Like many Mauritians, CEO of Metro Express Dr Das Mootanah moved overseas to pursue a career which has seen him work in the UK and Australia and gain experience in high profile projects.
How high profile? They don’t come much bigger than planning for transport at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Dr Mootanah talks to AfricaLive about returning to Mauritius and the importance of international collaboration in delivering infrastructure projects to an initially sceptical public.
The Metro Express project will see the first trains run in Mauritius in over half a century and put the country on the path to the type of integrated, safe and environmentally friendly transport network needed to take the country into its next stage of development.
AfricaLive: What is the expected impact of the Metro Express project on the economic development of Mauritius?
Dr Das Mootanah: There a number of challenges facing Mauritius which we are tackling with this project.
First of all, you have the growing traffic congestion in Mauritius, costing the economy about Rs4 bn per year, and which previously was only a problem during peak hours but now has grown beyond that. This project has actually been in the pipeline since the late 80s or early 90s.
We have also seen increasing numbers of road traffic accidents, so building alternative modes of transport is a matter of public safety.
The project will go through 5 towns of Mauritius which will be incrementally developed with the advent of the Metro Express project. You have Curepipe, Port Louis, Quatre Bornes, Vacoas, and Beau Bassin/ Rose-Hill. The last twenty years of Mauritius development has been focused on financial services and property development. We are now seeing the development of smart cities such as Moka or other in the south of the island, however, the existing towns which I just mentioned have not seen any development over the past twenty to thirty years.
I left Mauritius to work overseas in 1994, I have been coming back every year or two to visit, but its when I returned to Mauritius in 2016 I really noticed there hasn’t been much change in these towns and cities. The benefit of Metro Express is that there will be an aggregate effect on the economy. By developing the infrastructure through these towns and developing transport hubs, the project will act as a catalyst for incremental growth around the hubs.
In terms of the more immediate and direct economic impact, the project is already creating more jobs during its construction. The main contractor is contracting around 15 local subcontractors and hundreds of workers.
In addition to the economic benefits, there is the environmental benefit of using a light rail transport network and giving the Mauritian people the option of getting out of their cars.
AfricaLive: How important is it for you to develop international partnerships and for Mauritius to attract skills from overseas?
Dr Das Mootanah: Our approach to delivering the project is collaborative, with lots of interfaces, and unique in Mauritius. Our main Contractor, Larsen & Toubro is an international major infrastructure deliverer with worldwide exposure.
We are currently completing Phase 1 which is Rose Hill to Port Louis. In fact, we have people from Singapore, India and France, amongst others, working on the team and I get the benefit of the best international skills as well as different perspectives on delivering a project like this.
When I worked in Sydney I did an international benchmarking of rail operators and SMRT from Singapore are one of the best operators alongside London & Hong Kong. We brought in people from SMRT to work with us on operations readiness and fully prepare for going live in September. We are ramping up in terms of recruitment now to ensure we are operationally ready in advance.
At the same time, we are also starting work on Phase 2 construction from Curepipe to Rose Hill which requires a separate set of skills and expertise. It is therefore vital for us to collaborate throughout this process.
We are also happy to be open and share what we are doing. We have had Ministers from Seychelles and a delegation over from La Reunion to look at the project and take what they can learn for their future transport infrastructure projects.
Collaborating with African countries will be important for us. We should embrace our African identity, and in future, once this project is delivered we will look to step up cooperation and collaboration with other African countries. I was recently in Madagascar which has such huge potential but is underdeveloped. It gives you an idea of how much can be done in Africa.
AfricaLive: National infrastructure projects always attract their share of criticism and are always politicised to some degree. How has the project been received within Mauritius?
Dr Das Mootanah: You’ve obviously been reading some of the local news! Before coming here I was working on preparations for the HS2 project in the UK. That is a high-speed rail project which was very highly criticised because it costs 55bn pounds sterling. This project is much, much smaller but also considered a “mega project” by our standards in Mauritius. It is all about scale. I was head of risk there and there were lots of problems with stakeholder management. There are a lot of people with the attitude of “Not in my back yard. You can build your high-speed railway but not here!”. In Mauritius, it is no different. People are very vocal and of course don’t want to be impacted by the project.
The current government had said in their manifesto they would review this project upon coming to power. They did this, managed to improve its value for money and also secured a government to government agreement with India in order to fund the project. Half the funding is coming in the form of a grant, and half as a loan, which represents great value for money.
We have been focusing on communicating the benefits and putting forward the vision of a new Mauritius, the vision of a smart Mauritius, the vision of an integrated transport network. We need to help people visualise how this will look once it is completed and see the benefits for themselves. The public is now buying into this vision and people are waiting to see how this will really look once it is launched in September.
AfricaLive: After so long in London, what was your motivation to come back to Mauritius?
Dr Das Mootanah: I have worked for over 20 years in infrastructure in the UK and in Sydney and worked on high profile mega projects including the 2012 London Olympics. I always wanted to one day return and use my expertise to benefit my home country.
When I got the opportunity to come back as Chief Executive / Officer in Charge of the Road Development Authority it gave me exactly that chance. When the Metro Express project then came along it was the perfect opportunity to use my experience in rail to benefit the country. At the London Olympics one of the major risks for the event was considered to be transport, and I was the Head of Risk for Transport. Two years prior to the event I had already done my model for how the integrated transport network will work during the event.
With all this background in integrated transport, delivering projects to deadlines, and transport infrastructure development I thought if I can’t do this now I will regret it. This project is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The last time a train left a station in Mauritius was 55 years ago, this is a project which is really delivering something unique in Mauritius.