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Herman Chinery-Hesse

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President (1991 – )

When Herman Chinery-Hesse returned to his native Ghana in 1990 after studying manufacturing at Texas State University-San Marcos, he quickly realized that while he aspired to start his own company, he had no money to launch a manufacturing enterprise. But sitting around one day he realized, “Hey, wait a minute. My little computer I had here, sitting in front of me, was a factory; it could make software.” He had been dabbling with computer programming for a couple of years as a hobby, and he thought, “I could turn this into my manufacturing business.” So he partnered with an old schoolmate, and they started writing software for the travel industry and selling door to door. “Sometimes we got, ‘Go to hell,’ and sometimes we got, ‘Well, we’re interested.’” It was hand to mouth in the early months, but soon they bought a second computer and hired an employee. “We were programming out of my bedroom, sitting on my bed, and then we evolved from there and grew and grew and grew.” They named the company theSOFTtribe.

One problem they faced early was the stress put on software throughout much of Africa. “There were heavy, serious power problems in our part of the world; people couldn’t afford expensive software systems; people were not very computer literate.” Chinery-Hesse and his partner turned the problem into an opportunity, becoming pioneers in what they refer to as “tropically tolerant” software. “We created protocols and technologies that made our systems robust, to work well in this environment,” he explains. “You have to be very innovative. I mean, to get the systems to work out here, it was just what we had to do. Everybody builds Rolls Royces, but we’re in Africa; we build Land Rovers. And we got good at it, and our software sold well for that reason.”

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A second challenge that a fledgling SoftTribe faced was generated, ironically, by the system of international foreign aid. As much as half the Ghanaian economy is run by the government, and as Chinery-Hesse says, “to a large extent our governments have been held captive by the donor agencies—the international donor community—who are not, in my view, particularly interested in seeing the growth of local business.” For evidence he points to firsthand experience: “When we talk to the government, the government says, ‘Hey, we’re not allowed to buy with donor money local products; that’s just the way it is. It’s their money; they decide who gets it.’ And this has been a big dilemma for us.”

Undaunted, Chinery-Hesse and his partners have continued to grow their business in the private sector. He also has launched a second company, Black Star Line Global (BSL), which works to connect African businesses to international markets through an electronic platform that does many of the things PayPal and EBay do but goes one step further: it’s enhanced by a system of phone-minute cash cards that allow electronic money transfers between even the most basic cell phones, sidestepping the need for personal computers for online commerce. As the company website explains, BSL seeks to empower “everyone from the micro-trader to the industrialist, promoting prosperity, self-reliance and empowerment.”

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