Could a tiny island in the Indian Ocean become a centre of biotechnology research and development for the continent?
Mauritius is perhaps best known for its stunning beaches and breathtaking wildlife. These natural wonders have helped make the country one of the world’s favourite islands for international visitors and have allowed the country to make tourism one of its economic pillars.
But now, the tiny island in the Indian Ocean is hoping to tap into its natural riches in a whole new way. In March of this year, the country launched BioPark Mauritius, an ambitious science and technology facility that groups a range of biotech and scientific development enterprises under one roof.
“The objective is to make Mauritius an intelligent island and not just an island for holidays and leisure,” said Jean-Louis Roule, CEO of Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutique, one of the companies involved in the venture.
Speaking at the launch, he continued: “Scientific research and development cannot take place without permanent exchanges between different enterprises.”
Based at Socota Phoenicia, in the town of Phoenix in the centre of the island, BioPark Mauritius hopes to tap into the country’s growing biotechnology sector. There are already a couple of dozen biotech companies on the island operating in the likes of bioinformatics, contract research, clinical trials, pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical devices manufacturing, bio-fertilisers and bio-fuel manufacturing.
The sector contributes around $100m to the economy and employs more than 1,300 people. Over the last three years, foreign direct investment inflows in biotech have reached around $29m.
Mauritius has keenly encouraged these developments by providing a generous package of incentives to investors, such as an eight-year tax holiday. It believes that biotechnology could not only be its own important industry for the island but could also foster innovation in agriculture, health, manufacturing and fishing.
With its well-run infrastructure, effective institutions and stable climate, Mauritius regularly comes out top in Africa’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, making it attractive to investors. But when it comes to biotechnology, the island also has other advantages.
“Mauritius is the ideal place for this type of research since it is a biodiversity hot spot, a region blessed with unique plants in the world that have never been studied before,” says Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, managing director at the Mauritius research and development company, the Centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR).
“We also have a rich pharmacopoeia, so the sources of new leads are potentially very interesting and promising,” she adds. Gurib-Fakim works a lot on investigating the medicinal properties of plants, but so far only a small fraction of Mauritius’ potentially medicinal plants have been studied. This means that there is huge opportunity for new research.
“We also have the capacity to bring in business, mainly from overseas, to validate herbal products which are coming out of the research conducted at university level and in other companies worldwide,” says Gurib-Fakim.
“Also, one must not forget that plants provide ingredients for nutrition as well as the cosmetics sector. With the world going ‘green’ in terms of demand, there is a huge market to be tapped for our countries.”
Furthermore, leveraging science, technology and innovation in this sector could help Mauritius’ younger generations, creating jobs and developing entirely new lines of business.
Engineering the future
Given the huge potential in the sector, Mauritius’ government is trying hard to turn the island into a bio-hub for the African continent. And well-known international companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Carl Zeiss, and Perouse Medical have already chosen to invest in Mauritius, serving as encouragement for the government’s efforts.
“There are good signs that this trend will be maintained, particularly with the enterprises seeking new opportunities on the African continent,” says Ken Poonoosamy, Managing Director at the Board of Investment.
One initiative that is already proving promising is the breeding and export of Mauritius’ unique species of primates, which has demonstrated virus-free characteristics that make them ideal for pre-clinical trials. These Mauritian macaques are a highly sought-after species for medical research, which has led some local companies to set up breeding facilities on the island to supply US and European laboratories.
Another biological company with big plans is Aadicon Biotechnologies, whose farm recently imported 200 cattle of an exotic breed from South Africa. The firm produces high-quality semen that is processed, stored and sold for artificial insemination to breed cattle with a higher milk and meat yield. Aadicon is already exporting bull semen to Uganda and will soon be adding Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Namibia and Zimbabwe to its list.
“We plan to export semen worth $10m annually to the African continent,” says Deepak Yardi, the company’s managing director. “The possibilities are immense.”
Biotechnology companies in Mauritius are thus already eyeing up huge opportunities, and the next frontier to be exploited could be the vast ocean that surrounds the island. Scientists believe that the sea and the endless and complex life it contains could yield countless medical breakthroughs in the future.
With all this potential activity, Mauritius hopes to further diversify its already-plucky economy and establish itself as Africa’s go-to hub for biotechnology. As Roule put it at the launch of the BioPark, “A country without R&D has no future”, advice that Mauritius has taken to heart.