Man on a Mission

Mr. Rockson Kwesi Dogbegah, Founder and Board Chairman of Berock Ventures Limited, has tenaciously worked his way up the jagged terrain of Ghana’s construction industry.

“It has not been easy, having to work with the regulators’ side; the demand side with clients; and supply side as well, having to manage the supply chain in an industry fraught with numerous bottlenecks.”

All those have conspired to turn Dogbegah into a crusader; a man with a mission to clean up the mess and help bring out the best in every player.

“So for the past three years that’s what I’ve been engaged in, making sure that the industry is sanitised;  I have been speaking about excellence, speaking about quality, about the need to inculcate the spirit of professionalism in Ghanaians, the need to have the right attitudes.

But while he doesn’t consciously flaunt it, it is an aura more difficult to miss than to sense; the calm self-confidence that Mr. Dogbegah exudes. Perhaps it is a quality birthed by success, but there is no denying that the pleasant conversationalist is passionate about doing things right and that could be the bedrock of his achievement in establishing and running one of Ghana’s foremost indigenous construction firms.

“I feel so sad when I see things go wrong; so for the past three years I have devoted my time to industry development issues and I want to do this for five years,” says Dogbegah, talking about his advocacy for professionalism in Ghana’s poorly regulated and corruption prone construction sector.

Two main things he longs to happen soon – to help sanitise and grow the construction sector – are the establishment of a construction industry development board, as a body to deal with the myriad of regulatory frustrations confronting industry players and secondly, the effective tackling of occasional shady deals in the award of contracts, which ostensibly leads to compromising quality in the delivery of projects.

These may seem rather lofty longings in Ghana’s context, but following Dogbegah’s achievements from rather humble beginnings, he can be taken seriously when he says, “despite the industry being in a terrible situation we’re still hopeful that there will be progress.”

“The idea about setting up a construction company started some 20 years ago while I was in the Volta Region, in Ho specifically, where I grew up. Around that time, the wealthy and most influential people were contractors. So that was the attraction.

Despite parental objections to his choice of profession, he determinedly followed his passion to go into the construction industry.

“My mother wanted me to be a medical doctor but I said no. One of the first major construction jobs I had, apart from KVIPs and other minor jobs, was a two-bedroom teachers’ bungalow. I got that job based on my mother’s reputation as a successful industrious person, who, it was assumed, would bankroll my project.

“Because of her opposition to my choice of profession, not only did she tell those who awarded me the contract to take it back because I was incapable of delivering but she further informed all other acquaintances that I subsequently approached for funding about her discomfort with my involvement in the project and discouraged them from supporting me with funds.

“The man has no shovel, no pick axe; he will disgrace the family with this sort of thing,” Dogbegah recollects, with a hearty laugh, about his mother’s admonishment to his potential financiers.

He however managed to successfully talk the District Chief Executive Officer into “allowing me to do the job, which I did but not without enormous challenges.”

“Through that I learned an early lesson in perseverance. I loaned all the materials I used for the project, some on the basis that when the project was complete I would pay for it at the existing price and would add an interest. That was how I executed my first major job successfully, but of course with only a slim profit margin,” Dogbegah recalled.

The second major project was however not only energy-sapping but a financial flop. He recalls that at the time there was no procurement law and securing the contract was by interview. “And here was I competing against older, experienced people with more financial muscles.

“I was successful at the interview, got part of the job and executed it; but this time at a heavy loss. The project was heavily under priced. Of the nine of us that won the contract to build a three unit classroom block, I was the only one able to complete mine. But it was because I was determined to make a point that I could do the job, since most people were pessimistic about my ability to deliver,” he explained.

“The site of the project itself was not easily accessible, but it also taught me a critical lesson; that was when I learned double handling.”

Reminiscing those early times Dogbegah says “We went through it as a result of my resilience, perseverance, will power and strong desire to succeed. We have kept the spirit up and made sure that we’re driven by the desire to deliver quality through professionalism and those are the key qualities that occupy my thoughts all the time.

“So for me to succeed as a business person it’s all about knowing what I wanted; that is, to be a very successful contractor, not just an ordinary contractor but the best in Ghana,“ Dogbegah says with a whiff of pride.

Obviously a classic case of perseverance eventually paying off, Dogbegah has grown Berock into a leading multi-million dollar construction firm.

