The Turbine incubator fosters entrepreneurship in Mauritius

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Mauritian incubator The Turbine is looking to take advantage of governmental focus on the ICT sector and close ties to African and European markets to foster a new era of entrepreneurship on the island.

Launched in October last year and based in the village of Moka near the capital Port Louis, The Turbine is an incubator and startup accelerator based in Mauritius aimed at helping smart, ambitious people to turn good ideas into flourishing businesses.

There have been a number of previous incubators in Mauritius, all government-funded, but they have all closed as different politicians came to power with different goals. The Turbine, however, is adopting a private sector-led approach to developing the entrepreneurship ecosystem on the island, and aims to establish Mauritius as a vibrant and internationally-recognised innovation and startup hub.

“We’ve come in at a time when Mauritius has startups because it is moving from its traditional industries to being an island where tax is capped, and where we have cultural ties with so many different areas,” project manager Elizabeth Ellis told Disrupt Africa.

“There is also this positioning with Africa that wasn’t there before.”

The Turbine runs a number of different programmes and a business idea competition geared towards pre-startup and startup business ventures. Its first business idea competition attracted 120 applications, with four winners eventually chosen. The 15 finalists of the competition were invited to join The Turbine’s Inspire programme, which showed participants how to turn an idea into a business, and ended with a pitch night.

Ellis said she was impressed with the quality of the entrepreneurs that took part in the inaugural Inspire programme.

“This was the first time we were running a programme, but to see how they presented themselves at the beginning and how they did at the end was astounding,” she said.

The Turbine is now planning to take its first cohort of four startups into its incubation programme. The incubator will take equity in the selected startups, and offer them ongoing support over a period of two years. Further cohorts will be taken in on a regular basis as capacity allows.

Hub sustainability is a hot topic in Africa these days, with The Turbine choosing to go the corporate route. Though an independent organisation, it receives financial and operational support from Mauritian conglomerate ENL, with all profits reinvested in the organisation.

Ellis says it makes good business sense for more established players to play a role in building up the local tech startup ecosystem.

“They have been in traditional sectors, and to go into innovative sectors is a big challenge and not part of their capacity,” she said, adding supporting The Turbine can help ENL find new service providers and growing sectors, as well as a potential pipeline of startups to invest in.

Though the hub is doing things differently in the sense it is not backed by the government, Ellis said the Mauritian government was playing a key role in laying the groundwork for a vibrant startup ecosystem on the island.

“The government has put a lot of effort and funding into building the ICT sector. That is a key objective for them,” she said. “Being Mauritius we have to be able to export something that is scalable outside the island. We see that there is an increasing interest on the side of Mauritians, because they see themselves as so isolated on the island they want to stay relevant to global trends.”

There has been a bit of a brain drain as Mauritians leave to study abroad, but Ellis said that trend is now reversing. Plus, there is a push underway to attract foreign students to the island. Moreover, as Mauritius looks to develop technologically, she believes there will be numerous opportunities for tech startups to play a part.

“Mauritius has this big plan to develop smart cities on the island. Regardless of how many happen, the fact that some will happen means there is a whole new service need. There’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs to fill that now rather than bringing foreign providers in,” she said.

The island has become a popular destination for international companies due to its favourable tax environment. Ellis said it would be nice to see such companies feeding back into the local tech ecosystem.

“At the moment there isn’t that connection yet,” she said.

The Turbine, meanwhile, is planning an investment forum and network in a bid to drum up more finance for the innovative tech startups it hopes to see developing in the country over the next few years.

“The advantage for Mauritius is its cultural relationships with the likes of the UK and France, but until this point we haven’t activated them. So far activity has been so limited there has been no reason to do so,” Ellis said.

“We’re so small, it is not like South Africa where you will have 200 applications and it is overwhelming. In Mauritius you can identify the good ones and then it is just a question of connecting the right people.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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