Chinery-Hesse is chief of the Tribe. He's made a small fortune writing software, working as a systems architect, and selling computer code to hundreds of businesses in his country of 21 million people. He drives a Mercedes. He wears imported Birkenstock sandals. He hails from a prominent family, was born in Dublin, and went to college in the United States. He could be working anywhere on the strength of his Irish passport, yet he's spent the past dozen years in Accra, Ghana's coastal capital and one-time slave-trade hub.
This steamy December morning, with deadlines looming, his electricity is out, his programmers are idle, and he's feeding fuel to a balky 50-kilovolt-ampere generator--one of the three he keeps at the ready.
Having emptied his container and thus delivered power to his 18 programmers--about one-tenth of all full-time code writers in Ghana--Chinery-Hesse relaxes and, for the first time, acknowledges my presence. Stroking his beard, he quips, "If we Africans are to develop, we must want to get our hands dirty."
Chinery-Hesse thinks a lot about how Africans can better their lives. And he's not alone in his conviction that his people can thrive by harnessing innovations in computing, electronics, and telecommunications. "Technology," he declares, "is on our side."
What sets him apart, other than a knack for adapting code to Africa's distinctive conditions, is his willingness to embody his beliefs in a business enterprise. With 65 employees, his company, popularly known as "Soft," is a testimony to the idea that information technology can be a great equalizer for his people.
The company's software--written in C++, Visual Basic, and even the ancient Clipper development language for DOS--is everywhere in Accra. Chinery-Hesse, now 41 years old, started out pursuing a "shotgun business strategy," as he puts it, offering between 15 and 30 programs at any given time, including his best seller, a payroll program called Akatua. In contrast, mighty Adobe Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., with nearly 4000 employees, offers about 45 software products. With Soft's abundance of offerings, the company has grown at an impressive clip over the past decade, doubling in revenue and staff year after year.
Old, cheap PCs are the backbone of African offices and increasingly popular cybercafes, where ordinary sub-Saharan Africans, most of whom subsist on less than US $1 per day, access the Internet. The people of Ghana, particularly those in Accra, a sprawling city of 2 million, are a little better off than their sub-Saharan neighbors, earning on average about $2 per day in an economy based primarily on exports of gold, timber, and cocoa.
Slightly smaller in area than the state of Oregon and sandwiched between Togo and Ivory Coast on the Atlantic Ocean, Ghana won independence from Britain in 1957, the first black African nation to do so. In 1992, following a series of military coups and dictatorships, Ghana adopted a new constitution that provided for a democratic political system. Lt. Jerry Rawlings, who had ruled the country as a dictator from 1981 to 1992 won the first two elections in 1992 and 1996. Rawlings peacefully transferred power to the current president, John Kufuor, in 2000.
Political power struggles, civil war, corruption, disease, and wasted potential usually spring to mind when the subject is Africa. But I know a different Africa, from many visits in recent years, and my different Africa springs in part from my contact with Chinery-Hesse. Much of his success reflects his shrewd realization that Africans can't simply import American or European software programs but need to tailor them to their own surroundings.
Chinery-Hesse's ability to build a thriving software business in an economic climate where the need for information technology is just beginning to grow has tested his ingenuity and made him a celebrity in Ghana [see photo, "Making a Splash"]. While hardly in the global technical vanguard, Chinery-Hesse is counted as one of "a handful of the most important software developers in Africa," says Eric Osiakwan, an IT specialist in Accra who consults for the World Bank. "Hermann is our Bill Gates, and Soft is our national software champion."
Chinery-Hesse is thus a valuable role model. "Many young code writers get their start at Soft, learn the ropes, and then hone their skills," says Guido Sohne--himself an example of Chinery-Hesse's influence: a former employee of Soft, he now runs his own business as an independent programmer in Ghana. "To us, at least, Hermann is a savior," Sohne says.
"Saviors" are common in Africa, and they usually come in the form of demagogues or rebel leaders, missionaries or medical doctors, peacekeepers or refugee-camp managers. Rarely are they Birkenstock-wearing engineers or software programmers. That's why Chinery-Hesse is worth getting to know. Because if Africa has a sunny future, Chinery-Hesse will be a part of it. He is emblematic of the little-known world of African code writers, hackers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who have chosen to live and work in their homelands, persevering against great odds and on the margins of global technological change.
These people, often self-taught and sometimes surprisingly well paid, are the beneficiaries of the accelerating spread of the Internet, the increasing power of cheap computers, and the burgeoning global community of programmers. The African hackers are quiet heroes, however, because they embody a side of the region that is entirely missed by the world's media: they represent an Africa where blacks are using their brains to try to build a better future against a backdrop of spotty electricity, unfettered piracy, inferior computers, and mediocre universities.
Nowadays, Soft is focusing on document management software for government agencies and large multinationals doing business in Ghana. It also supplies accounting software for small and medium-size businesses, such as stores and restaurants. Its cash register program, for instance, tallies the bill at Accra's largest grocery store. And one of the most popular dining spots in Accra, Frankie's Hotel and Restaurant, uses Soft's code to manage inventory, process payroll, and pay taxes [see photo, "Would You Like Code With That?"]. Hotels, gold-mining companies, and Internet cafes do, too. Even a few cocoa plantations calculate their piecework pay with Soft's code.
Here's why Soft's programs are essential: programs from the United States and Europe are usually too expensive and require lots of memory and the latest machines. By contrast, those that Soft offers are small enough to work with the Intel 486- and even 386-based PCs that are readily available in Ghana for as little as $100.