Port Louis and Curepipe, Mauritius — First came California's Silicon Valley, then India took the honours. Next, if all goes according to plan, the tiny Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius hopes to lead the way in Africa, by transforming itself into a "cyber island".
The dream is to create a hi-tech paradise, dubbed "cyber city," which is located in Ebene, 15km (9 miles) outside the capital, Port Louis. The 12-story tower, surrounded by a ring of mountains, rises out of the sugar cane plantations that were once the bedrock of Mauritian economic prosperity.
But it is not to the West that Mauritius is looking for its example of cyber supremacy. That falls to India. The island may be a dot on the map in the Indian Ocean, but it is strategically located between Africa and the east and has close links with India.
"Through the cyber city project, we want to forge triangular cooperation involving India, Mauritius and Africa, to develop synergy and facilitate Africa's march towards an e-economy," then finance minister, Paul Berenger, told a conference last year, before he became the island's prime minister in September. [Berenger succeeded Sir Anerood Jugnauth under the terms of a power-sharing agreement signed during the 2000 elections by the political parties the two men head.]
Mauritius, with 1. 2 million people, is home to a large population of Indian descent, which accounts for most of the island's political elite, though Berenger, a veteran politician, is himself a Franco-Mauritian and, therefore, a notable exception. Although the country is officially bilingual in English and French, the local language Kreol is even more widely spoken by islanders. Hindi and other Indian languages are also popular among the different communities.
The majority Indian population on the island dates back to when Britain, one of the European powers that colonised Mauritius, brought in indentured labourers from India to work on the sugar plantations. African slaves had earlier been imported from Mozambique, with the landowners being of French origin, which accounts for the island's rich, mixed heritage.
Devendra Chaudhry, the chief executive officer of Business Parks of Mauritius Ltd (BPML), the company responsible for the construction of the cyber city complex, is an Indian national. He has been seconded to Mauritius from the Indian civil service to lend his hi-tech know-how and share his experiences working in his country's own Silicon Valley.
The government in Delhi has extended a financial credit of US$100 million, as well as technical support. Most of the workers on the construction site - and the infrastructure - have also been brought over from India. Delhi is hoping to reap the benefits of its largesse by exploring info-tech markets in Francophone Africa and even in France itself - through French-speaking Mauritius.
But critics in Mauritius argue that the lion's share of the jobs created by the cyber city will go to foreigners, who are only interested in making a quick buck, at the expense of locals who will be relegated to low-skilled occupations.
The knowledge park is being built on a 150-acre (60 hectare) plot and will include a business zone, a multi-media complex and a hotel, as well as residential and recreational facilities. Completion is scheduled for 2005.
"Technologically speaking, the cyber city is a state-of-the-art facility," said Chaudhry, adding that it would "provide a world-class telecommunications network, through both satellite and an (underwater) fibre optic cable".
In 2000, Mauritius joined the South Africa Far East (SAFE) Submarine Fibre-Optic Cable Project, which plans to link the island to Malaysia, via South Africa and onto West Africa and Europe. This should provide high-speed connectivity.
In the words of the island's minister of information, technology and telecommunications, Deelchand Jeeha: "It is no longer a matter of choosing between penicillin and Pentium. It is now more a matter of choosing the most effective way for IT to transform Africa into an engine for economic growth and a better provider for its people".
The government in Mauritius wants to diversify the island's economy away from its traditional exports of sugar and textiles, which are dependent on capricious world markets and global trade regulations.
Berenger said: "On the horizon, the sugar protocol is threatened and textile exports to the European Union and the (United) States are also under question by the World Trade Organisation's new rules and, by developing free trade agreements, so we are threatened from all sides".
This reality, said Berenger, was the reason for "our idea to make Mauritius a cyber island, to rush ahead as a services' economy". Mauritius is hoping to attract big business and foreign investment by offering tax incentives and cheap power.
Some companies have jumped at the opportunity, among them Hewlett-Packard, which is already a partner in the cyber city project. Microsoft and IBM are reported to have chosen the island as regional headquarters. Other big hitters are also showing an interest. The future for Mauritius, goes the official mantra, is to concentrate on tourism and financial services and hope that ICT will add to a powerful economic arsenal and propel the island into a 21st century technological success story.
