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.”

Registration now open for Tech4Africa 2011

A world-class line-up of international and African technologists will present at the Tech4Africa conference in October this year. The event provides South Africans with a rare opportunity to learn firsthand from technology evangelists about the role that the web plays in African business and development.

The two-day conference runs from 27 to 28 October 2011 at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg and will bring international experience and perspectives to the African continent, while at the same time showcasing what Africans are doing with mobile, web, digital media and other emerging technologies.

Registration for the event is open and early bird tickets are available until 15th of June. To register or for further information, visit Tech4Africa or contact us.

“2010 saw the launch of Tech4Africa and we were met with overwhelming support from both the tech and business communities and our foundation partners, First National Bank and Internet Solutions,” says Gareth Knight, MD of Tech4Africa. “This year we’re delivering the same high standard of content and looking forward to bringing technologists together to look at what’s current now, with an emphasis on social media and how it’s relevant to digital marketing, mobile convergence, the growing cloud and the applications of BigData. We’re also focusing on great African technologists that really are leading the way.”

Keynote speakers include Josh Spear, one of the youngest and most respected digital marketing strategists in the world, and Herman Chinery-Hesse, commonly known as ‘The Bill Gates of Africa’.

Spear is a trend spotter, blogger and brand strategist, sought out for his fresh perspective and no-holds-barred style of consulting on everything from design and gadgets to authenticity and word-of-mouth. His recent focus has been the power of the blogosphere, technology, and the impact of digital media on the world. In addition to his internationally recognised trend-spotting blog, he is a founding partner of Undercurrent, a digital think-tank focused on exploring new ways to reach young people without interrupting them. With Africa rapidly leapfrogging the web and PC experience with a mobile one, the insights into how people and brands interact digitally is crucial, and indeed sets the stage for the foreseeable future. Spear has appeared in publications including Time Magazine, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and has presented for such diverse clients as McDonald’s, NBC, Pepsi, Virgin, The American Advertising Federation and The Google Zeitgeist conference.

Chinery-Hesse is a renowned Ghanaian technology entrepreneur who co-founded the million-dollar software company SOFTtribe, and then went on to launch BSL, which provides the infrastructure for entrepreneurs across Africa to sell products and receive payment through their cell phones. Chinery-Hesse is passionate about the contribution that technology can make in unlocking prosperity and wealth across Africa, and will be presenting his thesis on this. He has won a number of awards and is also an accomplished speaker who has delivered talks at the Wharton Business School, Harvard Business School, Cambridge University, the University of Ghana, and the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania.

Spear and Chinery-Hesse are part of a line-up of African and international thought leaders from organisations like Amazon, HP, Johns Hopkins University, Mozilla, SwiftRiver, the African Institution of Technology, SimpleGeo, Motribe, Clearleft, Ultinet Systems and many more.

Knight adds, “With Tech4Africa our simple aim is to congregate the best practitioners in Africa and the world to provide inspiration, guidance, case studies, success stories and ultimately experience, so that Africans don’t need to travel the world to gain this understanding and exposure”.