In this ongoing series of articles we profile some of South Africa’s most modern and progressive SMEs and reflect upon their secrets to success. The companies we feature are drawn from a diverse range of industries across the country. But they all have one thing in common: the use of technology in smart, unique and original ways to make for smarter business strategies.
Cleaning Up in Cleantech
Today we speak to Lindy Taylor, Business Development Manager at AltGen, to discuss the company’s singular story from start-up to success.
TLDR: The AltGen formula for success: Adapt; evolve; grow; diversify; focus on people, partnerships and life-cycles; embrace technology.
Founded in 1997 as a traditional recruitment company, in 2012 AltGen made a strategic pivot to focus on the renewable energy market and hasn’t looked back since.
Today, the company’s full-cycle offering encompasses the complementary divisions comprising the three stages of job creation in the energy space: Recruitment, Employment Services and Workforce Management.
AltGen has evolved into Africa’s renewable energy and environmental recruitment leader with offices located in Nairobi, Kenya; Ebène Cybercity, Mauritius and Cape Town, South Africa.
1. The Only Constant Is Change
‘Our vision is job-creation in the renewable energy space and the acceleration of access to energy across Africa and beyond,’ says Taylor of AltGen’s broad strategic focus.
The sea change that prompted the commitment to this direction was the 2012 introduction of the Renewable Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPP). The programme is aimed at bringing additional megawatts onto the country’s electricity system through private sector investment in solar, wind, biomass and small hydro, among others, in South Africa.
‘AltGen founders Sean and Priscilla Gibson saw an opportunity to leverage this new industry,’ explains Taylor of the company’s foresight which enabled it to secure pole position in the rapidly emerging renewables market. This positioning saw it quickly diversifying from recruitment into HR consulting, skills development, employment services, workforce management and social entrepreneurship.
2. To Boldly Grow
Taylor goes on to explain how meeting certain needs of clients quickly precipitated the need for AltGen to develop core competencies in other areas. ‘We act as the intermediary between companies wanting to open in African countries and the countries themselves, each of which has its own complex set of local laws, customs and practices,’ she says.
‘We source specialists such as business developers with intimate experience with those markets,’ Taylor continues. ‘We put them on the payroll and administer all the HR required so our client can begin to operate as seamlessly as possible. When they’re ready to open their own offices and employ their own HR teams, we simply hand over the employment relationship with those staff members.’
The interdependence between recruitment, HR consulting, workforce management, job and salary benchmarking analysis and skills development saw AltGen naturally develop positive feedback loops which resulted in expert proficiency in all these areas. As Taylor puts it: ‘From our experience in consulting, we understood what skills were needed; what the scarce skills were; what local salary scales were like and how the changes in industry that impact what people study were. We feed these insights back into our clients which in turn feeds back into our employment strategies. Ultimately, this process has evolved in the holistic offering that we now have which covers the entire job-creation life cycle.’
3. Building an Industry Ecosystem
Providing a further catalyst for AltGen’s expansion into other areas of specialisation are the criteria of the REIPPP itself. ‘A major component of the REIPPP is that of Economic Development,’ says Taylor. ‘In order to bid on big solar or wind projects, companies are required to employ members of the local community. The challenge there is that you might win the bid but then you need to employ people who are not necessarily trained or work ready to be on site because they lack the necessary education and skills.’
‘This is where the O&M (operations and management) aspects of the project become crucial,’ she continues. ‘We make these unskilled individuals employable by training them in basic workplace soft skills along with upskilling through technical or administrative training. We also initiate community food gardens which successfully utilise the surplus labour from the projects to reduce the community’s cost of living and generate savings which can be used to send their kids to school and provide basic support to their families.
‘Once these workers have developed their skills sufficiently to work on the renewable energy plants of our clients, we give them further basic training to undertake mechanical and electrical work so they in effect become semi-skilled workers in the renewable energy sector,’ says Taylor.
‘We put them through training programmes and the SETAs (Sector Education and Training Authorities, the vocational skills training organisation in South Africa) where we can. We always need new staff so we’re very happy when they get employed full-time because that means we can feed more staff into the programme. And so, the cycle continues to reinforce itself,’ she concludes.
4. The Art of Partnership
On the subject of how AltGen differentiates itself in a competitive industry, Taylor does not hesitate before answering. ‘Essentially, we’re all about people,’ she says. ‘Our biggest point of difference is that we’re very personable and prioritise building relationships over providing services and meeting targets. The success of any project or company is in essence the people behind it.’
Speaking of people, another key strength of AltGen is their ability to forge partnerships not just with their stakeholders but with other role-players in the industry. ‘If there’s a really interesting bid of a highly technical nature which we know we can’t do personally, we formulate teams with partners in industry to form a team that can bid,’ says Taylor.
A case in point is the green minigrid facility in Kenya where AltGen has a Supervisory Consultant that ensures everything is running smoothly in this € 15 million project aimed at establishing 150 000 electricity connections to rural Kenyans. Also in Kenya is the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project for which AltGen formulated the entire HR advisory team for the construction of the plant and onboarded all the required skills.
‘Never Stop Networking’
This is the immediate first response from Taylor when asked what advice she has for other success-minded SMEs in South Africa. ‘It’s how you are able to obtain crucial information and facilitate partnerships. It’s how you remain abreast of new technologies, adopt them and adapt to them,’ she says.
Another fundamental according to Taylor is that ‘we embrace tech in a big way by adopting the latest systems and analytics that are relevant to us. In this respect Voys has played a crucial role. Being able to self-manage our business communications has streamlined the process while call recording has been a game-changer. Because we do a lot of references and online training, having recourse to these recordings has been invaluable,’ she says.
‘In turn,’ she concludes, ‘this meshes very well with the ATS (Application Tracking System) we’ve adopted so we can shortlist more effectively, and our searches and results are much quicker.’
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