It’s one of Brazil’s biggest tech hubs, but Recife’s Porto Digital (Digital Harbour) is no gleaming expanse of shiny metal and glass. Instead, this tech park of more than 200 firms is located within the city’s historical neighbourhood.
Launched with much hype in 2000, Porto Digital made headlines in the likes of Wired and Bloomberg Businessweek, a regional hub making a concerted effort to become a big noise. The big international companies have not flocked to Recife; but the hub’s steady growth, far from the wealth of Brazil’s southern cities, may be a salutary lesson for other tech centres aiming to take on major players. But after 13 years exporting products and services to the world, the hub still has to overcome a barrier no amount of high-speed internet connections can overcome: geography.
Those behind the original concept of Porto Digital knew about the challenges ahead, trying to attract new companies to a city few non-Brazilians could place on a map. It took longer than expected; the hub’s direction has changed from the original vision, partly because politicians did not believe Porto Digital would make that much of an impression in the global economy.
Even today, if a foreign company or multinational chooses to open a branch in Brazil, it will first go to southern Brazil, where much of the country’s wealth is concentrated. Compared to southern cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Recife lags behind in economic and political power. The northern region has always been poorer than southern Brazil. As the country prepares to host both the World Cup and the Olympics, the north/south divide still remains.
Evandro Curvelo Hora, director and one of the founders of Tempest, a security intelligence firm in Porto Digital, recalls how hard it was to reach new clients some years ago. "Today, it's still an issue for newcomers. We faced the same issue but eventually overcame the geographical distance [to Brazil's economic core] with our expertise,” he says.
Tempest also has branches in Sao Paulo and London and it needed them to raise its profile. "We are making business there and coding here,” says Hora.
For many tech firms in Porto Digital, opening branches in Sao Paulo is still the only way to expand. Usually, the southern branch means they are commercially viable (and available) to potential clients, who tend to be a bit distrustful of firms confined to Recife.
"Truth be told, our market is not in Recife yet, not in our northern region. It's in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and abroad. We've been sending our CEOs to Sao Paulo, indeed, but our 200 firms are developing and coding here in Recife. They are based here,” says Sergio Cavalcante, CEO of the Recife Center for Advanced Studies and Systems (Cesar), a private institution launched in 1996 that is by far the largest business in Porto Digital.
The highly skilled workforce is perhaps Porto Digital’s secret weapon. Since the '90s, the city has been regarded as one of the hubs for skilled IT professionals, in great part thanks to its computer science program at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE). But until Porto Digital came to life, many would leave the campus for Sao Paulo, or leave Brazil altogether.
Recife’s computer science department ranks among the top five in Latin America and is considered the most prolific in Brazil in terms of academic publications, postgraduate dissertations and theses. According to Brazil's Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), while the average income is amongst the lowest in the country, the northern region of Pernambuco is showing a steady increase in nominal GDP, beating other states in the past few years.