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Mauritius’ MediaCity hopes to succeed where other African smart cities have failed

A few months back, investors unveiled plans of setting up a global multimedia hub in the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius. Touted as “Africa’s first integrated, international hub for the media and creative industries,” the envisaged MediaCity Mauritius will be based within the Beau Plan smart city.

It remains to be seen if Mauritius can sidestep the general inertia and endless delays that have plagued other smart cities on the continent. From Nigeria to Kenya to Senegal, there is no shortage of projects with shiny, impressive prospective, grand utopian visions, but oftentimes little to show in terms of feasibility, practicality, and work on the ground.

All this, as Mauritius’ former appeal as an attractive investment destination where business could easily be conducted, is recently getting overshadowed by reports of rising authoritarianism, human rights abuses, and online surveillance scandals.

MediaCity Mauritius is positioning itself as an oasis of creation and innovation

The MediaCity project was conceived as a hub of creativity, innovation, and learning on the continent with both the infrastructure and technology to support this. One component of MediaCity Mauritius—African Media Campus (MediaCity School)—is scheduled for kick-off by September 2022, while the rest of the project should be rolled out by 2024.

MediaCity will be a “gateway for Africa to fulfill its long-awaited creative and commercial potential, attracting world-class media and creative companies,” according to a press release.  The hub is designed to be a home for international production companies, creative agencies, video game companies, broadcasters, and global media companies.

While listening to the budget speech, I did not feel that the government has understood that Mauritius can no longer afford non-priority infrastructure projects.

Mauritius is looking to capitalize on the prospects of rising Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services in Africa, fostered by the increase of daily online content during Covid-19 lockdowns. The expectation is that these services will , with Netflix subscriptions accounting for almost half of this.

“We have leveraged Mauritius’ incredible assets—its focus on a digital economy, business friendly regulations, political stability, and quality lifestyle – to create the first global multi-media hub for Africa and the world,” states Najib Gouiaa, general manager of MediaCity Mauritius in a press statement.

There are some indications of progress as some aspects of the Beau Plan smart city such as the African Leadership College and the shopping center are already operational. MediaCity is also partnering with Novattera, the real-estate developer behind Beau Plan smart city and Broadcasting Center Europe (BCE), a European media services company.

Smart cities in Africa are facing a myriad of challenges

Details are however scanty as to how feasible the plans will go beyond futuristic computer-generated images to a globally-acclaimed digital hub. Similar lofty, smart projects on the continent, notably the “New York of Africa” (Modderfontein New City in South Africa) have ended up not happening. Others like Konza smart city in Kenya have been dragging on for years since they were announced, and with no indication if ever they will be completed. Eko Atlantic in Nigeria has been criticized for being far removed from the reality of day to day urban life in Lagos. Akon city in Senegal is meant to run on cryptocurrency, but this could go against national financial laws.

The reasons these planned cities failed are countless, ranging from the use of foreign blueprints that don’t work for Africa to conflict between promoters and government authorities. Also, the smart city projects are often so utopian that they are conceived without real people in mind – oblivious of the socioeconomic realities of future inhabitants.

Mauritian government’s track record on key metrics is worrying 

In the recent past, Mauritius’ reputation as an oasis of investment and innovation in the continent has taken a hit. Rising authoritarianism & human rights abuses, , deficiencies in tracking money laundering and terrorism financing all make for a problematic cocktail. These are all factors likely to disincentivize potential investors, thereby slowing down or frustrating the realization of the project.

It is likely the MediaCity Mauritius project will be subject to some of the challenges the island is already facing as a country. Recently, Mauritius Information & Communication Technologies Authorities (ICTA) put forth a draft legal framework which has ingredients of a digital surveillance system.  The move, in the guise of addressing the abuse and misuse of social media in Mauritius, is in essence a push to decrypt social media, including private messages.

If the Mauritian government pushes through with the amendment, it could potentially serve as a demotivating factor for foreign companies aiming to take up space at the MediaCity. It is also probable that big tech giants like Apple, Google, Mozilla, Twitter, Facebook, amongst others will blacklist Mauritius. Twitter’s recent snub of Nigeria in favor of opening up its regional headquarters in Ghana—a country with fewer people than Nigeria has twitter users—is proof that tech giants are wary of authoritarian governments.

There are also concerns that Mauritius, at this time, may not be suitable in attracting enterprises should the multimedia hub eventually see the light of day. The country has of late faced numerous reputational risks. In the 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), it is noted that, even though Mauritius maintained the highest scoring position, “the country’s overall governance score has declined over the decade due to weakening social protection and deteriorating human rights.”

Incentives promised businesses wishing to set up in MediaCity Mauritius such as: up to 100% foreign ownership; free repatriation of profits, dividends, and capital; import duty exemption for technical equipment; amongst others, may be attractive but the unpredictability of the government may be a challenge for the success of the project.

The project might also face resistance from Mauritians who feel there are more pressing concerns in the country that warrant more support as compared to expensive infrastructure projects likely to benefit only a minority of people. Gérard Sanspeur, a former senior government official, writes that, “While listening to the budget speech, I did not feel that the government has understood that Mauritius can no longer afford non-priority infrastructure projects like Safe City, Landscope Waterfront shops, Côte d’Or Multi-Sports complex, Data Technology Park, extension of Metro Express, which will never be profitable.”

Only time will tell if Mauritius can succeed where several other smart cities in Africa have failed.