Twenty years down the line, Berock Ventures Limited has truly grown by all standards, employing about 1,000 Ghanaian workers in the building industry, of whom about 250 are built environment professionals.

Berock is in almost all the 10 regions of Ghana with projects running in Accra, the Ashanti Region, specifically, three projects at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST), Kumasi Polytechnic, as well as Sunyani Polytechnic. It also has just secured a contract worth US$10 million to rehabilitate the Bolgatanga Hospital.

Its Accra projects include the seven-storey Ghana Civil Aviation Authority Training facility, in which Berock was the only Ghanaian company that entered a bid among several international companies, and the 15-storey Shippers Authority facility, which incidentally is the company’s biggest project yet. It also did a huge project for the University of Ghana, which is a four-storey, 1,800 bed capacity hostel; a six-storey block for Accra Polytechnic, and another six-storey going for TDC, which is a shopping mall. Yet another project in Accra is the ICT Park, which is one of the new and major projects for Ghana in the world of ICT.

“In dollar terms, our biggest projects include the Legon project, the Dr. Hilla Liman Hostel. Its total value in current estimates would be about US$ 7.6 million. The multi-purpose office building for Ghana Shippers Authority is approximately US$11.2million and the ICT Park Project US$11 million. But for the year, the total value of projects we’re doing now is in excess of US$60 million,” Dogbegah disclosed.

But he is quick to add that it has not all been rosy.

We have made much progress but that doesn’t mean we haven’t ever failed. We failed in a European Union project up in the North for which we had to pay litigated damages of about GHS100,000. The project was delayed; we had one supplier from Britain who messed us up. That was one of the bitter lessons learnt.

There have been ups and downs but it is about keeping at it and staying focused,” Dogbegah says, noting that most of challenges confronting contractors, which cause them to deliver substandard buildings, are generally not of their own making but due to the weak regulatory environment that is characterised by endemic corruption and compounded by the Ghanaian’s unhealthy attitude towards time and quality.

Here in Ghana we don’t even have trades people. In some cases we’ve had to go and get them from Togo. We don’t have Ghanaian fine hands. To be able to do fine finishes with ceilings and tiling, for instance, we’ve had to go and bring in tradesmen from Togo.

“Unfortunately there is no strategic agenda to grow the sector by government. And this is something, if not done, will very soon mean we have to outsource the construction service, because we can’t get the trades people; we have to spend a lot of money training these people every time we engage them.” Dogbegah laments.

“These are some of the things that the industry development board, when established will deal with.

Another will be to ensure that contractors are properly registered; not only for the government sector but also to do private sector work. Presently the system of registration of contractors covers only government sector operators.

A private person who wants to build doesn’t have a pool of contactors to fall on. Contractors currently are certified to do only government works, so there is a gap there.

“The issue about training and human resource development will also be addressed by the board. They will ensure that all the artisans are trained and licensed to work. They will make sure that contractors use the right human resource in their works.

“So also will monitoring and supervision be done by the board. They will also encourage research and development, which is one other element that is missing in our system.

“There are no research laboratories. If you take some materials that we use, like iron rods on our market, most of them are substandard,” Dogbegah said adding that the establishment of the Board “will help to regulate, grow and develop the construction industry in Ghana, so that we can give some security and confidence to the users of building services.”

He disclosed that with regards to the industry development board, much research work has been done.

“I led a delegation to Singapore and Malaysia, funded by the World Bank, to look at what they’re doing. What they have done  is to establish the Construction Industry Development Board which ensures that the construction industry is serving its intended purpose at all fronts”

He notes that Ghana has its Building Code, which is very old and  going through review.

“But beyond the building codes, we will have to have a system that ensures what the codes are complied with. Now, there is no single authority that deals with growing and developing the industry.

“What we have is a poor planning system where everyone gets up and puts a building anywhere, without regard to the provision of roads, water, electricity and other utility services. In other jurisdictions, these things are planned. In Ghana these things are not done. We have the semblance of institutions that are supposed to take care of these thing, however, they are under-resourced; they lack the capacity to deliver,” Dogbegah explained

Again, he thinks the issue about registration of contractors is killing the industry. “The process is not done well, so at the end of the day you have a lot of people who are not qualified, playing in the industry and leading to a high incidence of non-performance. The situation is impacting negatively on performance; so you have non-professionals doing what professionals are supposed to be doing and the situation is worsened by the fact that there is no regulatory supervisory environment to ensure that they play by the books. In the circumstance, you find contractors working when they haven’t got the credential to do that kind of work.

