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Building a future

Interview - February 16, 2012
Rolf G.A. de Jong of Prosur discusses past, present and future developments in Suriname’s civil engineering sector

What is your opinion on the overall state of the economy?

I think that we are a growing economy with a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of threats. Let me start very briefly with an example where Suriname comes from. When I was a young boy, Suriname started with the dam construction. I still remember all the pictures with the operation where the water was coming up and the areas were flooding. People were transmigrated without a real vision on their future and large areas with valuable trees were lost to the water. All those animals were running away, and some guys tried to catch them, it was very amateur compared to the sense we have now about environmental sustainability. Suriname started developing itself; it went through different stages. Right now, if we want to develop a power dam, we wouldn’t do it that way. What I want to say is that when you look at the pictures of the 60’s and see animals running, people crying and the loss of valuable wood you would think it was normal in that time. Nowadays everybody in Suriname would say: hey, that’s not the way to do this. In Suriname we have developed a sense of modern approaches, basically modern awareness on sustainability and growth.

On the other side, a lot of Surinamese left Suriname to live in the Netherlands or in the U.S. People talk about the money those people make there. They are living in developed countries, so they have another business approach, another labor approach, but they talk to us, too. I’m one of the guys who left, but I came back. In Suriname you’ll see a lot of influences from the rest of the world, but they are still fragmented. I think that one of the main things that you can see with this new government is that there are enough people who will try to combine all those foreign fragments into one line. Financial institutions such as the Central Bank of Suriname are working on a better financial environment for investors; that’s one of the most important initiatives. The reality is that we cannot change the world, we’re too small, but we can do things with our country to go with the modern flow of the world, if we recognize and make opportunities work for us and recognize threats, turning them into opportunities.

It’s very important that there is some awareness also regarding the consulting engineers – my professional group - the businessmen (private sector) and the government, that we have to do things together. We are small, and if we’re fragmented we’re even smaller, so we have to unify the efforts. What I can see for instance is that every day the sense of what type of planning for infrastructure projects we have to do is becoming better, what type of developments Staatsolie has to do, or what we have to do with the forestry developments or our gold and bauxite reserves. That sense is growing, and the moment this sense grows, that means that we’re unifying the forces, meaning that within four to six years we will be able to not only to put Suriname on the map, but also get a sustainable development for the country.

In order to give our audience more background about Prosur, can you tell us what has been the evolution of the company since it was created?

Prosur is a civil consulting firm that was founded in 1977. At that time, it was one of the four main consultancy firms in Suriname. The founders of Prosur at that time where interested in the West Suriname plan, and at that time Prosur co-developed this plan for the government. In the 80´s and 90´s, they had problems surviving because the founders of Prosur at that time, had difficulty adopting to the new situation. So Prosur went from a company of about forty people to a company of two people. That was the situation when I returned to Suriname. The founder wanted to discontinue the company, actually, but then a friend informed me that the company was up for sale so I approached the owner and we talked. Actually, he did remember me as a young boy and one of the friends of his children and told me that at least I had courage to come back to Suriname. He told me that if I want to continue the firm, he would be glad that Prosur could succeed. For me at that time it was important that Prosur, although small had a reliable name and I think it was the best deal I ever made to date.

I started with the company in 2001. At the time of my return in 1997 I had worked on the Wijdenbosch Bridge, so the 2001 new coalition government didn’t like Prosur too much, and I started to work for the private sector and multinationals like BHP Billiton, Alcoa/Suralco and later on Staatsolie. The coincidence was that one of the biggest projects for BHP Billiton was the West-Suriname Project again, which again was discontinued later on. Prosur with the old founders in 1977 didn’t continue the West-Suriname Project and, 25 years later, I was working as a consulting engineer for BHP Billiton and the West-Suriname was stopped again. That was a strange coincidence.

