Mauritius looks west

Mauritius may be one of the world’s most glamorous destinations, but agriculturally speaking, there’s not that much of it to go around. As a result, the island’s government and farmers have begun looking west — to the far larger, neighbouring island of Madagascar.

For the Malagasy administration, this holds out the promise of increased investment.

”Mauritius has the technology and the know-how; we have the land and the manpower. The opportunities are here to be seized,” Agriculture and Fishing Minister Harison Edmond Randriarimanana said during talks with a delegation of Mauritian investors who visited Madagascar last month.

While Mauritius is about 300 times smaller than Madagascar, its gross domestic product (GDP) last year exceeded that of the larger island. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Mauritian GDP for 2005 stood at $4,2-billion, against about $3,7-billion for Madagascar.

The 30-strong delegation was led by Mauritian Agro-Industry and Fisheries Minister Arvin Boolell, in cooperation with the FAO, to explore opportunities in Madagascar and identify possible obstacles to trade.

The fact-finding mission followed a visit to Mauritius last November by Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana, who invited the island’s entrepreneurs to develop agricultural and related sectors in Madagascar. A package of incentives, including tax cuts, has been put together to attract investors.

”No more land is available in Mauritius to grow food,” Boolell said.

”If we do not seize such opportunities and invest in Madagascar, others will do and we will lose our chances,” he noted. While Mauritius produces sugar and some fruit and vegetables, it has to import the bulk of its food at a cost of millions of dollars annually.

According to Boolell, there are opportunities for growing produce in Madagascar — about 800km away — and for cattle breeding and milk production. Certain types of fruit, such as litchis, could also be exported to Europe.

Interest

The interest in Madagascar is underpinned by more than the need for increased food production, however.

Rising oil costs are among the factors that make it impractical for Mauritius to import food from further afield. Increased competition in the textile trade after the lifting of global quotas at the beginning of last year has also taken a toll on the island’s textile sector, a key earner of the foreign exchange used to buy food.

Shreedanand Cullychurn, a Mauritian entrepreneur, already exports fruit and vegetables from Mauritius and Madagascar to Europe through his company, MFL Exports — jointly headquartered in the north-western Malagasy port of Tamatave, and L’Espérance Trébuchet in northern Mauritius.

”When I first went to Madagascar in 1998, I was astonished to see huge quantities of fruits like litchis, lemons [and] green beans … that were left to rot on the ground,” says Cullychurn, who formed part of the delegation led by Boolell. ”Three months later, I exported my first 10 tonnes of litchis to Europe, and in 2005 the volume rose to 250 tonnes.”

Cullychurn expects to export still more fruit this year, not only to Europe, but also Mauritius.

His enthusiasm for cultivating land in Madagascar is echoed by Manoj Goonniah, of BestFarms Limited, situated at Vacoas in the centre of Mauritius. ”Lots of land is available, while insects and pests are rarely seen. So, pesticides and insecticides are used to a minimum, unlike in Mauritius,” he says.

Farmers

But, do Malagasy farmers welcome the prospect of an increased Mauritian presence on their island, even if this brings with it added investment?

”If our government has asked them to come into our country, it is because of their know-how and their technology in processing of food products. So far, we have learned a lot from them about commercial production and marketing, and how to become professionals in the field of agriculture,” one of the farmers said in an interview.

But, it isn’t always this easy.

When Cullychurn arrived in Madagascar, he received the cold shoulder from residents. ”[They] thought I had come to take advantage of their resources,” he notes. The situation changed for the better after he began socialising with the locals.

”As a foreigner, one should learn how to live and behave in a foreign country. One should not only look at the financial gains,” Cullychurn says.

Bad roads, poor transport and inefficient customs and port services are among the factors that may yet deter Mauritians from investing in their neighbouring island. Perhaps most importantly, hygiene standards in Madagascar do not necessarily meet the requirements of European and Mauritian markets.

However, with global oil prices showing no sign of falling dramatically any time soon, the argument for increased regional trade is a strong one — and 2006 may well see cooperation between Mauritius and Madagascar reach its potential. — IPS

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