“In recent days we’ve had the case of Melcom and others; over six buildings collapsed within a year. And the fires as well; the rampant burning of markets, some think it is sabotage but it is more attributable to our poor maintenance culture, the fact that substandard materials are used, and the work also shoddily done.

But perhaps the most grievous of the construction industry’s challenges emanates from the government.

“We need governments that appreciate the contribution of the construction industry. The sector contributes significantly to the national economy. Research shows that generally the sector contributes about 10% to GDP, so then, why doesn’t it get government’s attention?

With government, it’s a challenge most of the times to get paid within a reasonable time for projects done. Government doesn’t ensure there is enough money available before the contracts are awarded. The projects are awarded on slim budget lines, making prompt payments for executed projects a problem. Most often, some of the projects are even abandoned due to a lack of funds.

“I recall working on a project at Cape Coast University, at the School of Business – a huge project that has been abandoned for almost about 10 years now. We started raising the foundation and that has been it.

“It’s a GETFund project; they couldn’t get money to continue it any longer. And we have a lot of those cases. That is one major challenge facing the construction industry.

“The impact of that is, the banks are reluctant to give us banking facilities. Contractors working on government projects are not able to secure funding from the banks, they think that if they give you money for your work, government will delay with the payment and they will not get their money in good time. Even when you’re paid, the money devalues because of the delay.

“It has become more serious, to the extent that clients, or potential clients, who know that a contractor is working for the government no longer find these contractors attractive. That is how serious it has become. So as the banks refuse to give you money, potential clients also are not willing to work with you.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Dogbegah says.

“In situations like these, it’s a big challenge to retain your labour force. We still have to talk to the banks and now we’re being selective. We are moving away from government contracts and doing only those projects that we’re sure have adequate funding.

“If it is a government project, then we want to be double sure before we go into it. As we speak now, we have a lot of money, about GHS 3.6 million, locked up with the GETFund for over two years. It is not easy maintaining staff with this sort of challenge.

“In some cases, we have had to lay off people to keep going. That is the reality we have in the construction industry. That is one of the major killers of the industry,” Dogbegah says.

With the current freeze on the award of new contracts it will be difficult for some contractors to cope.

“Businesses are going to collapse. To deal with all these, some contractors will have to bribe their way and as they do so, they reduce their margins and will therefore compromise quality to make up for the difference they give in bribes.

“Fortunately for us, we have gone beyond the need to bribe people to get jobs. What we do is to let the project speak for itself. We make sure the project adheres to specifications and standards, while also making sure we comply with the codes. We don’t compromise on quality, and that is what has kept us in business all this while,” Dogbegah revealed. He added, “We‘re very mindful of our contractual responsibilities and obligations.”

Having built a solid reputation, mainly through grit on its tough home turf, Berock has grown in confidence and venturing into new territories.

“This year we’re 20 years old and we’re not limiting ourselves to Ghana, we’re going international. We have registered in Sierra Leone and in Liberia though we haven’t started business there yet.

There is a company in South Africa too that we are looking to partner in line with our international resolve, so we hope to go international and go beyond the shores of Ghana.

But on the domestic turf too, Berock is looking to diversify into more lucrative and less stressful areas of the industry.

“Hitherto, our focus has been mainly in the institutional buildings sector but now we want to diversify to include residential real estates and road construction too.

“We will want to develop our residential real estate agenda very well and move further away from government projects.

“Our new interest in road construction is driven by the fact that that activity hasn’t got so many elements like buildings, where you are talking of nails, paint, and so many other such things. For roads, the elements are few; just about five and it is more capital intensive. If you have equipment, you’re better off doing roads than buildings.

“Road construction doesn’t give you much stress, unlike building edifices, because with that you use more equipment. There are also a lot of challenges with human resource when building edifices,” Dogbegah explained.

Obviously, Rockson Dogbegah has traversed the rough terrain of the Ghanaian construction industry to where he can now effectively advocate meaningful changes in the sector; never mind that he has only two years left of his self-imposed five-year mission. His poise signifies his dogged resolve to change his world positively.