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Roko builds up Rwanda’s skills & skylines

Interview - November 8, 2016

Regionally renowned for quality and timely construction and its local training and staff development programs, Roko Construction is open to further expansion and partnerships. Director Derek Claassen assesses Rwanda’s ongoing infrastructure building efforts, some of the bottlenecks to greater regional integration, the advantages of Roko having its own materials manufacturing plants, its extensive in-house skill sets, and its signature building projects making their mark on Rwanda’s infrastructure and human resource pool. 



The managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, mentioned that three of Africa’s biggest priorities were to build people, institutions, and infrastructure. What is your assessment of the work done by Rwanda in order to build this infrastructure?

We as a company have been fortunate in Rwanda and find that the government is disbursing funds in the right direction and towards medical health, infrastructure, and education as well as many others. And I think this is one of the reasons why we are fortunate and quite successful in Rwanda now because we seem to be thriving in terms of construction compared to some of the other countries in East Africa.

In Uganda we have construction entities such as infrastructure, housing, medical facilities, schools and others far behind the requirements for the population and or country. As Roko Construction we are involved in quite a few of those projects that are going to be starting soon.

In terms of Rwanda and in terms of our business, we are involved in all of those projects at the moment. We believe Rwanda is on the right track, with money being apportioned and channeled in the right directions for the benefit of the country and its people. It hopefully also benefits the right construction companies in terms of being involved in the construction of these facilities. We have endeavored to be part of this growth in Rwanda.

Rwanda has got strict policies in terms of the disbursal of funds, and in terms of building construction. Construction works are approved and the work must get underway in accordance with regulations and or as planned. We firmly believe that there will be constant growth in the construction industry and in terms of the government’s dedication to the growth of the country and its people in all these sectors. This will be beneficial to our company as well and we trust to be involved in many of these projects.


One of the priorities of Rwanda, which is also continental, is the issue of regional integration. You are a good example of regional integration, with operations in Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Congo or Burundi. What would you say remain the bottlenecks in order to increase this regional integration?

I think the major issue in terms of work in East Africa is still the cross-border imports, the time implications thereof and government autocracy in some countries. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the materials required for construction is not available and or being manufactured in most of the East African countries, with maybe the exception of Kenya. In South Sudan, for instance the bulk of the construction materials must be imported. This includes steel, cement and even the bulk of materials we require. In Rwanda we now have some suppliers and manufacturers that are supplying cement, steel, and the raw products that are necessary for structural works, and this is a sector that is growing very rapidly.

But one of the major bottlenecks remains the importation of materials. As a construction company, we find it extremely difficult to manage our programs and completions requirements when a large proportion of the materials needed for any project has to be imported from somewhere else, usually UAE, Europe, America or South Africa. The other main issue remains clearing and taxes and duties. Once materials are eventually at port of entry the above process can take up to four weeks prior to delivery to site.

The second major issue in some of the East African countries is payment terms and the actual payment when carrying out governmental projects. As a company and as contractors, cash flow remains very important in order to complete these projects in a timely manner. Coupled to that is the issue surrounding importation of large proportions of the materials required, and this becomes one of the main constraints we as construction companies are exposed to.

Another constraint revolves around contract conditions and payment terms when involved in specifically government projects. Whilst the contractor is obliged to perform in terms of the contract, the employer has the same obligation in terms of reimbursing the contractor for works completed normally on a monthly basis and within the stated contract terms. This has constantly proven to be a major issue. They can vary from 30 days after an invoice up to 120 days after an invoice, which necessitates the contractor to constantly pre-finance those projects to get them completed.

Contract terms and conditions in government contracts are sometimes written and not negotiable and can have adverse effects on the project, the contractor and the completion thereof.

Lastly we have been involved as a major construction company in the East African region and heavily invested in these countries. Whilst the ADB, the IMF, or the World Bank and or other organizations are financing many of these projects, the award is still based on a submitted lowest price. We still find many of these high-profile projects are awarded to foreign companies because of the lower bid price and subsequently the work is carried out in a substantially lower standard.


