If first impressions are important then Mauritius, the new whiz kid in African business, isn’t doing too badly. Picture this, you are a foreign investor flying into Port Louis and the cabin crew hands you your landing card. Now, across Africa, this is usually a flimsy and poorly printed piece of paper that could blow away.
In Mauritius, it is a thick, bonded, full-color paper printed in two languages. You could mistake it for a share certificate or frame it, stick it on the wall, and pass it off for qualifications. Just one of the many ways the small island in the Indian Ocean, desperate to punch above its weight, wants to win over investors before they hit the arrival lounge.
Industrious Mauritius has been busy, since it liberalized its sleepy island economy in 2006, on its way to becoming a little Singapore off the coast of Africa. This year, the World Economic Forum named fast-growing Mauritius the most competitive economy in Africa ranking 45th, above South Africa at 54.
“The only difference between Singapore and Mauritius is that they had oil and we had sugar,” smiles Ashok Kumar Aubeeluck, the head of economic research at the Bank
Those sugar days are almost over. Thirty years ago, 65,000 Mauritians worked in the sugar cane fields and made up nearly a third of the economy – these days, that number has dropped to around 14,000 with sugar making up a mere 1.2% of the economy, according to Aubeeluck.
It was almost 20 years to the day since I set foot in Mauritius and I was surprised by the changes: a spanking new airport; new roads beneath the construction cranes; a cyber-city in Ebene, south of the capital Port Louis, with a cluster of buildings that could have been imported from Silicon Valley; plus, flourishing export processing zones that attract entrepreneurs and earn around half of the country’s income. This is a place, with an independent judiciary, that not only works, but also cleanly.
“I have worked here for 15 years and I have never been asked for a bribe,” says Deyan Ristic, an analyst with Africa Practice in Port Louis.
Many of the world’s largest financial institutions, no doubt encouraged by the island’s 15% flat tax rate to look after its mere 1.3 million people, have moved in. Foreign companies can claim tax credits leaving them with no more than a 3% rate of tax.
Mauritius sees itself as very much part of Africa and more than half of investments from the island are channelled into the continent. The island is very conscious of its image and is moving to protect it.
“Despite all our efforts to be clean, NGOs and biased international media have attacked us. We have employed a reputed public relations agency to create the image of Mauritius as an international destination for investment,” says the foreign minister, Arvin Boolell, at a conference on private equity on the island, organized by the Board of Investment.
Seventy percent of the income of Mauritius comes from services. It benefits from it colonial past in that the island works with both French and English law. A clear advantage when the giants of Asia wish to use Port Louis as a staging post for investments in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa.
Surprisingly, many in business believe Mauritius, the island prepared to meet the world halfway, is not doing enough to entice companies.
“We need economic reform more than electoral reform,” says one of the more cynical business types on the island.
Nevertheless, electoral reform is in the air as Mauritius looks to elections, expected to be announced by the end of the year, in 2015 when the tenure of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam comes to an end. Ramgoolam is a skilled coalition builder who rules with his Labour Party, through a tenuous power sharing deal, and the new incumbent is likely to take power with a similar arrangement.
Many critics have called for an end to the island’s long standing ‘best loser’ system, whereby eight politicians – who did not win their seats – are appointed to Parliament. The doubters complain these appointments are made on ethnic grounds.
The opposition and critics also cry out for new blood in government and complain that the right politicians are not being picked for the big jobs. Whatever happens in the elections, the only near certainty is that they will be peaceful – save for a bit of badinage and posturing – another pillar of stable Mauritius.
“I have seen more verbal violence in the Scottish referendum than I have ever seen in Mauritius,” says Moussa Rawat, the Edinburgh University educated non-executive chairman of the Bramer Corporation – a top five company in Mauritius with assets of $1.5 billion.
After the elections, Mauritius will be looking to the future and business. The may have few people, but plenty of business ideas.
Aubeeluck says Mauritius is looking into getting more out of the Indian Ocean.
“At the moment we are getting around one percent of our economy from the sea, largely through seafood , but if we go ahead with plans to harvest more marine and plant life from the sea we could be talking between five and seven percent,” says Aubeeluck.
There is also interest in green energy. Aubeeluck is excited by a German project in the North Sea that puts windmills offshore – where the wind always blows.
“The Germans have managed to power 650,000 households with six offshore windmills, we have only 275,000, so with windmills we could power the whole island and reduce our carbon footprint at the same time.”
