AfricaLive Leadership Interview with Prof. Theesan Bahorun, G.O.S.K., Executive Director of the Mauritius Research and Innovation Council
“We strongly believe that research and innovation should be the main pillar of the development of our nation. As per our new roadmap for research and innovation, We are focused on the blue and green, financial, health and wellness, IT, emerging and enabling technologies, social and grassroots, Rodrigues, travel, tourism and entertainment innovations.
We are working to make Mauritius a global hub for innovation and research.”
- Shaping an Innovation-Led Future in Mauritius: The Mauritius Research and Innovation Council funds significant projects through its schemes, including a space program, the National SME Incubator scheme and a gender-based violence observatory amongst its in-house initiatives
- 30 Projects Launched: Mauritius aims to contribute to the world in research and innovation through sept thematic areas: blue and green, financial, health and wellness, IT, emerging and enabling technologies, social and grassroots, Rodrigues, travel, tourism and entertainment innovations.. The MRIC has launched a first set of 30 projects aligned with these themes and is currently processing the second call, whereby 109 project applications have been received.
- Growth Through Partnership: The council is working on increasing partnerships, including private sector involvement, to fund impactful projects. Collaboration with international companies, sharing research, and engaging in technology transfer are essential for success.
- An Emerging Global Hub: Mauritius is working on attracting research and development projects with incentives such as tax holidays and fostering a nurturing environment for foreign startups and scientific initiatives. The country has established partnerships with South Africa, India, the United Arab Emirates and other entities for research and innovation bridges. Creating an entrepreneurial culture is key to long-term success.
AfricaLive: What would you say makes up the DNA of the MRIC?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: We are a government institution under the Ministry of Technology, Communication and Innovation. We advise the government when it comes to research endeavours and innovation. We are also a funding agency for research and development to bring innovation to the country. With this mandate, we are an Apex institution and in contact with all stakeholders in the private and public sectors as well as academia.
We take great pleasure in funding worthwhile research and innovation projects in our country in various areas of the economy with impactful outcomes
We are responsible for several schemes and we also have some flagship in-house projects. One significant project is a space program that helped us launch our first nanosatellite. We are working on building a second satellite to help us monitor our exclusive economic zone and use satellite data for agricultural and climatic uses.
One other key project is a gender-based violence observatory which helps to analyse gender base violence data and provide relevant recommendations for the country in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare. Our research in this area is unique and our space research is also unprecedented in our country.
AfricaLive: As a nation, what does Mauritius have to offer the world when it comes to research and innovation?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: Two years ago, with the collaboration of our parent ministry, we held national consultations with all our stakeholders to produce an innovation roadmap which would match the needs of the country and address the evolving changes in research and development for key sectors. It was imperative to discuss and define a clear strategy that would pave the way for research and innovation. We came up with the Les Assises de la Recherche et de l’Innovation. This is our framework for research and innovation for the next four years.
We identified seven thematics that we would work on for the next few years; blue and green economy, financial, health and wellness, IT, emerging and enabling technologies, social and grassroots, Rodrigues, travel, tourism and entertainment innovations.
Research would be mandatory in all these thematics. We also agreed to launch projects in all these thematics. To date, we have launched 30 projects in industries that are key to our nation’s growth. We strongly believe that research and innovation is the main pillar of the development of our nation. The government, private sector and academia are all on onboard in this belief. This is evident in the schemes we have ongoing. All our schemes are private sector-academia schemes or public-sector consortium-led. All these stakeholders put in funds on a matching basis towards our common agenda.
AfricaLive: We have covered many industry-academia stories in Africa and other parts of the world. Building and maintaining these partnerships can be very challenging. What does partnership mean to you and what are the keys to successful partnerships?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: I must confess that we are striving to increase the number of partnerships we are involved in when it comes to research and innovation. Our institution has reached out to the private sector to find out their aspirations so that we can be useful to them. Before 2019, we funded primarily academic research. Now, we fund projects that are having an impact on the ground.
We also employ a matching strategy with all the projects we fund. If the private sector, for instance, wants to fund a project to the tune of Rs 5 million, we will match the same. This strategy has led to many advancements and beneficial results.
We also have global companies in Mauritius trying to do research. In my humble opinion, they need not do that alone because we have a strong research community here. The best approach would be to share our research with them and perhaps engage additionally in technology transfer. We should not reinvent the wheel.
AfricaLive: Let’s look at international partnership opportunities. What is the potential of Mauritius attracting new research and development projects, and are you putting incentives to this end?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: Yes, we are looking at incentives as a motivator. As an Apex government institution, we are implementing incentives introduced by the government such as have introduced tax holidays, deduction of qualifying expenditures needed for research and innovation, supporting patent applications and the establishment of a nurturing environment for foreign startups.
These measures are already working. On the other hand, new initiatives are being developed i.e the setting up a biotechnology institute by the Government whereby there has been a call for expression of interest for international companies to use the institution as their base for developing products.
We also have a National SME Incubator Scheme for local incubatees that has also attracted international interest. At the scheme, we develop incubatees into becoming full-fledged startups. We are funding 6 incubators right now with 50 incubatees. Our ambition is to have more incubators that would develop hundreds of incubatees. We all appreciate that the success rate of such schemes is currently at around 12 per cent. So the more incubators and incubatees, the higher the chances of growing new businesses into the ecosystem.
AfricaLive: Many venture capitalists in Africa speak of a reluctance to start businesses or commercialise research because of a fear of failure mindset. What have you done to change the mindset and culture in Mauritius?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: We are conscious of the fact that SMEs and entrepreneurship endeavours are important segments of the Mauritian economy. We aim to learn from countries like the United States and India when it comes to entrepreneurial culture.
