It took Paul Harrison a couple of weeks to respond to our email requesting an interview, but when he did it summed up his working life rather well. "Just back from Sierra Leone," he wrote, hastily. "Please go ahead and set it up."\nHarrison is the CIO of African Minerals, the largest company by market capitalisation on the London AIM market.\nGive it a couple of years, he says, and the group could well be looking down from the lofty heights of the FTSE 100, such is the size of the iron ore deposit the company stumbled across while exploring for diamonds.\nThe reason Harrison hadn't responded to our email earlier became clear when we did eventually speak.\nHe doesn't always have access to email. Neither does he have access to 3G networks.\nHe travels to his sites through dense jungle and speaks to his CEO via satellite phone. Life as a mining CIO in western Africa is a world away from western Europe.\n"We've gone through the exploration phase of identifying the size of the iron-ore body, and are now into construction and operations," he explains. \u201cWe\u2019re finalising the construction of a port to allow vessels to take our product to market.\u201d\nHarrison makes regular trips to Sierra Leone, known predominantly for diamond mines and civil war, via a direct BMI flight from Heathrow to Freetown.\nIt\u2019s a route which has made life marginally easier for him when establishing a brand new IT and telecoms infrastructure in a country which boasts neither.\n\u201cHad we had significantly more money to invest, I think we would have used choppers and taken it on almost as a military operation,\u201d he says. \u201cBut that was just cost restrictive from a business perspective.\u201d\nHarrison\u2019s point about the availability of cash is important. Traditionally, the mining sector looks at technology with suspicion, as a necessary cost, rather than an investment.\nWith such huge sums of money being spent in other areas (in the case of African Minerals, the port Harrison speaks of is only the first; with a deep-sea port capable of accepting much larger vessels, also planned) it\u2019s perhaps not surprising that CFOs look to save every penny they can.\nIn the mining industry, Harrison claims, IT budgets often run at a quarter of a percent of revenues, in contrast to an industry such as retail where it can reach as high as 10 per cent.\n\u201cWe\u2019re not generating revenue, that will begin to happen as the first invoice goes out at the end of November ,\u201d he says. \u201cSo, yes, there\u2019s a tremendous cost focus.\n"We don\u2019t have a blank cheque book and we are accountable to the shareholders and the markets in London who provide the funding we have. So there\u2019s a constant battle for money.\n\u201cIf you look across the business at where this money is best spent, quite clearly it\u2019s always to get product on ship. So there\u2019s quite some compromises and corners that I\u2019ve had to cut in order to get where we are.\u201d\nBut in the process of cutting corners, a pragmatic Harrison has also learned a thing or two.\nHe is a veteran of 39 different SAP deployments throughout his career, but the one he put together for African Minerals was the first in which he\u2019s \u201cbroken all the rules\u201d. It has demanded pragmatism and flexibility in order to get the system up and running in time and to budget.\n\u201cIf I was in a traditional business, I\u2019d say, \u2018let\u2019s take this nice and slowly \u2013 take a couple of years, do the design and follow proper diligence\u2019,\u201d he says.\n\u201cBut a lot of that goes out the window. You find that you have to improvise so much, doing things that you know you wouldn\u2019t do in western Europe. Interestingly, here it works.\u201d\nAs a result of that improvisation and corner cutting, Harrison has got SAP up and running\u00a0\u2014 with, he admits a few of the traditional issues \u2014 in under three months.\n\u201cIt\u2019s been a bit of a learning in that you can do SAP significantly cheaper and quicker if you\u2019re willing to cut a few corners and if everyone knows about what corners are being cut,\u201d he says.\n\nBut the deployment of a new SAP system in record time is only one of the challenges that Harrison has had to overcome.\nSierra Leone, situated on the west coast of Africa is bordered by Guinea to the north and northeast, Liberia to the southeast and the Atlantic Ocean on the west and south.\nThe region has a history of fierce civil war, plus it has a tropical climate ranging from savannah to dense rainforest and it is the latter that Harrison has had to contend with.\nBy their nature, mines tend to be situated in remote areas, meaning that linking all of the sites has been one of Harrison\u2019s major tasks.\nHe has been busily deploying microwave and VHF radio networks, as well as substantial volumes of fibre.\n\u201cIn west Africa, you have no roads and often have to go through dense forests in order to get to where your tower needs to go,\u201d he explains.\n\u201cYou\u2019ve got to build your own mobile network,\u201d he says. \u201cSo what BT and O2 did years ago, we\u2019ve had to do from scratch. Then you have to roll out an intranet, then you have to deploy SAP and then a basic Windows infrastructure. And you do all of this in nine months.\u201d\nTo add to the challenge, Sierra Leone isn\u2019t exactly a natural breeding ground for qualified Windows engineers, meaning Harrison has had to import most of the people who work on his team, although he does say that he employs as many locals as possible to try and give something back to the economy there.\nAll of the hard work will be worth it; as soon as the first consignment of iron ore is loaded onto the first ship to dock at African Minerals\u2019 brand new port.\nBecause then the cheques start rolling in and Harrison can turn his attention to getting a direct return on his substantial IT and telecoms investment.\nHaving linked previously unreachable regions of Sierra Leone with the latest telecoms and data backbone technology, it\u2019s Harrison\u2019s intention to monetise that network by becoming a wholesale provider of bandwidth, at least in the short term.\nIn time, he will investigate the potential for divesting the operation either as a joint venture or as a separate business entirely.\n\u201cUltimately, I think we\u2019d probably want to end up being a customer,\u201d he says.\nHarrison\u2019s story is by no means unique. The mining and raw materials space, especially at the more exploratory level, is often about flexibility, cost control, imagination and pragmatism.\nCIOs working in the sector have neither the luxury of time nor truckloads of cash to get the job done.\nOften, they also have to battle against a legacy of technology being treated as a cost to be reduced rather than an investment to be maximised.\nHarrison says as much, charging his peers in the industry to align themselves with the business better and speak the language of mining rather than technology; and ultimately, Harrison will run his IT team as a profit centre.\nAnd working in remote and sometimes lawless regions of the world, as many mining companies do, brings its own set of challenges.\nAs well as a liberal dose of expats and colleagues from past roles, Harrison\u2019s team has a number of ex-military. \u201cThe very nature of Sierra Leone attracts that type,\u201d he says.\nBut it\u2019s an industry that also attracts enterprising and imaginative CIOs who are happy working under conditions that some might find abhorrent.\nIn return, it\u2019s a world that can provide the type of job satisfaction rarely found in a more white-collared environment.