By: Roger Hislop
Herman Chinery-Hesse is a funny guy that spins a great yarn. They call him the Bill Gates of Africa, but he’s more like Frank Opperman’s Chris Karedes character in the old TV show “The Big Time” – always scheming, pulling off one mad adventure after the other. Unlike Chris Karedes, who, to be frank, was a bit of a dodgy loser, Chinery-Hesse is going from strength to strength in West Africa, with his mixture of tech savvy, street smarts, fearless entrepreneurialism and the ability to smell out a good business opportunity.
Like Karedes, he looks for the unconventional approach, the WTF, the thing that no-one else thought of. And if he has to cut corners and pull a couple of fast ones, then so be it. As Chinery-Hesse says: “sometimes you have to gangster it”.
He is a massive believer in Cloud (or as we used to call them, “Internet-based systems”). In Africa we have power failures, we have unreliable communications systems – a recipe, you’d think, for needing on-site systems with generators – except that the complexity and cost of this is even a bigger problem. In the last few years, telecoms systems across the continent have improved thanks to massive investment. At the same time the developed world is up to its neck in massive, reliable, scaleable hosting services that can now be easily accessed from almost anywhere in Africa. Together, and you have a recipe for tech growth.
Use the West’s tech infrastructure to build Africa
There is a clear subtext in all this – the West has spent generations abusing and taking advantage of Africa, but smart African technologists are using this Western technology to build solutions that work brilliantly for African market needs.
Chinery-Hesse started his tech career in Ghana after spending time studying and working in the US and UK – a serendipitous encounter at a travel agency saw the launch of a software business, first picking up a whole lot more travel agency business, and then extending into point of sale systems. He is blunt about the reasons for his initial success – the bigger international companies in Ghana needed software systems, but were unable to use the high-tech Internet connected systems of their international parent organisations. This allowed SOFTtribe to grow to 90-odd people over three or four years, spreading into Nigeria.
Then, the Internet came, and the cash cow dried up for his on-site software systems – and there was no other local market for it.
So before the Cloud was called the Cloud, Chinery-Hesse was already moving to a hosted model where he could profitably provide software services to mom’n’pop operations.
He was also looking at the next big thing to get him into The Big Time. And this was a payments system/online shopping system with a new company called Blackstar to act as an Amazon for Africa.
This was taking years – setting up payments systems, working out the mechanics of cross border transactions and other complexities. So while this was going on, an opportunity arose for a payments card – rather like the “Oyster Card” system used in London – but rather than complex chip-card designs, they went for a basic barcoded system (he used to do point of sale, remember, so PoS barcode scanners were old hat).
This was the start of a radical new direction – the payments card was set up as a quick hit to use at a trade show – but could be utilised for a host of other events and uses, from music gigs to on-the-fly household and vehicle insurance.
These projects are where the “hack it ‘til you crack it” and “gangster it” come in.
The solution was hacked together using bits and pieces of technologies, and implemented by the seat of the pants and a couple of favours from old contacts.
“We didn’t have money to make big marketing splash, we had to gangster it,” he says (a term that has now taken on a life of it’s own at Tech4Africa). In one deal, he cut a TV company into a card system to get the much-needed publicity. In another, he had an old friend that ran a logistics business give him zero-rating to get volume discounts from the air cargo operator.
He’s all about these kind of relationships of convenience – if you need to get into the market in a nearby country, you need to make some deals with local businesspeople. “As a pan-Africanist, this is what I believe – that if we can unite across businesses in Africa, borders become irrelevant.”
This combination of local deals and the Cloud is critical to success in African markets for him – the ability to count on multi-billion dollar highly reliable telecoms and server systems, but through a business model that allows him to talk to the bottom of the pyramid with products they can afford.
Go where only Africans want to go
He is also vastly sceptical of the large international companies, especially in IT services, being able to make any real difference in Africa, or even really crack this market.
“Sometimes it takes an African to do it, to go in the bush, speak in local language, make the deal,” he says – it’s time consuming, needs local knowledge, and requires patience. Something Western companies are not great with.
That is the last great take-home from his talk – that you don’t need to do things perfectly in Africa, and you don’t need to worry about ‘best practice’ and ‘international standards’, as often no-one else on this continent is doing this kind of stuff yet. In a hyper-competitive market you have both the luxury and the burden of chasing perfection. Africa is largely still a tech green field, you just need to act, act quickly, and get it to work. And where possible, use the West’s tech infrastructure to give you a leg up.