Speaking about the first bottleneck, importation, do you think that initiatives such as the Northern and Central Corridors are going to be game changers?

We hope these initiatives will be game changers and beneficial to alleviating some of the above-mentioned problems we experience. We hope the COMESA initiative is going to work. It is working for some countries at present and we trust it will eventually benefit the entire region. We are hoping these pipelines and the rail system that is now being planned and developed will enable major changes in future. In most other countries and worldwide you have more than one option for transportation of goods and materials. In East Africa, the main option is still road transport.

As some of the East African countries are landlocked, the addition of rail transport would have a major impact on our works and planning and our procurement. There are still constraints in terms of road traffic, unfortunately. From the main ports, Mombasa or Dar Es Salaam, to the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, although there are relatively good roads, materials are held up at the border posts due to the clearing aspect.

The options at present for importation are limited to freight by sea to the above ports and then via road transport to the relevant country of destination. Air freight is another option but in most instances very costly and rates are based on the weight of the goods.

Free trade and COMESA initiatives will assist and alleviate many of the above constraints. Taxes and duties remain high. We hope that these countries will become self-sufficient at some point. Cement/steel manufacturers and suppliers are moving into East Africa, with large manufacture/supply companies already established in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania.


You offer amongst other, metal fabrication and welding, carpentry joinery, shuttering and scaffolding up to electrical and mechanical work. How do you, and especially your clients’ benefit from this vertical integration?

It has put Roko on the forefront of being self-sufficient in most of the trades required for construction. It has also allowed the company to assess quality and constantly improve on the quality of our materials and the supply and installation thereof.

Roko has invested in our own quarries and concrete manufacturing batching plants for the supply of the full range of ready-mix concrete for our own projects as well as to external customers. It has been the Roko philosophy not to compromise on quality and this especially includes our quality structural works for our projects.

The company has invested in quality and recognized formwork systems over the last 10 years, which has enabled us to further improve on our building works. Together with the above we also have manufacturing plants in most of the countries where we operate to manufacture our own pre-cast products, including concrete blocks, paving, infrastructural concrete products and many others.

Our in-house carpentry is well known in the region as one of the best and has allowed the company to install high quality joinery and furniture items on most of the projects. We have a very good and large sub-contractor base as well, and if required for any specialized works and/or installation we can rely on their incorporation into the project to further enhance the successful completion of any specialized project.

The benefit to the client is substantial. It allows a prospective client to engage a fully structured main contractor that is conversant/qualified in all the many different disciplines of construction and in all the various trades. The entire construction package can be structured in one contract under the supervision of the contractor. This form of contracting ensures that the responsibility remains with the main contractor and eases the completion of the project. It would as well be of benefit to the client in terms of the various appointments of professionals and fees to be paid.


You arrived in Rwanda 15 years ago and have developed some landmark projects in the country. What would you say is the impact you are having in Rwanda?

I would firstly mention that in terms of some of the landmark projects, the Marriot, Serena, Ramada Inn, Acacia Development, Kigali International Airport, government banks, soccer stadiums, embassies… these stand out as benchmark-quality completed projects and recognized as such in accordance with good construction building practice.

Secondly we believe that we have had a definitive impact on the country and the people of Rwanda not only in terms of some of the landmark projects completed, but also in accordance with our corporate structure of training the local Rwandan people. We endeavor to have our local staff grow with the company as we progress into the future.

Projects to mention firstly in the hotel and leisure market are the Serena, Marriot and Acacia Hotels recently. As these are very high-end and upmarket projects with extremely difficult coordination in terms of the M&E works and the final finishing, many of the staff involved in these projects have been local Rwandese staff trained over the period of construction. These vary from unskilled, semi-skilled to fully skilled workers/artisans.

In terms of our training programs, many of the locals have been able to improve their lifestyles, their income and become self-sufficient in their respective trades. It has also allowed many of these workers to become entrepreneurs and start their own small businesses in terms of sub-contracting to the construction companies in Rwanda.

