From the ground up
Family-run ROKO Construction is at the forefront of business developments across the East of Africa, looking to expand into new markets
Writer Emily Jarvis
Project manager Arron Rampling
With the effects of the recession still being felt across Africa, none more so than in the construction industry, rising costs, stronger regulations many companies are keeping a close eye on the bottom line. UK losses three years ago had a ripple effect on construction projects, but ROKO has groomed into a self sufficient company in the majority of construction disciplines and provides employment for an average of 1,800 people, placing great emphasis on training its technicians and craftsmen to produce an exceptionally high standard of workmanship. Materials are produced locally and from the Preferential Trade Area wherever possible, and imports are facilitated by ROKO’s association with the SAI Trading Company in Europe.
Boasting of a legacy spanning forty five years in the construction arena, ROKO has from inception, nurtured the brand into one of exceptional construction benchmarked on the quality of their works that speaks for itself. The co founders, Rohrer and Koehler, with a vision to set up in Africa and use Uganda as the spring board for further growth, proceeded to register ROKO in 1969. ROKO Construction Limited, as it is known now has become a household name synonymous with quality in construction with branches in Rwanda and south Sudan. For efficiency and timely delivery, materials are manufactured locally and from the PTA area where ever possible.
Mark Koehler, Managing Director of ROKO, said that the company is in a fortunate situation and has not been adversely affected by industry pressures. Together with technical and commercial managers and fifty five qualified civil and site engineers, Rohrer and Kohler have led ROKO to the forefront of the construction industry to emerge as the principal contractor in Uganda. Uganda has now developed to be a hub for activities in neighbouring countries and ROKO has since 2001 and 2005, now heavily invested respectively in Rwanda and South Sudan.
One of their first major constructions in 1973, the Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine at Namugongo, attracts between 500,000 and 1 million pilgrims from all over the world once a year, has been inspected by the Pope and is becoming a temporary focal point for Uganda. This masterpiece in design encompasses both Modern Architecture blended with African Traditional Architecture and Form; utilizing the circular space African design and poles to enhance beauty and identity of the building. “We are very proud to have built such a culturally-important structure. This monumental construction built the foundations for securing a multitude of further business development projects for the company.”
With construction projects ranging from Bank headquarters to Airports, Hotels to Ministry Renovations, Shopping malls to Industrial Buildings and Infrastructure civil works, this industry giant has completed over 100 major projects to date. Koehler emphasised: “when you see the skyline of Kampala, most of the high-rise buildings have been built or renovated by us.”
“We have constructed Bank of Uganda Headquarters, Centenary Rural Development Bank Headquarters and the recently completed DFCU Bank building in Kampala. We are currently constructing the Juba International and Domestic Airport Terminal Building in South Sudan and expansion of the International Airport in Rwanda.”
Amongst the notable Hotel projects ROKO has constructed is Serena Kigali and Lake Kivu resort; Nyungwe ecological lodge at the Nyungwe National park, Rwanda. With the realization of diminishing world ecological endowments, it has become necessary to conserve existing resources for current and future generations. The design and construction of new tourist facilities has embraced the use of environmentally friendly, biodegradable materials, whilst maintaining high standards and causing as little disruption to the environment as possible. ROKO was the best evaluated bidder in terms of cost, and methodology to achieve the set parameters. The external works including road works and the swimming pool had to be executed by hand together with hand operated equipment to cause as little disturbance to nature as possible. “It therefore came as no surprise to us when this project won the International Hotels Awards in Association with Bloomberg Television – Best International new small Hotel Construction & Design for the year 2011.”
“We have undertaken several new office block construction contracts as well as renovations, remodelling of existing buildings to give them a modern aesthetic look. Among these is Rwenzori courts building renovations and modernization of Crested Towers building in Kampala, renovations to Ministries buildings in Juba, for the government of South Sudan.”
Among the Shopping Malls, ROKO has constructed the following in Kampala – Shoprite, game stores the shopping mall at Lugogo; Bugolobi village Mall at Bugolobi; the ultra-modern Acacia Mall at Kisimenti. “In the Industrial Buildings category we have built The Century Bottling Coca-Cola factory in Namanve and Mbarara; Nalukolongo Railways locomotive workshop.”
