A few hours before the presentation of the national budget by the Minister of Finance, Fabrice Boullé, Director of the Turbine, the ENL Group’s business incubator and accelerator, and also a partner in Compass, the ENL Group’s venture capital fund, gives us his view of Mauritius’ ambition to become an innovative island.
Innovation. This is a term that has been in vogue for some time. What do you mean by this term?
“Innovation is defined as something new: new consumer products, new methods of production and transportation, new markets and new types of industrial organization that respond to real customer demand. If innovation is on everyone’s mind, it’s probably because our country needs to revive national economic growth. And as Schumpeter said so well, this cannot be done without innovation. But not all innovations have the same impact on growth. Only disruptive innovation can disrupt the economic status quo in such a way as to restart the cycle, because it brings in its wake other innovations in related sectors. Thus, one by one, entrepreneurs will innovate each in turn, putting activities that are no longer competitive in the eyes of buyers in trouble.”
The sense of urgency that any mention of innovation provokes can lead one to believe that Mauritians are not innovative. What do you think?
“We Mauritians have an entrepreneurial DNA and every entrepreneur is innovative at heart. We have dared in the textile, hotel and financial services sectors, for example. We have ingeniously adopted and adapted ideas, technologies and know-how from elsewhere to our island constraints. And each time, these initiatives have triggered virtuous circles of value creation. This is how we have achieved growth rates in the past that have been admired by the international community. However, we must admit that for some time now, Mauritius has been struggling to reinvent itself and to restart the national growth cycle. To do so, we need to look at the future differently. We must, together, dare to break new ground.”
What are the ambitions of this disruptive innovation and where would it take us?
“The ambition is to contribute to making Mauritius a high-income country with low unemployment and reduced social inequality. Daring to innovate in Mauritius will protect us from external economic threats. Integrating new technologies into our business model will allow us to be competitive with our international competitors. Improving our product and service offerings will allow us to uncover new avenues for local and international growth.
Innovation could take many forms, but fundamentally it would be to digitize our business sectors, reshape our business models, offer new products and services, enter new industries… To achieve this, we will have to go for it without restraint, with concrete and measured tests, and a bold strategy. By collaborating, we will then set off this chain reaction, unleashing a process of creative destruction that will transform Mauritian society.”
Since the creation of the Turbine in 2016, you have been close to Mauritian entrepreneurs and start-ups. Would you say that the Mauritian entrepreneurship ecosystem is conducive to innovation?
“The start-up and innovation ecosystem in Mauritius is bubbling with real creative energy. 32 projects have already been incubated to date and over 50 additional projects have been selected by the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC). We have one innovation event a week bringing together fresh startup communities. Co-working spaces, places of collaboration and emulation, are filling up fast. Entrepreneurs who listen to their customers’ needs want to get out there, try new ideas, test concepts that have worked elsewhere. This effervescence is fuelled by the technological revolution that is sweeping the world and reaching our shores at an ever increasing pace. It is also encouraged by the emergence of a start-up ecosystem that allows entrepreneurs to bring their ideas and concepts to life in a professional manner.
Turbine is a leading player, offering entrepreneurs training on the Lean Start-up Model, weekly coaching and even access to equity financing through its business incubation and acceleration programs. We have reached several hundred entrepreneurs in spirit and in fact – those who have already taken the plunge and started their own businesses – with our training, awareness, outreach and coaching programs. We are well placed to say that innovation in Mauritius is hampered by an environment of bureaucratic red tape, a skills gap, a lack of confidence from major economic players, difficulties in accessing finance and markets, reluctance to open up to talent and ideas from elsewhere…”
What will have to change, and without much delay, for Mauritius to become an innovative island?
“The most pressing needs of startups can be summarized in 5Cs: customers, skills, capital, collaboration and competitiveness. They need a framework, culture and trust in Mauritius that facilitates their access to these five factors on which their emergence depends. Obviously, each of these five factors represents a huge undertaking in itself. We believe, however, that if policymakers take action on the following first, we will have laid a good foundation:
Generalize online payment
Bringing your product or service to customers through traditional channels requires an investment that the start-up often can’t afford. E-commerce is a real alternative. It is in itself a field of innovation. But if today, the Mauritian entrepreneur wants to start up, he will quickly be confronted with a limited choice of providers and the prohibitive cost of online transactions.
Facilitating crowdfunding and angel investment
Traditional sources of funding are inflexible and expensive and therefore out of reach. We are asking that the entrepreneur be able to raise capital directly from the public. This would require the state to introduce an enabling and encouraging framework.
Grant free visas to innovators and start-ups
In view of the small size of Mauritius, it is absolutely imperative that our country opens up to the world and attracts to its shores skills capable of bringing a new breath. Experienced talents who, while providing large companies with the solutions they need, will pass on the methods and skills of launching a start-up;
Strengthening the protection of intellectual property
Our country must be able to assure innovators from here and elsewhere operating on its territory that it is capable of protecting their competitive advantages. This is a prerequisite for their arrival here.
Encourage large companies to collaborate with start-ups Start-ups are agile, creative and competent. Large companies, both public and private, are facing real challenges that require solutions. It is imperative that these two parties find common ground, trust and collaboration.”
Do you expect the next budget to agree to your requests?
“We have been thinking about the issue of innovation in Mauritius with other players who, like Turbine, are engaged in promoting and supporting innovation start-ups as well as with entrepreneurs themselves. So I would say that these are the expectations of the innovation sector and the start-ups. We have communicated them to the Minister of Finance through Business Mauritius as part of the pre-budget consultations. We will know in a few days whether we have been heard.”