Regarding the development of Prosur, I think it is important how to look at the role of technology in the development of the country. I was born here, as a young boy we moved to the Netherlands, then we came back here, and later I went to high school. I went to a university in the Netherlands, and when I finished my studies I stayed in the Netherlands. I studied company law, as a second study, because I just wanted to go into management. In 1995, I was interim manager in the Netherlands for a company by appointment of a large Dutch bank. At one point I thought that I had done everything that I had to do in the Netherlands, so I decided to come back. Finding myself some room in Suriname, I saw that all my colleagues were doing asphalt roads, city roads, small bridges, and so on. I had worked in the Netherlands on heavy civil structures, so I decided not to go into a senseless competition with other companies, but to do what I’m good at. One of my advantages was that, since I had worked in the Netherlands for almost seventeen  years, I had an international CV, and international companies because of my international exposure and experience accepted me as their colleague, not just as a local engineer. I was a Surinamese engineer with an international exposure and the knowledge that development has to be supported by multi-disciplinary teams. In the new development of Prosur technology is not a goal in itself, it merely has to support development. It is just an important factor, but not the final goal..

What projects would you highlight from those you have been involved or that you have coming up?

In my work for the private sector and the multinationals, I have done a lot of enjoyable work here, but now, with the start of this new government, I decided to change the company profile of Prosur to support the development. Prosur now has established more organizational units such as an architectural unit and a transport-planning unit. Transport planning is important; we are working now on a new road circulation plan for Paramaribo and other projects of this kind.
We are the civil engineering firm for the government for the Carolina Bridge. We are also working on large interior road projects for the government, for instance the new east-west connection within the IIRSA project. In this IRSA project a road plan is developed to connect the Guyana’s with each other by a road sytem. We have just finished the plans for the renovation of the Presidential Palace, and this renovation will start early next year.

Important to mention that as a result we will be more involved in multi disciplinary feasibility studies. In the meantime, we are doing some other projects. For instance, we received a request to develop a vocational school, as well… That’s Prosur.

Looking at the bigger picture, the government has large and smaller projects to implement.
As a country however, we lack experience with international codes and standards and project management for larger scale projects, and we have to improve in that aspect.  Having worked in a developed country for over fifteen years in large projects has given me an advantage as regards large projects flows over others who lack that exposure. I like to use that knowledge within our company to support the process of capacity building in Suriname
So summarizing, we have a lot of possibilities in Suriname, but we have to watch our own development and growth and go step by step. We have to take the right steps at the right time, although sometimes we’ll have to jump, but that’s no problem. Now this government has a better sense of what we can reach within two to four years. I’m very happy with what the President is aiming at with the negotiations in the gold sector to get a better income for the country. He is very involved in making sure that the income for Suriname from the gold sector will be bigger. The bottom line of his approach towards our national reserves is that the share of Suriname has to become more realistic. If Suriname has more income, then it can start developing in a for us, sustainable way. I see that the government has a broader vision now, it’s developing realistic plans in the meantime, and the President is involved in realizing these plans.

You mentioned that you’re in the process of changing the company profile. What can you tell us about your plans?

It has to do with my own development and education. I finished university as a civil engineer, and I thought being a civil engineering was the most important job you could have. Civil engineers build the country; they build the roads, and so on. Then I started studying law, and it was an eye opener that most if not all civil companies in the Netherlands were lead by economists or technical guys that studied economics or some law. When I came to Suriname, I saw that my colleagues still were civil engineers, and I wasn’t just a civil engineer anymore. Civil engineering must support the development, but it’s not the development per se. So I changed the company profile, adding more departments – that was easy – but the most relevant change was our vision. We are looking now where we can support the development; our thinking has become more multidisciplinary. We have expanded our vision.

Working on large scale or multidisciplinary projects means that you support team work. Those projects cannot be developed by for instance a strictly civil approach or architectural one. Based on the company expertise you will have to play a role in minor or major teams that lead such projects.

Economic and financial engineering always plays a major role in such developments. In the past we have worked on some feasibility studies also for development Banks. In the next coming years Prosur likes to put more efforts in such, next to our involvement in strictly engineering projects.

