Mauritius has everything it needs to become a continent-wide hub for cutting-edge innovations and scientific discovery, and especially if it engages business, writes Dr Álvaro Sobrinho.
Mauritius is consistently recognised as a competitive place to do business, most recently ranking 1st among Sub-Saharan economies in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. This is attributed to its strong infrastructure, efficient goods market and dynamic, young workforce. Yet, while the country has an enviable international position, the World Bank has noted that the quality and industry-relevance of higher education needs to be addressed to give Mauritius the critical mass of expert scientists it needs to fulfill its ambitions.
If we want to enhance the country’s well-deserved reputation, higher education, science and technology offer huge opportunities. Countries that have invested in these areas have managed to break the cycle of poverty. South Korea, not long ago an aid-recipient country, is now an aid donor, due to its economic success underpinned by investment in high-tech industries and scientific expertise do add real value to their manufacturing chain.
African countries, however, are lagging behind developmentally because their investment in science remains low. Although science, technology and innovation can provide solutions to issues such as climate change that threaten the region, they have not been central to our developmental decision- making. As the biggest source of job creation, I believe that private sector companies can and should help spur scientific and technological advancement in Mauritius.
First, for-profit businesses can help Mauritian universities design and deliver industry relevant higher education. For example, they can help overburdened faculties create and implement high quality STEM curricula. Global heavyweights such as IBM are doing just this with its Africa University Programme, in which 80 universities across the continent participate to enhance their curriculum. These universities provide their final year students with a range of training including business analytics, data management, cloud and mobile technology training via the technical role based model applied in the IBM Technical Academy. Academic staff and students also receive support from IBM’s team of experts and an IBM training and information portal. Such initiatives will help create more resilient higher education institutions that are better able to respond to the needs of industry, and produce graduates with the scientific and technical skills that employers are seeking. At the same time, private sector companies are investing in the pipeline of local talent that they need to safeguard the growth of their businesses.
I would also encourage local and international private sector companies to partner with the Mauritian government in its efforts to train and retain talented scientists and researchers. Given the enormous financial and technical resources at their disposal, for-profit businesses can help strengthen scientific research by providing funding for talented scientists and researchers to pursue postgraduate training in African universities. For example, they could contribute to the recently launched Alliance for Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a new initiative that aims to help drive Africa’s research agenda and build scientific capacity across the continent. Local funding will also help ensure that the research done in Mauritius helps address the country’s most pressing development challenges such its heightened exposure to the effects of climate change, and make the most of traditional sources of knowledge.
Such initiatives will complement the Mauritian Government’s efforts to enact policies and offer a 10- year tax holiday for returning local scientists. Furthermore, this could form part of companies’ mandated Corporate Social Responsibility programme, which requires companies to pay 2% of their profits to contribute to poverty alleviation, human development and environment protection. These programmes are not about gifting but are beneficial for all stakeholders: companies are investing in the infrastructure that they need to operate successfully, and our best and brightest are incentivised to stay on the continent. At the same time, as Dr. Makhtar Diop, Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, says, these programmes will help our countries gain the highly skilled personnel necessary to enhance productive sectors, and boost our continent’s structural economic transformation.
In a recent article for the New African, the distinguished Harvard University Professor, Calestous Juma, argued for the importance of entrepreneurship on the continent, and suggested that African universities could be used as incubators for new companies. While creating this role for higher education institutions may require reforms to redefine their missions, businesses could harness their expertise and financial resources to help Mauritian universities create incubators for new science and tech companies. A great example is the Advanced Technology Development Center at Georgia Institute of Technology, named by Forbes as one of 12 business incubators changing the world for launching more than 120 tech companies that have raised more than $US1billion in outside financing. Its 2015 sponsors include Amazon Web Services and Thompson Technologies, which are donating their time, money and resources to the Center. These investments can help foster a new generation of talented young entrepreneurs who can give a solid and broad knowledge base for Mauritius’ future ambitions and development as not just a finance hub, but one of science and knowledge too.
Finally, if we are truly committed to spurring scientific and technological advancement on the continent, we must ensure that women are better represented in science. With significant financial resources and strong brand equity at their disposal, businesses are well positioned to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. They can also recognise talented women scientists for their achievements. For example, seventeen years ago, L’Oréal and UNESCO founded the For Women in Science programme to promote the importance of ensuring greater participation of women in science. Every year, they acknowledge five brilliant young female researchers in Africa and the Arab States, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America for their contributions to physical science. In 2007, the inspirational Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, now the President of Mauritius, received this prize and it provided further means to pursue important independent research projects.
Mauritius has the human resources and ambitions to become a Africa’s knowledge hub. Yet, I believe to achieve these aims we need to pursue closer partnerships with the private sector. The Planet Earth Institute will be launching in country with the support of Her Excellency the President as our Vice-Chairman and we will be working with businesses, universities, schools and the Government to help ensure Mauritius can capitalise on the enormous potential. I urge all passionate about these issues to work with us.