ROKO constructed the bases and installed the first and only earth satellite station linking Uganda tothe world in the telecommunication field at Mpooma, in the seventies. The company have undertaken and completed other infrastructural and civil projects like the Jinja National Fuel Reserve Bank in Uganda; Runway for the Goma Airport in Democratic Republic of Congo; Aeroplane parking Apron at Entebbe International Airport with associated drainage, landscaping and road works.
“We have what it takes to undertake construction projects of any magnitude and complexity within the region.”
When I asked Koehler what the key to the company’s success was, he answered: “Quality and timely delivery – res ipsa loquitur – The facts speak for themselves.”
Furthermore he stated that “In the past there were very few construction companies, and very few specialist sub contractors in our field. By providing an all-encompassing service, we greatly controlled the overhead of sub-contractors, as well as maintaining uniform professional standards which our clients can trust in. Currently, our sub contractors on our projects are measured against the quality of work performance and delivery and strict water tight measures and high penalties put in place for non – conformance to the set standards that we at ROKO subscribe to.”
ROKO is the first construction company in Uganda and amongst the first in East Africa to receive the internationally recognised ISO 9001:2008 certification. “This solution gives clients assurance of quality workmanship.” He adds: “we are the number one contractor in the building sector. That is the norm and no one argues that.”
The company has a range of projects that have been successful as a result of this method. One of the most notable mentions is the Kigali Serena Hotel renovation in 2008 – 2009. The sheer volume of materials and fabric required to complete the project within a record one year, presented a challenge which ROKO took in their stride as they have an in-house logistics department that liaises with the suppliers, shippers and customs to facilitate smooth delivery of their requirements on a timely basis.
At the successful completion of the project while others marvel at the beauty of the building, the ROKO team look at a review of the process and discuss the lessons learnt to enable them execute the next project successfully by building on their strengths and navigating around their weak points to make them strong points.
In addition to awards, the company employs 98% of its staff locally which not only benefits the community but also the economy as ROKO offer long term employment. “We try and keep our staff, we employ them and train them – some have been with us for the 35 years we have been in operation,” he added: “It’s working out and we try to promote the local component with much success.”
I asked Mr Koehler if he had seen a shift in the areas he is working in and why. He said: “Whereas we continue to grow in Uganda, due to our reputation and impressive track record, we have been approached by neighbouring governments and clients. This not only presented new opportunities but also new markets for us to venture into. The fact that these new markets are usually less competitive, they offer room for us to grow our brand internationally.”
With the advent of increased competition, one area that ROKO have consistently placed emphasis on is the training of our human resource and creating a friendly and rewarding working atmosphere for our staff, in order to maintain their number one spot as a company that provides quality finishes. Competition leads to a lot of movement in construction artisan staff in search of better employment conditions. “To this end, we have been able to maintain our staff by being ahead of the competition in regard to staff welfare.”
“We have to adapt to new changes in construction methods and materials to provide the quality to the ever changing demand and taste of the developers, these come with necessity to train our personnel.”
As for company growth, the business has seen an average increase of 15% per year and, coupled with many new projects in the pipeline, things look good. “We are always open to expanding into new markets. We are always welcoming new projects around the region.”
During his interview, Mr Koehler discussed one of the biggest challenges his company faces. “The biggest challenge is always to have enough work and be able to maintain your staff. If you have no work, you cannot operate in construction. We have to monitor our costs, it is a constant challenge.” Further challenges include delay in payments for work done, the high cost of funding and the fluctuation in prices and exchange rates although the latter seems to have stabilized in the last year.
When it comes to expansion, Mr Koehler is optimistic about the future: “Part of our expansion policy is investing; we want to stay as the number one contractor. Not only is the company playing the market smart, they are investing in new places to manufacture materials. “we are investing a lot into a new plant in Rwanda; $750,000 is going towards a new batching (concrete) plant.”
Mr Koehler has an open approach to future projects, emphasising that ROKO’s philosophy of a perfect balance of quality over price: “Nobody chooses us because we are the lowest in price; our pricing is competitive for the quality.” Koehler concluded the interview with us by surmising what the long term future holds: “we will continue to look at new markets where the competition may be lower.”