In 1990, Ghana’s economy and politics were on the cusp of a turnaround. Dominated for years by coups and military heads of state, the West African nation was heading into an era of democratic elections and privately created wealth.
It was also the year Herman Chinery-Hesse came home to Accra, the capital, from studying in Texas. Surprising friends, he decided to stay put. He started programming software in his childhood bedroom and obtained a contract to digitize the inventory of a chicken farm for $5,000. Twenty years later, people were calling him “The Bill Gates of Ghana” (or of all of Africa, depending whom you ask).
Sort of The Bill Gates of Africa
The moniker “is quite embarrassing, actually,” he said one afternoon, speaking to AFKInsider by phone. “I don’t call myself that.”
Others do because Chinery-Hesse was among the first to see Ghana as a market and not a charity. Now he acts as the unofficial global spokesman of the country’s information and communication technology industry. He jets around like a diplomat, spreading the word.
November 8, he landed in Addis Ababa for the Africa Media Leaders Forum, where he stood on stage with Bono. “The world,” Bono said, “is waking up to how extraordinarily wealthy the continent of Africa is in terms of its people, not just its resources.” Days later, Chinery-Hesse was in London accepting a Ghana-U.K. Based Achievement award for “exceptional achievement.”
His exceptional achievement in 1991 was to build a software company in a country where, according to an exhaustive Inc. profile of Chinery-Hesse from 2008, most of the few computers in Ghana were Frankenstein or hand-me-down PCs running disk operating systems. His exceptional achievement now is that even though the tech landscape is dramatically different than it was when he started, his company, SOFTtribe, remains the industry backbone. Arguably, the same could not be said for Gates’ Microsoft.
Young entrepreneurs, toddlers when SOFTtribe was founded, hold Chinery-Hesse up as an icon or a proof of principle. Talent doesn’t have to leave for London or San Francisco. Creativity can work here.
“I think he’s a fantastic entrepreneur, and he has paved the way for many young entrepreneurs like myself to have the courage to start our own technology companies,” said Kane Mani, the 25-year-old founder and CEO of Origgin, a Ghana-based mobile app developer.
The software systems for payroll and inventory that SOFTtribe builds for businesses are still the foundation of Chinery-Hesse’s enterprise. But his gaze is elsewhere.
Identifying Ghana’s Tech Needs
Ghana has more cell phones than Australia does. In a nation of about 25 million people there are nearly 26 million mobile phones, and 1.3 million people are online, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. The tech market isn’t a few big companies in a few big cities anymore; it’s everywhere in Africa.