Fiji’s road systems have undergone a metamorphosis in recent years to emerge as a shining beacon of what is possible when international contractors work closely with local suppliers.
So much so that the investment in roads emerged as a key reason for Fijians to vote for the government in the 2014 election.
However, the path to get to this point, was not an easy one. Prior to reform in January 2012, there were 15 bodies responsible for Fiji’s roads. It was then that the Department of National Roads (DNR) was dissolved and the Fiji Roads Authority (FRA) was established.
Kiwi Neil Cook was enlisted from Wairoa District Council in New Zealand to take on the challenging role as CEO of the new FRA – not an easy task in a place where roads were viewed as a powerful political tool.
Cook joined the masterminds behind the Fiji Road Authority (FRA) this afternoon at IPWEA’s conference in Rotorua to recount their experiences and learnings from their time in Fiji.
Taking the helm, Cook opened and closed the session, which also included presentations from contractors MWH Global, Fulton Hogan Hiways and Higgins Group, as well as local Fijian contractors Hot Springs and Fair Deal.
Amongst the many challenges the team faced were lack of skills, equipment and corruption – they relayed stories of former DNR workers trying to claim equipment even after the DNR has been officially closed down and the equipment bought by the FRA.
From the outset, the scope of the project was not even fully understood as DNR figures proved to be incorrect in tallying the amount of assets on Fiji.
Fiji Roads Authority estimated vs. actual assets
Estimated: 2500km of roads plus a few thousand
Actual: 11,000km+ of roads
Estimated: 800 bridges
Actual: 1000+ bridges
Estimated: 10 jetties
Actual: 50+ jetties
Other challenges include the recruitment and training of a skilled contractor workforce from within the country. Add to this the fact that the majority of local workers who came to work on the project were formally employed by the DNR and were wary of the expats coming in and taking over and it is clear the challenges were many.
“Ninety-five per cent of those people [we employed] were unskilled and less than half of them wore boots,” said Ray Edwards, Maintenance Manager at Higgins Group. Who gave his team the difficult task of kitting out the locals in new boots in sizes up to 16!
He told delegates that his team offered his workers training days at the weekends to get up to standard and encouraged those who showed a natural ability for the work. These workers are now trained to comply with the safety and quality standards required in the developed world – and rival their counterparts’ work in many cases.
Cook tipped his hat to the Fijian government for taking the “very courageous decision to go out and get help” from overseas back in 2009. In particular, he credited the outgoing Minister who oversaw the project and courageously backed the project from its infancy.
“It’s testament to our Minister that we weathered the storm.”
Coming to the end of his three-year contract, Cook reflected on the profound impact the project has had on the lives of everyone involved.
“We do not understand in New Zealand just how fundamental a road network is to our lives,” he said, adding that the FRA has now built what it set out to build, but is still tackling some supply chain issues.
“We can now see the top of the mountain from where we are.”