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Brimming with vision, passion, determination and intellect, Stephen Larkin is the quintessential picture of an entrepreneur. An afternoon in Stephen’s company is an intense experience that takes you through a whirlwind of figures, statistics,high-octane intellectuals and sure sense of someone who is destined for great success.

Image Stephen is the Managing Director of Acqumine, an industrial IT corporate solutions provider. He is also a South African who chose to return home from a life in London 2 years ago to help a friend with an IT business.

Describing himself as ‘a jaded 30-something’, Stephen graduated in Economics and went on to work as a Financial Analyst. An accountant by training, he went to the UK and gained international experience with Unilever and British Airways. He later joined General Electric where he took the opportunity to develop some of his many business intelligence ideas, providing his employer with huge cost savings as a result.


Stephen’s business partner, Acqumine’s COO Fuzi, is by contrast, a creative personality with a pragmatic edge, turning concepts into action and – in her words – ‘getting things done’. A graduate of Cape Town University, Fuzi left South Africa for London at Stephen’s instigation, only returning after 7 years in 2006 to work with him in implementing the Acqumine vision.

The early days of self-employment were stressful and difficult for Stephen and he is keen to emphasise when talking to me “the incredible amount of blood/sweat/tears needed to make a business venture work”. In June, the company moved to new premises and adopted a new business structure, alongside a team of partners and advisors with an impressive range of business and intellectual credentials. The company has developed a specialised technology, which is more about engineering than I.T. and, as Fuzi says, “This has meant that we have had to learn about new technology and new customers in a country that has changed fundamentally from what we both knew.”

Running a business is not easy and Stephen admits that the CEO role can be uncomfortable. “Doing this is not for those who want to be comfortable,” he points out. “For those who want to do something special, though, it’s the way.”

South Africa’s BBBEE (Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment) centres on a scorecard framework that requires organisations with 50 or more employees to report upon. One of the implications of BBBEE relates to a company’s procurement practices with additional points being scored for procurement from empowered companies and from small businesses. The South African Government’s empowerment strategy gives small enterprises like Acqumine excellent access to $60 billion of South African contracts.

Acqumine is the mining division of Ilali – the Xhosa word for ‘village’ – Holdings and is focused on providing technology for the mining sector that enables the huge financial investment in mining equipment to be better utilised; enabling operators to be more productive, safer and more efficient and increasing vehicle health and productivity.

Africa is the growth area for mining in the world, says Stephen. “11 of the top 15 mining companies in the world are South African, have South African operations or see it as a fast growing area. Africa is a growth area for mining in the world.”

Developing World-Class Technology

Given that they have managed to sign up the three biggest mining companies in the world in the 24 months since starting up and “cracked the biggest problem in blasting”, the reason for Stephen’s optimism is not hard to find. “This is why South Africa is so exciting,” he says. “What an opportunity for a business start-up! We have an empowering opportunity and the skills to become the laboratory for the developing world and to test leading edge technology.”

To create world-class technology, says Stephen, you need demanding customers, cash (because you are going to make mistakes) and people. “There are three types of people that you need; the brilliant graduate who doesn’t know the rules, the ’30-something’s’ who have international exposure, are bright but also understand the young ones, and a pool of mature, experienced talent. In South Africa, there is a fabulous base of talent available.”

To create a world-class company, you also need a product. “57% of coal is underground,” says Stephen. “97% of gold and 93% of platinum is underground. What we’ve developed is the world’s first economically viable broadband wireless connectivity equipment that works for up to 15 km underground. The impact that this will make on efficiency is amazing.” For the layman, what this product does is to provide a technology that is accessible and usable by the 57% of South African mineworkers who have limited literacy skills through an icon driven touch screen interface that Stephen says “transcends language and literacy.” Through Acqumine’s technology, operators will have access to software that will track productivity and align productivity and performance with reward and teamwork.

The benefits to Acqumine’s customers are significant. Mining is a notoriously dangerous industry and accidents and fatalities not only affect staff but also impact on turnover and lost production. “Safety is a cost issue. In South Africa each fatality costs US$4.5 million in lost production,” says Stephen. “In 2004 there were 244 lives lost in South African mine accidents, a cost of $1.1 billion or 6% of turnover or 3% of profit.”

Stephen describes his management team as ‘star-studded’ and a quick glance through the names and profiles proves he is not exaggerating. The team includes industry experts, development experts, top engineers with pedigrees from some of the world’s leading business schools, innovators and engineers. The team, which is based around South Africa, also includes a Mozambiquan and a Tanzanian innovation engineer. Stephen’s strength as an accountant helps him market the technology developed by this team to an industry that can fairly be described as conservative and slow to implement change.

The Role of Enterprise in South Africa

Stephen is convinced that South African skills brought back into South Africa will make a transformational difference to the country and his key frustration revolves around the need to persuade people to move away from comparing absolute salary levels with those in the West. “It has to be about looking at the natural advantages that South Africa offers and creating a system where someone is acting in their economic interest to come back home.” In the global battle of skills and the draw of countries like the USA for entrepreneurs and technicians – according to the Economist, 57% of people who go the USA stay there - South Africa has a challenge in trying to compete.

Promoting entrepreneurship is where Stephen sees the opportunity for his country. “Two-thirds of jobs created in an economy are created by new businesses,” he says. “The way we need to crack this is to create an entrepreneurial culture. We are extremely well educated in South Africa. As we go overseas and do well there, how can we create a mechanism here for people to come back?”

South Africa and Africa are in what Stephen describes as ‘an unusual macro-economic situation.’ “In 2015 the continent will be supplying about 25% of US oil which translates to $50 billion of inflow to Africa,” he says. “We need soft money to take innovative risks and we need entrepreneurs. We need great people and South Africa has one million people overseas.”

Stephen likens South Africa to a laboratory for the developing world; a place where products can be developed specifically for the developing world. Attracting back some of its technicians from overseas is critical. The informal nature of recruitment makes it even more difficult for the South African abroad. According to Stephen, 78% of jobs in South Africa are not advertised, making it difficult to identify opportunities, even through family networks. The increasing number of jobs that come under the affirmative action category reduces the pool of non-affirmative action jobs even further.

“We need an infrastructure to encourage return and entrepreneurship,” suggests Stephen. “Even those not wanting to return can help drive business here. India’s outsourcing industry has been largely led by its diaspora as a huge external marketing force.”

An Incredibly Aspirational and Optimistic Country

Creating a successful business is not an easy task and there are particular constraints that new businesses face in the African context that would not exist for entrepreneurs in the West. While he always had the vision, Stephen says he could never have predicted two years ago that he would be where is today.

Cash flow problems and threatened financial crises dogged his early years back home and his backers – former schoolmates and friends – funded his initial efforts because they believed in him. “These aren’t people who understand what you are doing, but trust you to do it,” he says.

When I ask Stephen if he had ever looked back, he replies without hesitation, “yes - big time!” That said, Stephen is looking firmly forward and over the hurdles. The work that Acqumine is doing is, he says, “the crown jewel for Africa and I can’t afford to let it fail.”

The business has now been restructured and, with Fuzi and other Black South African expertise, the company is now empowered. The Acqumine story could not work without her – an illustration of the new South African story. “The person who is largely making it happen is a charismatic Black woman,” says Stephen.

With entrepreneurs like Stephen Larkin, South Africa’s potential is unlimited. For, as Stephen says, “South Africa is an incredibly aspirational and optimistic country with people who have a plan to make it better. The future looks bright.”

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