting that his real objective has been attaining the diplomatic immunity afforded to international agencies to shield AFRINIC from legal action. Fortunately, the Mauritian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken a principled stand against this thinly-veiled coercion, issuing a letter to Kayihura in September denying these repeated requests, announcing in a measured, yet firm rebuff that they "cannot be entertained."
Investing in new generations
With this unequivocal rejection, the Mauritian Government has sent a clear sign to AFRINIC and the world that the island nation's Internet climate is safe and immune to attempts at external interference. But while Mauritius's strong democratic institutions are a vital precondition for a thriving Internet and innovation ecosystem, future-oriented investment in human capital is equally important. To fully capitalise on the potential that expanding Internet access presents for job creation and long-term growth, citizens' digital skills have to match new opportunities, considering that a strong body of research has linked ICT skills to labour productivity and innovation while identifying skills shortages as a major innovation barrier.
Mauritius' ascension to the forefront of innovation in Africa has been supported by its government's conscious attempts to address a digital skills gap created by too few of its residents pursuing secondary and university STEM education. The government's National Curriculum Framework for secondary education prioritises STEM subjects, while its Tertiary Education Commission is providing research funding schemes to boost PhD students in innovative sectors and facilitate local-international academic research partnerships. And to ensure the next generation is prepared for new digital opportunities, the Mauritian Government is implementing coding classes for primary school pupils through its Digital Youth Engagement Programme.
Beyond formal education, the government has rolled out a Graduate Training for Employment Scheme to align skills with the labour demands of the innovation economy, which provided over 460 unemployed graduates with work experience and practical skills development in its initial years.
Uniting academia and industry
By combining this strong human capital development with R&D investment and programmes to commercialise university research, the Mauritian Government has been laying the foundations of a fertile innovation culture capable of accelerating socio-economic development. Bringing together academic researchers and firms in emerging technology sectors to form economic clusters has been proven to fuel innovation, productivity, and employment, and this principle forms the core of the government's approach.
Through its National Innovation Framework, Mauritius has taken a leading role in building a climate conducive to the growth of innovative new businesses. The Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC) – established by Parliament and operating under the Ministry of Information Technology, Communication and Innovation – has rolled out a series of research and innovation grant schemes to incentivize industry-academia collaboration and catalyse the creation of innovative products, essentially by sharing the financial risk inherent in R&D investment.
For example, its National SME Incubator Scheme addresses insufficient R&D investment from SMEs and has already helped over 20 innovative start-ups develop and operate independently. And with its Collaborative Research and Innovation Grant Scheme, MRIC has joined forces with Business Mauritius to subsidise innovative research with significant commercialisation potential. More broadly, the Mauritian Government has used key levers at its disposal, such as tax incentives to encourage private sector R&D investment and its 2019 Industrial Property Bill to bolster intellectual property protections, to create a highly innovation-friendly environment.
While immediate inflation and shortage crises are threatening stability and growth, Africa is set for a massive expansion of Internet access that will provide a huge boost for nascent, yet promising tech start-up hubs. As Mauritius has shown, countries that invest in drivers of innovation can position themselves for long-term social and economic growth after the current storm has passed. The rest of the continent should take note and begin laying the foundations for a thriving, innovative economy of the future.
(Disclaimer: Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)