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After textiles, what next?
Feature: 3/11/2002

More than a quarter of a century ago, the establishment of textile and garment manufacturing factories transformed the economy of the island of Mauritius, until then dependent on sugar for most of its foreign earnings. Now the island is set for an equally far-reaching change as its government sets out to make Mauritius a 'cyber island'.

Teenagers crowd into a specially outfitted bus, squeezing to fit their chairs behind eight computer terminals. They chat in French but surf the Internet in English. A 15-year-old girl helps her mother - who was wearing an Islamic headscarf - manage a search engine while a boy sitting nearby - his hair spiked like a punk rocker - checks out a music site.

Most of these children's grandparents made their living in the sugar cane fields that cover this small Indian Ocean island, home to 1.2 million people. Many of their parents work in textile factories or tourist resorts.

But if the government has its way, these children will lead Mauritius onto the information highway, transforming the country's economy once again.

The government is seeking to benefit from an undersea, fibre-optic cable that runs by this tropical island on its way from Europe to southern India's high-tech corridor. By simply hooking into it, Mauritius increased its bandwidth 40,000 percent.

A new and cheap national resource was born.

"We want to become a cyber-island," says Germain Comarond, managing director of the government's Board of Investment.

Future growth

Mauritius is already well ahead of almost all African countries in per capita computer ownership. With sugar subsidies ending, textile quotas shifting and tourism reaching its limits, information technology is seen as the nation's best bet for future growth.

"Our youth are not willing to work in the textile factories. Because they are more educated now, they want to work in the services sector," comments Comarond.

Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth says the government plans to provide Internet connections to every home, just as it does water, electricity and telephone service. He aims to have a computer in every home by 2009, a target local experts say is within reach, since some businesses have begun giving employees computers to take home.

The cyber-bus is operated by the National Computer Board, an agency formed in 1988 to spur technology here, as part of a three-year campaign to create a "computer culture" on the island. More than 15,000 people have visited the bus to learn basic computing and surf the Internet in the last two years, officials say.

Meanwhile, just south of the capital of Port Louis, cranes rise from a sugar cane field where construction began in September on the Mauritius's first 'cyber-city', an industrial park for information-technology companies.

While Mauritians have the highest average annual income in Africa - $3,500 - but that's cheap by Western standards.

Indian companies that provide call centres and back-office operations for UK and US companies, plan to enter the growing French-language market by hiring Mauritians, taking advantage of the country's relatively low wages and widespread fluency in English and French.

Skill shortages

State Informatics LTD, a Mauritian software company, already provides programmers to major telecommunications companies in six African countries, says Kushan Naik, general manager. Yet like so much of the developing world, Mauritius is short on skilled workers.

Despite a doubling of the size of the computer engineering department at the University of Mauritius, the country produces only 500 to 600 qualified information technology specialists a year, says instructor Arvindnath Rosunee.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is helping via a virtual learning centre set up with the university that gives Mauritian students access to course materials used at MIT. Local instructors provide the hands-on experience.

The World Bank has approved a $40 million loan to the government in May to help improve schools and add more computers to classrooms.

Although Mauritius is one of the mostly densely populated countries, the government has instituted a policy that gives foreign high-tech professionals work permits and grants citizenship to anyone willing to invest more than $500,000.

Meanwhile, critics question the government's technology expenditures and wonder how a small island with little high-tech experience can hope to attract foreign investment when the industry is in recession.

But speaking at the National Computer Board's annual InfoTech convention earlier this month, Anerood Jugnauth said he had heard the same doubts expressed decades ago when he proposed to open the textile mills that later drove the island's economic growth.
Author: John Gibbon
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