Roko was fortunate to complete two of the soccer stadiums for the CAF games and this entailed different construction works again involving different types of trades and training programs for the local tradesman. The same can be said of our works on the national airport and various other projects. We hope to continue with this important program of upliftment and betterment of the locals.

We institute and run the same program in Uganda and South Sudan. Roko is also involved in the construction of schools, churches and other places where the participation of the local populations is of extreme importance to the company. The initial construction of the Namugongo Shrine, and the re-build for the Pope’s visit, which has historical importance to the Ugandan people, is a good example.

Lastly we have maintained our vision and core values, and today after 47 years in East Africa we have a very large contingent of our original staff still employed, with staff in our employ with 18, 25 and 32 years’ service. Many of these members of staff started their employment as normal casual/unskilled workers and are today employed in supervisory, senior qualified and management positions within the company.


What training programs do you have in place to empower these local people?

We have constant training programs as part of our corporate structure. We have training programs on and off-site. On all our projects, whenever we start a project, we always employ a local staff contingent. We have some of our own staff in terms of the project manager and skilled labor. Those are staff we have trained over the years, and they have been constantly retrained. We employ local people on every project, and that can vary between 20, to 150, to 200 people depending on the size of the project. At the end of the training program, they obviously get certified as formwork erectors, masons, plasterers or steel fixers and others. We have got various training programs for all the required trades as well as programs for our staff to study up to professional qualification and the process of registering this staff with the relevant professional bodies, i.e. The Association of Engineers and/or Quantity Surveyors.

We have an external training program on all projects where external students are given training during their respective studies at university and or college. These include both male and female students.

We have an equal employment policy in the company and we have a large female contingent in house as well as on our various project sites.


Is Roko Construction open to partnerships, joint ventures?

We definitely are. Roko Construction has grown over the years in East Africa, and we are progressively and constantly looking at opportunities in the market and in other countries to improve or get involved in new technology and construction trades.

The company has grown over the last 10 years and substantially, so we regularly investigate the way we operate, the people we employ, to the betterment of the company and its employees, as well as new construction opportunities.

Partnerships and joint ventures are important as they allow the company to involve itself in larger or major construction projects, i.e. hydro, major new airports, large infrastructure projects, roads and bridges, and possibly development projects in the property market. These may necessitate large financial and or technical requirements/capabilities where we would require a strong partnership and or joint venture.


What role does Rwanda play in your overall strategy?

Our Rwandan operation has grown substantially over the last 3-4 years. It forms an integral part of our overall operation in East Africa. We will continue to grow and in terms of the vision of the Rwandan government.

We trust to continue to be known as the major construction company in Rwanda, trusted for our quality construction in all the trades and entities. Further expansion within Rwanda is imminent and the possibility of operating and expanding to countries in the vicinity, DRC, Burundi, and others.


Which concepts would you like the international community to associate Roko Construction with?

Quality and timely construction has always been extremely important and will continue to be our main aim. Roko Construction is known for that everywhere we have worked and every project we have completed. It can be described in two ways. One is structural integrity and quality. First to mention is our concrete. We don’t compromise on concrete quality. And secondly is obviously finishes, which are hugely important on the completion of any project. This remains one of the major reasons why Roko continues to construct landmark buildings in most of the countries we operate in.

Our company will continue to be known for its corporate governance and its aim to uplift our local partners in our business, with constant awareness of the Rwandan people and the vision for a better Rwanda.

Our own vision remains as always. We want to be known as a construction company that you can invest in, trust in, build with, and be certain that any project started will be finished with competency, due diligence and regard for the safety of our people, and to the highest quality possible.

Whilst the belief has been that that the African continent was left behind for many years, we can see the tremendous growth happening in Rwanda. We sincerely hope other countries will follow the example of Rwanda for the betterment of its country and people.

Roko Construction has persevered and persisted in all the countries we operate in for over 47 years and we will continue to do so, even in South Sudan albeit being very difficult and with severe constraints.