Crucial planning lessons for Kenya from Mauritius

A few years ago I visited Mauritius. I was especially excited to draw parallels between Kenya and this ‘star and key’ of the Indian Ocean, so called due to its strategic trade position. With a population of under 1.3 million people I realize I was stretching it, but one of my interests was the commercial success behind the sugar industry.

At the time, Kenya was struggling under the weight of an ailing sugar sector, aided by industrial inefficiencies, sugar cane poaching and illegal imports. Though the outlook was grim – Kenya was producing sugar at twice the cost of say, Egypt – we were unanimous in believing the industry could and would be turned around.

For an industry that accounted for about 15% of Kenya’s agricultural output and a fifth of gross domestic product, it seemed far from likely that we would let it end up in ruins. This was even as privatization dragged its heels and high levels of indebtedness dogged five of the state run sugar mills.

Still, we believed that it was too fundamental an industry to ignore and that the government would launch worthy interventions in the nick of time, righting all the wrongs and saving the day. How wrong we were back then.

So, here I was in Mauritius, chomping at the bit as I waited to start exploring. From its position as a financial powerhouse, the model of high economic competitiveness and good governance to its ICT prowess, I was raring to find out just what made this set of Islands so special.

This was until an incident at the airport almost marred my sojourn. I was taking a break from a region that was in the middle of what felt like one long continuous winter so my system was dealing with the confusion of being jolted from extreme cold to extreme heat. That must be why I broke my cardinal rule of getting through immigration as efficiently as possible.

I dawdled through getting my bags and my entry documents in order. It was all going along well, if a bit sluggishly until some (rude) airport security staff decided an unsavory example out of a few of us by unpacking every single item we had in our bags.

As I stood there, sweating buckets of all the hydration that existed in my body, I idly wondered how you could have a success story in a country that had the kind of weather that made you want to live in the swimming pool. A little bit like being at our own coast.

Thankfully, before my acerbic comments turned the immigration exercise into a news worthy incident,
I was tersely informed that I could re-pack my bags and proceed. Which I did with the minimum amount of whining I could muster.

But I digress. At least the rest of my stay redeemed the poor hospitality of the airport staff. Back to the sugar industry. On the way from the airport, I was gratified to see miles upon miles of sugar cane growing on the farms next to the road. A few days later, we went to the Rhumerie de Chamarel, an exquisite rum production plant that sits at the top of a steep hill.

Here, the tour guides took us through the rum production process, from sugarcane crushing to the distillery and how the various by products of the process are used. In part, the small size of the country, it is only 2,040 square km, makes it possible to transport the cane with relative ease.

But for such a small country, it also has an impressive array of successful industries. As I came to learn later, the republic is not only a sugar producer, but has harnessed renewable energy, textiles, education and tourism as FDI attracting, important pillars of the economy. Its CyberCity specifically was quite interesting.

I suppose the intention must have been to model the Kenyan version on Ebene’s though given that we’re a much larger and decentralized country without the same protections and structures the efficacy of ours remains yet to be seen.

Still, everything that works so well in Mauritius does so because there is a focused approach to making it an attractive location for investors to park their monies. And this is not just by manner of speech but through a concerted effort bringing together the right structures, balancing a free economy and economic competitiveness and good governance.

I can’t help but think what kind of wonders that sort of steering would do for our country, especially seeing as we have the population and do not have to import skills to the same extent if we paid attention to quality education. If we could harness the power of 1.2 million people and extrapolate it to
44 million people, we would be a force to reckon with on every front.

But if the downward spiral our sugar industry has taken is anything to go by, visions of prosperity are but a pipe dream.

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