Réunion hopes to turn itself into a gateway to Europe in this digital age

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Just three and a half hours flight from Joburg, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is the furthermost outpost of the European Union. The tiny island of Réunion is technically still part of France – called a “department” – and uses French law, the Euro as currency and has haughty waiters whose superiority is as good as anything in Paris.

But geographically it’s closer to Africa and, like so many other countries on our continent, it is trying to reinvent itself for the digital internet era. Given its European connections, it is hoping to be a bridge between Africa and Europe – something of the gateway to Africa that South Africa has always held itself up to be.

In some ways Réunion is very similar to South Africa – its strong European background, solid financial services and other establish industries and its isolation – and many of its attempts to find a new income stream are also not dissimilar.

Réunion still has an active volcano; that last blew off steam this September and has had 100 various eruptions since 1640. Only just 63km long and 45km wide, its 2,512km2 are home to about 850,000 people and a steady stream of tourists.

The original arrivals were the famed Portuguese explorers in the 16th century, who saw Réunion as the perfect stop-off point after rounding the Cape Of Good Hope en route to the spice markets of India and Asia. When the French arrived in the 17th century, the island became a French outpost, and has been a self-governing region since 1946.

But like South Africa, its isolation (geographical as opposed to the Apartheid-era sanctions that we lived through) is both a hindrance and a selling point.

“It’s interesting to see what we have in a small, experimental market. When you produce software that is highly standardised (airline and hotel have the same management processes), the idea is to produce the software and then replicated it wider,” says Phillipe Arnaud, CEO of software and digital services company Medialight, which has two airline clients including Air Austral, the island’s national carrier.

“If we were located in Europe, it would be very difficult to do two major airlines. Because it the same anywhere on planes, we are selling this program in the Middle East and Africa,” he says. Cirrus Software, another Réunion company that focusses on airline management software, counts Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand as clients.

Réunion’s digital sector had €1.4-billion turnover in 2013, and has added 250 new companies since then, says Arnaud, who is also head of industry organisation Digital Réunion. “We want to attract African companies here to do business here.”

The new digital industries that have grown out of the internet and mobile telecoms era are certainly a growth engine for all African countries, as we’ve seen with the explosion of innovation in Kenya. The less well-known West African success story in Nigeria and Ghana has recently been in the spotlight after Facebook CEO’s surprise first visit to the continent started in Lagos. Companies like Andela – a training company based in Nigeria that Zuckerberg has invested in – and the renowned Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) are some of the leading lights in the region.

Réunion is aiming to emulate these success stories, and recently held the island’s first International Forum of Indian Ocean and Africa Digital Transformation (NxSE) to highlight its advantages.

Like its remarkable landscape and other tourist drawcards, Digital Réunion is hoping to make itself as attractive to digital visitors and businesses.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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