| Paradise lost' A bird’s-eye view of Mauritius
Switch on the radio and Hindi pop music floats across the airwaves. Turn on the television and the latest Bollywood film confronts you. Take a stroll and you’ll see women in sari.
To the untrained eye, Mauritius could easily be India, but look beyond the culture and it’s clear that consumers’ wallets in this tiny Indian Ocean island are dominated by the French.
Despite the fact that some 70 per cent of Mauritius’ 1.2 million population are of Indian origin, India as a brand name is largely unknown.
In a country where temples dedicated to Krishna, Shiva and Kali are ten-a-penny, Hindi is spoken widely and Indian culture and traditions vehemently upheld, Indian produce is strangely absent.
Instead, French products dominate the shelves of hypermarkets like Super U and Shoprite, where Mauritians fill trolleys with goods such as Yoplait, Bebe dou and Lesieur.
Renault, Peugeot and Citroen cars are preferred to Maruti by these Indian descendants, whose forefathers were brought here in the mid-19th century by the former British colonialists to work in the sugarcane plantations.
India may be the fourth largest supplier of goods to Mauritius, after France, South Africa and China, but it only makes up about 7 per cent of Mauritius’ total imports.
According to the ministry of industry, commerce and international trade, 4.7 billion Mauritian rupees ($160 million) worth of Indian products were imported in 2002, compared to France’s 7.1 billion Mauritian rupees of imports in the same year.
There are a number of reasons why India is lagging behind.
“As an ex-colonial power, France has a very active and powerful lobby when it comes to doing business here in Mauritius,” says D.M. Mulay of India’s high commission.
Settled in 1598 by the Dutch, Mauritius was taken over by slave-owning French sugar growers in the 18th century and ceded to Britain by a treaty in 1814. It became independent in 1968.
The island’s location — some 2,000 km off the southeast coast of Africa — is also a deterrent for India’s private sector export industry, according to Mulay.
“South Africa is much closer and therefore is real competition for us,” says Mulay. But he admits that there has been a lack of aggressive marketing on India’s part.
“Our businessmen have not been active in Mauritius, partly because they think it is a small market. But they should realise that Mauritius, with its bilingual English/French nature, really could be a springboard into mainland Africa,” he adds.
Many Indo-Mauritians, who are pushing ahead in banking, information technology and tourism, also feel Indian products simply are not as good as their European equivalents.
But M. Ravindranathan, deputy director of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which represents over 4,800 Indian companies, disagrees. “There used to be this conception that our products were not good enough, but with liberalisation, India has realised that being quality conscious is the only way to survive in the international market,” says Ravindranathan.
“There is most definitely a demand for Indian products in Mauritius,” he adds.
A trade fair the CII organised earlier this year shows he may just have a point.
In the 10 days of the Enterprise India exhibition, 80,000 people flocked through the doors, buying up Indian goods from household electrical appliances to textiles, garments and toys.
Business analysts say one market that India could easily tap into is pharmaceuticals, where Mauritius relies totally on imports.
“European medicines are available here, but they are four times more expensive than Indian ones,” said one businessman.
“India really could exploit this and use it to get a bridge into Africa where it could sell quality drugs at cheaper prices for poorer people,” he added.
But India hasn’t totally ignored Mauritius. Efforts made by the public sector are more prominent than the private sector.
Life Insurance Corporation, Bank of Baroda, Air India and Telecommunications Consultants India have a presence in central Port Louis, but most experts believe India’s private sector could expand in Mauritius if it tried. “The private sector can break into the market here. After all, we have more in common with India than any other country in the world, don’t we'” asked one Mauritian official.