Mahen Kumar Seeruttun

Minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security, Republic of Mauritius

Mauritius' agriculture has diversified from a mono-crop industry based on sugar into one that benefits the economy in various ways. Mahen Kumar Seeruttun, Minister Agro-Industry and Food Security, shares his views on the country's growing agriculture sector.

“With climate change, the issue of food security is being highlighted more and more at international conferences. We have realised that we cannot keep relying on imports."

FDI Spotlight: What reforms and innovations could be done to revamp the sugar industry?

When we got independence, Mauritius was a monocrop industry based on sugar. Most of our revenue came from sugar export. Over the years we have diversified away from this, coming up with new economic pillars.

We had the opportunity of securing a market in Europe as part of the Commonwealth. With the Sugar Protocol that came along in 1975 we could get access to European markets at an agreed price, which was much better than market price. This has in a way allowed us to have a stable revenue, that helps us to at least diversify our economy. You will see now the sugar sector represents only around 3% of Mauritius’ GDP.

For the last 10-15 years there has been a gradual erosion of the privileges that we had within the sugar regime. In September next year all the advantages that we had within that framework will be eroded completely. We have seen a drop in the price of sugar and the access- no more secured market.

So, when I took up this ministry I knew one of the major challenges would be devising a way to reform that sugar industry. Some reforms have begun a few years back, but in the meantime other issues took priority and we are still not out of the established order of the industry. There are so many people involved in the industry, and it has an emotional, as well as economic, significance to Mauritius.

So the question is how do we go about finding new markets, what new products can we make out of sugar? How do we encourage people to keep producing sugar cane when the price of sugar is going down? What incentives can we offer them to at least endure these difficulties until conditions are better?

FDI Spotlight: What is your agenda for assuring food security and reducing dependency on food imports?

We have seen a decline in our local food production. Two main factors contribute to that: first we are limited by land availability, being a small island. To develop other sectors we need to put land at their disposal, which often must come from land previously devoted to agriculture. We are a growing population so you have to be building houses.

The second factor is that our farmer population is aging. They have worked hard and have done everything for their kids to have a proper education so they can become professionals. Now their children are working in the banking sector, as lawyers, accountants and so on. They do not want to continue farming, so the old generation of farmers are phasing out and there are no new ones to take their place.

What do we do? First we have to look at all the previously agricultural land that is no longer used as such due to lack of interest in farming, and second we have to encourage young Mauritians to go back to farming using new tools and technology. We have come up with a series of incentives to this end.

With climate change, the issue of food security is being highlighted more and more at international conferences. We have realised that we cannot keep relying on imports. We have decided to ask, “What are our needs?” and from there, “What can we produce?” and then we can try to promote the production of those crops locally. We also want to produce more with less- fewer resources, less land.

FDI Spotlight: How much of Mauritius’ land is currently being used for agriculture?

You have the sugar sector and the non-sugar sector. The sugar sector today has around 52,000 hectares of land. For non-sugar is about 10,000 hectares for crops. You have to bear in mind that we are in a tropical climate, so we are faced with extreme weather conditions like cyclones at times, and exposed to different kinds of diseases. Currently we have a large population of bats who will eat fruit crops- in fact, the population of large “flying fox” bats has increased dramatically due to the lack of severe cyclones in the past 15 years. These are a protected species, so we must devise creative ways to protect the crops such as providing fruit-growers with nets to protect their crop, and a selective cull which I organised when I came to my position.

FDI Spotlight: The demand for organic and better quality food is growing worldwide. Do you see opportunities for Mauritius in this sector?

Our new strategy plan for the agricultural sector puts an emphasis on organic farming. Our target is that in five years time 50% of our crops will be produced via organic methods. We are reducing the use of pesticides, first to protect the soil, secondly to protect the environment.

We are sensitizing our growers and consumers to the demand for better quality food. We have over one million tourists visiting our country every year. But we cannot change overnight. Traditional farmers have been working the same way for many years, getting them to change is a difficult thing to do.

We have developed a set of general agricultural practices for Mauritius. It is based on the practices adopted elsewhere to be in line with international law. We have level 1 already in place- a certification authority that is going to regulate organic products.

FDI Spotlight: What is the potential of the ocean economy?

We have not done enough in that area, in terms of exploring all the resources and potential available to us. We are small in terms of land, but in terms of ocean we are immense- 1.2 million km2 of sea territory.

It is a question of resources. It needs a lot of investment. I feel in the past we have not been bold enough for that kind of venture, but now it is a necessity. The potential is there looking at us. So now we are committed to going and partnering with those countries that have experience in that sector and we can see what is happening there.

FDI Spotlight: Do you have any special message to our readers?

The forestry department falls under my responsibility. Mauritius used to be completely covered in forest. Over the years we have removed the forest to build houses and roads. Today we are left with only 2% of indigenous forest. My objective is to increase that to 12% in the next five years. This is in line with our program of conservation of biodiversity. We have set the target of planting 100,000 trees per year for the next five years. This year we have planted almost 90,000 trees, so we are on target.

There is an initiative by the Queen of England called the Commonwealth Canopy Initiative. We have presented our program for increasing our forest cover. I feel that we have a lot to share with other countries. In fact we have had a lot of eminent personalities in the conservation area who have come here to Mauritius and done so much work.