The man dubbed the “Bill Gates of Ghana” promotes technology as the only way for Africa to become prosperous, and professes a strong faith in the ability of African people to tackle their own issues for themselves. In doing so, he has stolen the lion’s share of the Ghanaian software market.
Born in Ireland, educated in the US, and having worked in the UK for a number of years, Herman Chinery-Hesse moved to his native Ghana in 1990 determined to fulfil his dream of being an entrepreneur. Not content with what he perceived as the life and opportunities of a “second class citizen” in Europe and the US, Chinery-Hesse embarked on the so-far unheard of concept of launching a software development company in Ghana.
Two decades later, he is now the much-acclaimed founder and chairman of SOFTtribe, Ghana’s leading software development agency.
A prolific public speaker – having been called on to present at the Universities of Harvard, Cambridge and Ghana – Chinery-Hesse believes that the only way that Africa will develop its economy is by clever Africans seizing upon the potential presented by the spread of mobile and internet technologies.
He notes that while Africa may not be up to speed in terms of infrastructure and distribution, the human resources are more than sufficient to enable home-grown development.
“Technology is the only way for Africa to get rich. We don’t have proper infrastructure and we can’t compete in manufacturing. But if you put me behind a PC and tell me to write software for a Chinese customer, then I can compete brain for brain with anyone trying to do the same thing in the US,” he says.
Chinery-Hesse calls on Africans to use mobile technologies efficiently, in order to harness the communications power that such technologies bring to a 31.2 million square kilometre continent, which plays home to 1 billion people who often lack transport connections – and thus increasingly rely on their mobile devices for connection. He notes that entrepreneurs are ideally placed to pick up on consumer needs that are currently begging for attention, unfulfilled due to the hitherto absence of contact with rural areas.
“Our rural populations were in a black hole… You couldn’t speak to them,” he says. “You had to go on a screwed-up road and cross a river and so on but today they all have mobile phones. Suddenly they’re part of a mobile community and that’s 50% of our population.”
“It’s boom time, you can sell them all kinds of things from shoes to cement to building materials… it’s made things efficient. Even if you have to drive to the village, you don’t go there blind; you make sure Kofi is home first.”
He also promotes the role of the internet in the African development process as the continent’s governments push to increase Internet penetration and computer literacy across schools, and amongst the wider population. He points out “some [members of the population] have internet and suddenly people are getting educated online, trading online, and this is the future.”
But perhaps what Chinery-Hesse feels most strongly about is that Africans should be the ones to fuel the growth of the continent.
He explains: “Only Africans can develop Africa. I don’t know of any country in the world, once again, where a bunch of foreigners came and developed the country. I don’t know one: Japan? Korea? No! No country did that. The U.S. was not developed by Nigerians. I don’t know where that formula is coming from; there’s no precedent… We have to sink or swim ourselves. And Africa can!”
It is this exuberant sense of determination that has allowed CHinery-Hesse to achieve such global success and recognition – having started SOFTtribe from a bedroom in his parents’ Accra-based house, before graduating on to the garage. Developing software relevant to the African market, SOFTtribe has revolutionised and invigorated the African software development sector.
The company now provides services to over 250 highly-reputed customers including Guinness, Nestle, Unilever and the Ford Foundation, is a Microsoft development partner, and widely acknowledged as Ghana’s go-to company for business management software services.
Chinery-Hessehas received global recognition and has received numerous awards, including a Millennium Excellence Award for IT in 2005 (his second nomination for the award); and has also been recognised as an Outstanding Ghanaian Professional by UK-based GPA Awards. Chinery-Hesse was also the first – and currently remains the only – African to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Texas State Alumni Association and Texas State University-San Marcos (USA).