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Africa’s ‘Bill Gates’ on technological innovation

As the co-founder of SOFTtribe limited, one of the leading software houses in West Africa, Herman Chinery-Hesse has been described by the BBC as “Africa’s Bill Gates”. Chinery-Hesse is known for designing software that is “tropically tolerant” in that it takes into consideration Africa’s specific environmental, political and societal challenges.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Chinery-Hesse said: “I think that there is so much opportunity in Africa, there is so much underdevelopment, there is so much that hasn’t been done, that it’s not rocket science. If you have the discipline, take the dive. It’s doable, and I think more people should do it, and if we don’t, non-Africans will come to Africa, as we can see, and do it.”

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Memeburn spoke with him about this as well as about other issues, including education and how it contributes technological innovation in Africa, and how open source software can solve some of the challenges unique to the continent.

Memeburn: You are constantly quoted as describing your software as “tropically tolerant”. Can you elaborate?

Herman Chinery-Hesse: “Tropical Tolerance” is a concept based on the idea that the design of software needs to take into consideration specific challenges to Africa, notably power, communication, labour and pricing. Today we host in regions with ample communications infrastructure, and we set it up so that our clients are able to use multiple access points for connectivity. We also employ SMS for our most remote installations, and most of our software offerings are on a pay as you go basis. This has opened our technologies to a much wider customer base that would never have had access to it previously.

MB: Your relationship with Microsoft seems to be very strong. On its own website, it claims to be helping you to find business opportunities further afield, while you use their branding openly for your products. How did this relationship develop?

HCH: Microsoft recognised our leading position within this sector and region and approached us, and we agreed to become a development partner as opposed to a traditional plain re-seller. This is what has made the partnership mutually beneficial and ultimately successful.

MB: You seem to be averse to open-source technology. Do you believe that this is a general attitude amongst successful African technologists?

HCH: Well, I have changed my mind a bit — today I believe open source can be useful for African companies in parallel with their licensed product lines. I guess that any African technologist, like others around the world, would want to recoup their research and development investments. However, I have come to terms with the fact that open source technology definitely has its place in the continents technology landscape.

MB: What are the shortcomings that you see in the current education system in Ghana, and how do you think that they could be improved?

HCH: It is not appropriate to the industry’s requirements. More emphasis should be placed on current and relevant technical and practical applications.

MB: In your experience, what are the biggest technological challenges facing Africa, and how do you think that they might be overcome?

HCH: Education in technology should be improved as well as internet connectivity.

Chinery-Hesse is a keynote speaker at Tech4Africa: Africa’s premier web, mobile and technology conference. Other speakers include Josh Spear, Adam Duvander, Cennydd Bowles and Jonathan Gosier.

Image: Tech4Africa

Questions contributed by Rowan Puttergill

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