Reinventing Recife as Tech Harbor

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
January 2002

Thirty years ago, the sugar business was Recife’s biggest source of income. That was until São Paulo started processing its own sugar, and Recife was forced to diversify.

Recife, situated on the northeastern coast of Brazil, went through another economic boost with expanded use of its local harbor, but the recent opening of a new deepwater harbor, 40 kilometers (28.4 miles) to the south, is putting the once thriving port in jeopardy.

Now, Recife is being given a technology makeover to make it a sort of Brazilian Silicon Valley surrounded by the sea. Its goal is to lure both international and Brazilian IT companies and startups to this digital port, or DP.

Since the ’90s, Recife has been well known as a provider of skilled IT professionals, thanks to its computer science program at Federal University of Pernambuco. But graduates of the program often get hired to work abroad or in other Brazilian cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

For investors, one reason for the DP’s quick success is that Recife is the only tech cluster in northeastern Brazil, where wages are usually 30 percent lower than in the south. The state government has been setting up a venture capital fund, and investments have been received from multinationals, such as Motorola, Microsoft and Ericsson.

Microsoft recently opened a training center in Recife, the first and only one that covers the whole northern and northeastern regions of Brazil.

“As we build a formation center capable of exporting people to any company, at the same time we’re creating a facility that allows our professionals to remain working here, with reasonable wages and a much better quality of life,” said Sílvio Meira, president and founder of CESAR, the Center of Advanced and System Studies in Recife and one of the DP’s arms.

Quality of life is what made professional designer h.d. mabuse return to Recife. He had been working in São Paulo since 1996 but came back with his wife in 1999, when both decided to work at CESAR and invest in the Digital Port idea.

“Right now, I can’t think of anywhere else to work and live, especially in a growing sector like this one,” says mabuse, who’s also in the maracatu business.

Recife’s ambitious strategy depends upon help from the government and the booming IT industry in the state of Pernambuco, where Recife is the capital. Founded in October 1999, the DP project has already started changing the economic look of the harbor neighborhood.

The general tax on companies’ profits in Recife is 5 percent, but those in the DP area will pay a maximum of 3 percent. The state government is providing financial incentives to those who create projects involving tech innovation or human resources, and is also giving technological incentives to those who create high-speed access for Brazilians.

So far, 26 IT companies, including Oracle, Motorola and some research centers, have moved in or are in the process of settling in the area. About 100 companies plan to be situated there by the end of 2002.

Research by the Pernambuco Institute of Planning reveals that almost 600 local IT companies were responsible for profits of $72 million in 2001. For 2002, profits of about $223 million are forecast, according to the institute. Since 1995, the number of IT companies has been growing at an average of 10 percent each year.

“Our intention is to create a center for development, computer programming, industry and commerce,” says Cláudio Marinho, science and technology secretary for Pernambuco.

The area where the Digital Port stands has a peculiar architectural heritage (see pictures) and a long history of bohemia and war against the Dutch, who controlled the region in the 17th century until they were expelled in 1654.

When the harbor entered an economic decline and businesses left, the city gave space to a nearby favela called Favela do Pilar, a mix of disordered wooden shacks where people live in poverty. One of the DP’s objectives is to train residents of the favela in computer programming so they can provide their services to incoming companies.

With help from CDI (Committee for Democracy in Information Technology), computer schools are being established, and fiber-optic cables are being installed for broadband Internet access to all neighborhood startups.

Starting this month, the CDI’s program will include 800 people from Favela do Pilar. They will learn basic computer skills, including Windows, Word and Excel, and go through modules of English, business, administration and programming languages. At the end of the program, participants will receive an Internet Security and Accelerator Server certification from Microsoft.