Keynote: The African Bill Gates leaves Tech4Africa speechless

By: Heidi Schneigansz

Herman Chinery-Hesse has a remarkable story. He is one of those people that makes you feel like you can do anything with nothing. That’s because Herman believes in African Style Solutions for uniquely African problems. Europe and American don’t have power failures and bandwidth problems, so Africans can’t copy First World solutions and expect them to work here.

After returning to Ghana from America, a young Herman thought he was going to go into manufacturing. The problem was, the only asset he had was an old PC. He had no capital, no connections and no infrastructure to build a factory. However, he soon realised that his PC “was a factory, it could manufacture software.”

Herman started SOFTribe in 1991 after a bet with friends when out at a nightclub that he could get a job in unemployment-riddled Ghana within three days. That Monday, he was building software for a travel agency; in front of the client, on the one computer they had in the building. Soon, SOFTribe was the biggest IT Company in Ghana and quickly expanded into other countries.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, the advent of the Internet nearly closed him down. His clients were insisting on central web-based software, dictated by their European Head Offices, so SOFTribe had to reinvent themselves. They knew that the majority of the economic growth was coming from SMEs, so Herman started BlackStarLine, a company that incubated a revolutionary eCommerce platform. ShopAfrica53 is a virtual shopping mall, allowing vendors a space to sell their products on a global scale. But the really special thing about ShopAfrica53 is the fact that it plans to push intra-Africa trade, selling African goods to Africans who do not necessarily have access to large malls.

However, the platform is a labour of love that has taken years to perfect, so Herman had to roll out interim products that would keep his business alive. One such product line was barcoded cards that allowed delegates access into one of Ghana’s largest trade shows, which meant the show made profit on entry for the first time ever, over 500%! It wasn’t long before the cards were being used for concerts, conference and shows all over Africa.

That was just the beginning. BSL’s next innovation was ‘Quickie’, instant ‘on-demand’ insurance through scratch cards and the cell networks, which allow you to SMS a code to switch your policy on and off. This sort of technology would never work in the developed world but revolutionises insurance in Africa.

When asked his secret, Herman says “I used to be a techie but these days, I like to think like an end user. Business is not just a programmer’s game. You should always look at the client experience, or your products will fail.”

The audience was spellbound and I left the room inspired and proud to be an African.  Herman says it best: “The African unity that I see isn’t just a philosophy, it unites with business… remember, borders become irrelevant in the Cloud.”