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The Bill Gates of Africa

Updated Thursday, 21st February 2013

Herman Chinery-Hesse, co-founder of the Ghanian software company theSOFTtribe, discusses software development in Africa.

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Talking to Dr Leslie Budd, Herman Chinery-Hesse discusses software development in Africa:

  • You have been described as the Bill Gates of Africa. Do you consider this a compliment or a curse in creating great expectations of you?
  • It’s been argued that being a commodity economy is often a curse for development as it can bring economic and political distortions. I wonder what your view is, given many African economies are rich in natural resources?
  • Finally, you have said that if Africa missed the current global IT boat, there may not be another chance for significant wealth creation. In what ways this vessel be made fit for the purposes of development in Africa?


Herman Chinery-Hesse and Leslie Budd were talking after a recording of The Bottom Line.


Les Budd: Herman, you’ve been described as the Bill Gates of Africa. Is this a compliment or a curse?

Herman Chinery-Hesse: Oh, I don’t know, it’s flattering but I'm no Bill Gates. I'm not that rich and I'm not American, I'm not global. Just in Africa doing my best and trying to do my little piece in my little corner.

Les Budd: But the title that you're given is because of the impact of software development, which is often overlooked in people’s perception of Africa. I wondered if you could share with us something of your vision about software development and what you're actually doing.

Herman Chinery-Hesse: Okay, I do two major things, two main things. I run SOFTtribe, which is a software company. We develop software; we've done it for twenty years. And then I also latterly run another company called Black Star Line, which we've set up an African eBay and an African PayPal. Both companies, we think, have and will continue to be quite impactful on the regional economy in Africa generally. SOFTtribe, we computerised the first, in Ghana, the first supermarkets, hotels, restaurants. We brought order through technology to their accounting and management and so on, made a big difference. And travel agencies, schools, multinationals in Africa, we've done a lot of work for them too.

So we became quite significant as an entity, as a force doing that. And recently, given the proliferation of mobile phones and the advent of the internet and so on in Africa, we see even bigger opportunities. Today, our products are, a lot of them are cloud based or SMS based, and we’re having some good successes with some very interesting products, like a mobile phone based security systems for anti-armed attack systems, pay as you go insurance, scratch card based, you know, buy, scratch, text, boom, that kind of thing.

Our biggest project that we’re working on, which we’re most excited about, is our project, where we intend to bring the ordinary African merchants, as long as they have a product and a mobile phone and can receive SMS, we’re looking to bring them into the global trade area, so that they can sell their works across the world, and to promote intra Africa trade because, as we know, SMS and the internet don’t respect national boundaries. So this is the future as we see it.

Les Budd: Okay. Let’s go back to curses. It’s been argued that commodity economies are often a curse because they cause economic and political distortions. And Africa’s very rich in natural resources. So I wonder what your view is about development in Africa, trying to achieve that balance.

Herman Chinery-Hesse: Yes, I think you're right, and I think we need to be careful, we need to manage our resources well, but I think a couple of things have changed. I think today the cold war is over; a lot of the resource fights were really not local. Secondly, the emergence of China has also made a difference. At the very least we have two customers now. And then, thirdly, the world has really changed. I mean one has to be more decent now, you can't just have a coup every afternoon, it’s just not the way it is. Democracies are spreading across the Continent and I think these three things give me hope that we will manage, especially the new oil finds and so on, I suspect we’ll manage them better than we have in the past.

But let me just add this, the resource curse can be turned into a blessing quite easily and it would be a very, very good blessing, and if you look at countries like Belgium, if you ask them they’ll tell you, their development was resource led, but not their resources; Congo’s resources, not theirs. But a lot of the European countries developed on these resources. So they are good for development and they're good for bringing a better standard of living to many people, just the management, that’s all it is, and I think we’ll crack it this time.

Les Budd: Okay, and finally back to your own expertise. You stated that there’s a danger that Africa might miss the current global IT boat. I wondered what your views are on the future of adapting that vessel for better wealth creation and development in Africa.

Herman Chinery-Hesse: Okay. I think because once again the internet and mobile phone don’t have boundaries, and I think that because those technologies are affordable, and comparing the fact of a mobile phone network that can talk to anybody in the world and provide services over the mobile phone to anybody in the world, i.e. I could set up a multinational in Ghana and I can service the whole world. Before mobile phones and before the internet, to have such a business, it would mean that I own a company like Ford. I need good electricity, good water, a mature, well-educated workforce, these are things that it may be twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, before we have in Africa.

So to embark on that style of industrialisation and those kinds of products, the traditional manufacturing products, especially with China in the background mass producing and outdoing even the previous big boys in the game, it would be difficult to start building the infrastructure now and then training the people to compete in that arena. They're not going to compete with Boeing manufacturing planes. But if there’s some little software application I can write and I can sell it for $10 to two billion people in the world, well same money, or similar money, but suddenly the barriers are gone. A little PC in my house in my African village, I can actually write programmes and in that arena I can become the next Microsoft, the next Apple, may be some African boy in the bush. This is what I was talking about. Beyond this also, in terms of goods and services, the communication potential that the African bush has acquired with the advent of all these technologies, affordable, handheld mobile phones, pay as you go models, suddenly everybody has a phone. Ghana has 25 million people; we have more than 25 million phones.

So suddenly all these people can be communicated with, they can be sold to, they can do selling, even of traditional products. We have an African drum. Some rock band in Switzerland, they’ve always wanted African drums. In the past they would have to wait three years for somebody’s uncle to be flying to Ghana for a conference and happen to go to that village and having to meet the guy when the guy is not sick and he happens to have the drums ready to picked up, and then he has to organise - those kinds of things can be solved with the technologies today, and we are working on some of those solutions. And we are launching them, not just us, many other people in the space. And I think that the next eBays, the next Amazons and so on, the African versions at least will start to emerge over the next five years, and I think they’ll change the face of the continent, in terms of wealth and business and employment, and I think they will definitely blow away aid with trade.






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