On the other hand we also have to look at the Surinamese reality and see where we can support. As an example, we have a good number of dropouts in Suriname, young boys and girls of 14-15 years. Their situation is often one with lots of problems, and our school system is very basic Dutch. You have to go for four years, and if somebody drops out, he will have to do these four years again. So, when the government came with the idea to set up vocational schools with curricula for one to two years, to get those drop outs and give them practical education so they have a diploma and can be hired as skilled laborers, we fully supported the idea. We have done some studies and a development plan for such a vocational school was presented last month to the government. We dedicate 20% of our time to develop these kinds of plans as an incentive in the startup phase to support the economy, which is also our investment to Suriname’s development.

That’s what I mean when I talk about changing our company profile. We have expertise in engineering, we have knowledge about architecture, we are knowledgeable about transport planning, and we are looking at  how to combine this expertise, knowledge, skills and experience with other disciplines to support the economy.

You mentioned a lot of projects for the government, but what is your approach towards the private sector?

Working as a contractor for multi nationals, I worked together with large EPMC contractors. I still have a relationship with European companies for backstopping, and that’s why for instance we can do soil investigations at a very high international level. We also cooperate with foreign architects, and we do projects together, as well.

As I said before the past ten years we have worked mainly for the private sector. The multinationals, large Surinamese companies such as Staatsolie or parastatal companies like N.V. Havenbeheer. For this last company we developed a renovation plan funded by the Islamic Development Bank from the feasibility study until the construction of the works for the renovation of the Nickerie Harbor.

The government then was not really involved in large-scale projects. The new government has set another approach in taking action in developing infrastructural projects. We support the government in the plans.

As I said before it is very important that we join forces. Government and private sector have to work closely together to reinforce each other and for greater Surinamese executing capacity for projects. That will  support development for our country. 

How would you evaluate the possibility of establishing relations or joint ventures with foreign direct investors?

I’m very open-minded because I work with foreign companies. I like to travel and look at the way e.g. the Americans or Asian countries are organized in their economy, how the Dutch are organized in their economy. So I’m very open to foreign influences, but I’m not open for companies who are just looking for a local guy to do some post office work for them and that sort of thing. If the Surinamese company has to construct a road for you, basically we will and can design that road, and then it is unacceptable that the Surinamese company is sent away with 10% of the budget while we have to do everything.

Suriname has to have an international oriented development, and therefore we have to be open to the right influences, the right companies, and the right investors. If I take the Chinese as an example, they are very open. You can come to their country and do everything, but the moment you come, they will ask what will be the benefit for them, and the benefit they value is not always money, it can be learning and development, too. We can learn from that. We can look at the benefits for us when foreign investors come in, not in the sense of money, but in the sense of development, knowledge and know-how transfer. That’s what we have to look for if we talk about capacity building of Suriname. Win-win situations.

What final message would you send to the international community about your country?

I can use a lot of special words, but the reality is that this is an open and friendly country, which is growing and which is getting a better awareness of itself and of the international community they operate in. When a child is growing and is 16, he is a strong man, but he will jump around and do a lot of crazy things. When he is 18, he will start looking to the world and to his own position in the world. When he is 21, he will know what his position is. Suriname is now like a 19 year old; we’re always friendly, looking around, never arrogant and working on its position in this world. 

What final message would you send to all the potential partners and the international community about Prosur?

I think that in the last ten years we have worked in a silent but dedicated way. We are dedicated to our clients and to our projects. We always tend to our responsibilities, and that’s the message for our investors: that Prosur wants to be and is known as a reliable company, reliable for investors, for our own people, and for our economy. If we from Prosur say to somebody that we will do something, we will do it. If we cannot do it, we would just say that we cannot do it, or that we can do it but in cooperation with a partner because it’s too big or complicated for Prosur alone. Reliability and quality is important for us. A good example is the resort in Bergendal. Although problematic at one point for Kersten I told them Prosur could do it for them. However, we would need a good architect and a good contractor. We built it from design to the end in 18 months, and there was nothing there, just bush. We built the roads to go to the interior and we built all the lodges, everything in one year. That’s what I mean with reliability, if you say that you’ll do something, you have to know that you can, and just do it.