Foreign money appears to have the same idea. Fred Sisson and his company, Synnove Energy, is sinking $150 million into generating wind and solar energy
“The infrastructure is good here and it is very stable and there is growing demand for energy,” says Sisson.
Mauritius has plans to increase its energy output from 650MW to 850MW over the next few years.
The island also plans to strengthen its position in the financial services world. Entrepreneur Dhaneshwar Damry has worked for the last two years on a plan to open the first pan-African electronic bourse in the first quarter of 2015. It will deal with companies with a market capital of $50 million and upwards from mining to healthcare. The plan needs the final approval of the Financial Services Commission.
“I think it will work. If you look at it, a Nigerian company will prefer to work with us, rather than a South African company, because there is a history of business rivalry between the two countries,” says Damry in Port Louis.
Another sign in these troubled economic times that if you could bottle optimism and sell it, Mauritius could make a fortune through export.
Bad Times For Billionaire Branson–Staff At Virgin Atlantic Asked To Take Unpaid Leave As Coronavirus Cripples Air Travel
Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has been criticized by a U.K. politician for airline Virgin Atlantic’s request on Monday for staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave during the coronavirus pandemic.
Labour MP Kate Osborne, the second U.K. politician to be diagnosed with coronavirus, described Virgin Atlantic’s decision as “an absolute disgrace” on Twitter.
Author Liam Young tweeted, “Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees and Branson has asked them to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. It would cost £4.2 million to pay all of these employees £500 a week to cover this leave. In total that’s a cost of £34 million for 8 weeks.”
The implication appears to be that billionaire Richard Branson, whose net worth Forbes estimates $3.8 billion, could afford to cover this cost.
Virgin Atlantic confirmed in a statement Monday that it plans to reduce its schedule and prioritize routes based on customer demand. The airline predicts an 80% reduction in flights per day, and adds, “As a direct consequence we will be parking approximately 75% of our fleet by 26 March and at points in April will go up to 85%.”
Virgin Atlantic describes the changes as “drastic measures” put in place to “ensure cash is preserved, costs are controlled, and the future of the airline is safeguarded.”
Adding, “Staff will be asked to take eight weeks unpaid leave over the next three months, with the cost spread over six months’ salary, to drastically reduce costs without job losses.” The airline confirms its decision has received the support of unions BALPA and UNITE in agreeing to the unpaid leave.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “The aviation industry is facing unprecedented pressure. We are appealing to the [U.K] government for clear, decisive and unwavering support. Our industry needs emergency credit facilities to a value of £5-7.5 billion, to bolster confidence and to prevent credit card processors from withholding customer payments.”
Bad Times For Branson
Branson’s business empire has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 14 the Virgin Voyages cruise ship operation decided to postpone the launch of its new Scarlet Lady cruise line. “The current global health crisis is understandably making many people rethink upcoming travel plans,” Virgin Voyages confirmed in a statement.
On March 5, British airline Flybe — which is part owned by Virgin Atlantic— collapsed after it succumbed to its financial woes and weakened demand because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Following the announcement of Flybe’s collapse, Virgin Atlantic said: “Sadly, despite the efforts of all involved to turn the airline around, not least the people of Flybe, the impact of Covid-19 on Flybe’s trading means that the consortium can no longer commit to continued financial support.”
Flybe, which once was Europe’s largest independent regional carrier, narrowly escaped collapse in January, after being bought by Cyrus Capital, Virgin Atlantic and Stobart last year.
Virgin Galactic, Branson’s publicly traded space tourism arm, has seen its shares slump since its mid February high of $37.26 on the NYSE. Having lost another 10% of value as of 4:30 pm U.K. time on Monday, Virgin Galactic is priced at $13.30 and falling. Branson’s Virgin Investment Limited owns 47% of Virgin Galactic through an investment entity, Vieco.
Emerging Economies, But Weaker Passports
Africa dominates the bottom of the rung in the 2020 Henley Passport Index. A majority of the continent’s passport-holders don’t have the luxury of visa-free travel around the world.
The African Union may be gearing for a common African passport, but for now, it seems like most African passports don’t have what it takes to get to other parts of the world.
In the recently-released Henley Passport Index, which measures all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, only two African countries –Seychelles and Mauritius — are in the top 50.
The rest of the continent dominates the bottom quarter of the rankings with weaker passports than most, pointing to difficult and intensive visa processes in most cases.
Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most influential, Nigeria, is at the end of the travel freedom spectrum, at a pitiful number 95 with Djibouti. Nigeria’s population of 200 million can only travel to 46 countries without obtaining a visa in advance.
Even passport-holders from Samoa and Serbia have a better chance of traveling to most places in the world, visa-free, than those in South Africa, the African continent’s second biggest economy.
Ranked 56, the number of global destinations South African passport-holders can travel to is 100.
It is followed by its southern African neighbor, Botswana, ranking at 62 with a score of 84.
Seychelles, the archipelago country in the Indian Ocean, is Africa’s top-ranking African passport in this regard, at 29 with access to 151 destinations worldwide.
It is quickly followed by Mauritius which is at 32 with a score of 146 destinations passport-holders of this country can visit.
The lowest-ranking African country is Somalia at 104. Passport-holders from this tiny nation in the Horn of Africa can only visit 32 countries without a pre-departure visa
Globally, Asia dominates the list. For the third consecutive year, Japan has secured the top spot on the index — which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191. Singapore holds on to its second place position with a score of 190.
Executive Travel: Slikour’s Mexico
The South African hip-hop artist and entrepreneur experienced a hurricane and a seismic spiritual shift in the city of Cancun.
It has been a journey, a lot to learn and a lot learned,” says Siyabonga Metane, popularly known on South African hip-hop stages as ‘Slikour’.
The learnings have been in music and business, but the journeys have been beyond both.
Just two years post South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994, Slikour was part of a rap group named Skwatta Kamp, formed on the streets of the country’s Gauteng province, with the aim of commercializing the local hip-hop scene.
The group consisted of seven members and most of them went on to release solo albums. Slikour released two, Ventilation Mix Tape Vol.1 and 2, in 2005 and 2007. Long before that, in 2002, Slikour had turned entrepreneur, co-founding Buttabing Entertainment, a record label and artist management organization.
Today, he is also the founder of SlikourOnLife, a prominent urban culture online publication that he started in 2014 catering to music lovers.
Returning to the word ‘journey’, it especially sparks memories of a trip he undertook in 2011 to Cancun, a Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula bordering the Caribbean Sea, known for its beaches, resorts and nightlife. Slikour was there for a television shoot as part of a group. The trip still stands out in his mind.
He was not blown away by the city initially, but as he visited some of Cancun’s tourism attractions, he began to change his perception.
Ultimately, it proved to be what he calls an amazing rendezvous.
“The people were pretty much speaking Spanish,” he chuckles, recalling being immersed in the local culture.
READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
“There are a lot of laborers there and the people are beautiful and accommodating, but we never really spoke or interacted with the community.”
Slikour decided to savor the city’s famed nightlife instead and see for himself what all the hype was about.
It all began and ended with tequila, a distilled alcoholic drink and one of Mexico’s most famous exports, made of the blue agave plant from the city of Tequila in Mexico.
“Everything you do there is done with tequila. I don’t drink alcohol, but I had to accept and apply myself because there, they don’t use tomato sauce, they use tequila; I literally had to get into the tequila swag; it’s everything there. Tequila started there,” Slikour says.
Mexico is known for its recurring hurricanes too, which Slikour also got a taste of while there.
“After a few days of getting there, we were warned of a hurricane, and asked to close our doors and windows, and because these things happen regularly, there’s a drill to follow. The hurricane wasn’t a major one but I was excited because I wanted to see it. I had to look through the window,” he says.
The hurricanes are so frequent in Mexico that he likens the precautions taken to lighting a candle during South Africa’s frequent power cuts.
Despite this exhilarating encounter with nature, the real earth-shaking experience for him, however, happened deep inside a cave in the city of Cancun – and also deep inside him.
READ MORE | Executive Travel: Nomzamo Mbatha’s Kenya
“My spiritual [epiphany] was when I went into those caves. You go in there with your self-assurance, claiming you understand everything. Thereon, they tell you where everything comes from and all of a sudden, you become this very small thing in this big ecosystem. It just shows how everything affects everything,” Slikour says.
The tour guides explained how everything inside the cave came from rain, elaborating how it was connected to the core of the earth; which is where they were at the time.
Slikour was in Cancun for two weeks, and also visited the pyramids.
“The Mexicans didn’t have all the mathematics that we have now but the pyramids were built to perfection. It just showed you how forward-thinking they were and how behind we are in as much as we think we are forward; we just have technology. We don’t think the way historic societies used to think,” says Slikour, in deep reflection.
Mexico is a place he would return to, anyday, in a heartbeat.
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