The number of incubators we are supporting across the country is a major step towards our goal.
There is still a lot to achieve. There is a culture to put in place and this culture needs to start at grassroots levels in our primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. For instance, at least one tertiary institution in Mauritius, Polytechnics Mauritius has set up a very interesting model where entrepreneurship is at the centre of a number of learning outcomes. In fact, this institution has replaced its end of year dissertations by capstone projects which provide students with hands-on experiences to develop a concept, product or service into potential commercial outcomes. These projects will have the potential to develop into an incubatee, startup or SME. This is the type of model that would need to be championed throughout the country. Most probably this could contribute to increase the number of start up initiatives and also reduce start up failure.
The other problem for startup failure is indeed funding. Now as it stands the NSIS program funds incubators but not startups. There should be in place a mechanism where startups could also be supported at their early stages, through probably a mix of private or public funding. The MRIC is currently working on a plausible proposal with relevant partners.
AfricaLive: What importance do you place on strengthening ties on the African continent?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: The MRIC is open to globalization and we are already involved with some African counterparts. We have a scheme that focuses on research and innovation bridges. This involves collaborations between the Mauritian private sector and the international public and private sectors. We have such partnerships with entities in South Africa, the UK, Australia, India and Singapore.
A few years back, we had launched a joint call with a technology innovation agency in South Africa. Projects were proposed to be funded on a matching basis with the outcomes of transfer of technologies between the two countries. Unfortunately due to COVID this initiative could not go ahead but we wish to reiterate the same with the background of the MoU signed as we feel that such initiatives can be very prolific.
Also, we currently have a circular economy project in the Indian Ocean region that focuses on turning waste into energy funded by the Europen Union. The aim is to galvanise resources and come up with sustainable technical solutions for the region.
AfricaLive: You currently have strong ties with both India and Europe. Do you see this as a strength for Mauritius and an opportunity to advance further?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: Yes, we believe any collaborative ties we make are a win for the country. We are working with India to build a microsatellite that will help us in our economic zone. We are also working with the Mohamed Bin Rashid Space Center to further our space program. Our international agenda has also seen us make friends in Australia. The Australian High Commission has helped us at the Les Assises de la Recherche et de l’Innovation by providing renewable energy experts. Australian universities are also helping us with this as we seek to develop our energy agenda.
AfricaLive: Research is all about finding solutions. On a personal level, what are you intent on finding solutions to?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: I come from a biochemistry background with emphasis on health-related issues. My group, when I was at the University, has done a number of pioneering works on cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer through clinical trials and molecular nutrition research.
Unfortunately, despite progress made in various fields, the country needs to be more proactive in multidisciplinary fields of research. The health sector warrants great attention as 35% deaths are due to diseases of the circulatory system, 22% of people die from diabetes and around 12% of people die from diverse cancers. These numbers are too high for a small island like Mauritius. These health challenges are stark and meaningful research is needed to help us get these numbers down.
I am also intent on investing in green economy research as the country would need novel technologies and approaches to increase productivity and food security and indeed not occulting the preservation of the environment for generations of Mauritians to come.
On another note, one of my interests was also to look into the use of medicinal cannabis for a selection of ailments. As such I have chaired a national committee and submitted a report in favour of medicinal cannabis use. The legal issues have also been incorporated and I am very happy to see that this report has now materialized into actions with a pilot usage of medicinal cannabis for needy patients in our hospitals. The Ministry of Health and Wellness is indeed commended for having rapidly put in place the recommendations of my report. The next step is to see how hemp can be the next pillar of economic development for the country.
AfricaLive: Do you have a project lined up in the next few years that our international readers may be surprised to hear taking place in Mauritius?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: We have the circular economy project that will reach great heights over the next few years, if indeed we meet the goals of the anticipated deliverables to convert waste into energy. But more ambitiously, we would like to materialize the setting up of a space agency in Mauritius with the background of our achievements so far i.e launching of a nanosatellite and setting up a state of art ground station. The MRIC, our parent ministry and our honourable minister, Deepak Balgobin, are sparing no efforts to establish sustainable collaborations with prestigious institutions like the Indian Space Research Organisation (India) and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre ( UAE) to fulfil our dream to be a sustainable space-faring nation.
AfricaLive: If you take a few steps back and look at the entire landscape, how confident are you about the future of Mauritius and all the research you are engaged in?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: We are working in a systematic way to highlight all areas that need research and innovation.
We are in need of resources and funding to make a great contribution to the country’s development agenda. Most of all, we must take care of our priority research areas to ensure all is done. Our research funding at the moment is at around only 0.3-0.4 per cent of our GDP. This is only a fraction of research spending in countries like Korea, the UK, Denmark and Singapore.
We need to invest more, or else it would be meaningless to discuss a 5-year or 10-year plan, or even to consider to be Industry 5.0 savvy. We also need a holistic view of how we conduct applied research so that we can solve our basic problems. If we get it right, Mauritius will become a powerhouse in the future.
AfricaLive: Do you have a final message regarding the future of research and innovation in Mauritius?
Prof. Theesan Bahorun: Our country is endowed with energetic people and competencies. Currently, we are striving to improve our global innovation index. We were 82nd in 2019, 45th in 2022 and then a slump to 57th this year. It would seem that we are putting a lot of effort in terms of inputs and we are reaping less in terms of outputs.
We have been resilient during the COVID period. We should have the same mindset for us to innovate further. I have the firm belief that we can progress further as the potential is here. We must address in depth our weaknesses and work hard to continue to make our country a hub for innovation and research.