Ghanaian entrepreneur, Herman Kojo Chinery-Hesse co-founded SOFTtribe Limited, one of West Africa’s leading software companies about 19 years ago. Chinery-Hesse is the only African winner of the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Texas State Alumni Association and Texas State University.
Chinery-Hesse, popularly known as the ‘Bill Gates of Africa’ was a keynote speaker at last week’s Tech4 Africa, a two-day mobile, web and emerging technology conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa.
ITNewsAfrica conducted a Q&A interview with Chinery-Hesse, to understand the challenges faced by software entrepreneurs across Africa.
Why did you pursue a career in software engineering?
I didn’t have a choice, I wanted to live in Africa and own a business. I studied manufacturing to be able to work in Africa and I had no money but I had a personal computer (PC).
I realised that a PC will be a machine, a factory that could make software, so I ended up in manufacturing software. It is fun and very creative. It is lucrative for our part of the world, in our place and time.
Is Ghana currently driven by technology innovation?
Not completely. There’s a bit of disconnect between the government and the technology companies but I think it will cure itself soon.
Is it challenging to build and own a thriving technology company in Africa?
It’s challenging, the business environment is very rough. People don’t have money. In most cases the government does not buy from local companies. The policies are also riding behind the technology. The technologies are ahead of the policy. In lots of cases it is difficult. We don’t get a lot of support we need. We will fight it out and make it work regardless of the challenges.
What makes Africa’s business environment different from other global markets?
We are a developing world with infrastructure deficits. The Internet is slow, the mobile phone features are different, people’s education levels are different.
If you are moving goods around, for example on ShopAfrica.com, logistics becomes a problem. Some places have no roads although they have good products.
These are some standard African business problems that are gradually fading away. I’m excited about what is happening in the African continent. There’s SMS and mobile phones, therefore 90% of the village population who could not have access before are now suddenly a market we can tap into and I think that’s a great opportunity.
How do you overcome Africa’s business challenges?
You have to hustle. SMS messaging does not have that problem. We can always send SMS information to the villages and get communication and orders. There are now sophisticated payment systems that are coming up including M-PESA.
There’s a new wave that is coming which is very light in technology, which rides on the infrastructure that already exists in Africa. On the basis of that, we will make progress. It will happen. I didn’t come into Africa to waste my time.
What advice can you offer future technology entrepreneurs?
They should persevere and come up with solutions that work in Africa. They will be the world’s experts on those solutions. You can’t take a system from the other continents and dump it in Africa, it will never work – it will be too expensive and in a lot of cases it will fail. There is a great opportunity to create Africa friendly ‘tropically tolerant’ software and technology that works in this environment. It is an area of specialisation which will come into value.
What about potential entrepreneurs that lack sufficient skills?
They must make an effort to learn like we all did. I studied engineering. Programming is a hobby. I have never been to a programming class. It is all self-taught through trial and error. The current generation has the Internet. They must practice. It is completely achievable.