Another attraction, said Chaudhry, is that the cyber city would "provide computing on demand, an internet data centre to back up data and servers for web-hosting, e-commerce and financial transactions". This would give companies the facilities to set up disaster recovery services, where they could transfer and store data and establish call centres in Mauritius if necessary, in case of natural disasters or the threat of terrorism elsewhere in the world.
A representative of Hewlett Packard in Mauritius, Lindsay Pointu, described the island as ideal when one considered stability and security. "I think the biggest benefit is that being a rock in the middle of the ocean, you are isolated and in a way that is what you want. Putting it crudely, the whole of Africa could be on fire and Mauritius would be protected. We can see that the cyber city will represent a land of opportunity for ICT business," Pointu told the BBC.
The authorities in Mauritius are determined to combine their ambitious plans, to pioneer information technology on the continent, with a drive to educate all islanders in computer literacy, from toddlers to octogenarians. Community centres have sprung up all over the island to create ICT awareness.
For those who cannot make it to computer classes, a converted coach, called the cyber caravan, travels around the island, stopping at cities and villages.
Everyone is welcome - from school children to seniors, housewives, the jobless and the disabled, said Vikash Heeralaul, from the Mauritius National Computer Board. With the nine PCs installed in the cyber caravan, students are taught basic computer skills and word processing.
In tandem, a nationwide Computer Proficiency Programme (CPP) has been launched "for all Mauritians". In a school classroom setting, Hootesh Ramburn, the CPP Project Manager , told AllAfrica he was enthusiastic about the training courses and the people attending them. "This programme would not have started if we had not thought outside the box. I'm not the thinker, I'm the doer, but there are people who have thought about this project," he said.
Speaking at the Royal College, a secondary school in the island's second city, Curepipe, Ramburn showed off some of the CPP students, ranging from teachers to schoolchildren, all following courses during their annual holidays.
A teacher, who gave her name as Rose, enthused about her new found knowledge of computers and the prospect of Mauritius becoming a cyber island. "I think this is very interesting for us. The whole population should learn, because this will be a tool of tomorrow".
Ramburn said labourers rubbed shoulders with business executives in class. "One of the big challenges we have is to put together people from different social, occupational and age groups in one single classroom and each one learning IT together. We treat everyone as a student, whether a CEO or whether he is just a worker in a factory," he said.
No one was excluded, stressed Ramburn. "Anybody can attend the course. This is empowerment for the citizen. The only prerequisite would be a basic understanding of English, which is essential for people learning IT on a computer". Courses are conducted for the benefit of everyone in the lingua franca, Kreol.
"We wanted people to come with their families and to learn together with others, because IT is something that you learn with your colleague who is sitting beside you, more than you learn from your teacher," explained Ramburn.
The same thinking was reflected in the comments from students who spoke to AllAfrica during the computer proficiency class in Curepipe.
Rose, the teacher, said: "At first when I started to use a computer, my kids already knew how. I was a bit reluctant at the beginning, fearing that I would not be able to use it. Very often I used to call my kids to help me. Later on I had to learn to use it, because I had just finished a part time course at the university, a Bachelor of Education, B. Ed. For that, I had to present my dissertation and we had to present every word computer printed, not in handwriting! So we were forced to. There they offered us a computer course, but it wasn't from scratch".
Asked whether computer literacy had changed her life, Rose responded simply "Yes, I feel free, I feel comfortable".
Rose's neighbour, another teacher, Mme Borkatali, was excited about touching a computer for the first time. "I feel completely at ease. Now that we've done the theory, it's time for the practicals and I'm enjoying it. It's going well," she said.
Borkatali also considered it an excellent idea that Mauritius was planning to turn itself into a cyber island. "Of course we can make it! Why not?" she said breathlessly and eagerly gave her reasons why. With a conspiratorial and confident smile on her face, she told AllAfrica: "I went shopping the other day and this very evening my computer is going to be delivered to my home! And that's how it's going to work. Every household you visit in Mauritius, you'll find out that people are ready to take out loans to buy a computer. So before very long, I'm sure that every house in Mauritius will have a computer. And it's not going to take long, believe me, it'll happen quickly, very quickly".