Using Technology to Boost Trade in Africa

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 

By Bright B. Simons 

HermanHerman Chinery Hesse has been a personal inspiration for quite some time now. A thoughtful, deeply reflective, acquaintance. To the wider community, he is a social commentator, technologist, astute entrepreneur, social visionary, lay jurist, street philosopher, and an agnostic cultural materialist. He is also quite simply, ‘The Bill Gates of Africa’, a title conferred upon him by an awed BBC for his pioneering efforts in the single-handed creation of a software industry in West Africa. Today, the leading software services provider in Ghana and its chief rival, as well as offshoots in Nigeria, are all entities that arose by dint of the farsighted vision of Herman Chinery Hesse.

A manufacturing engineer by training, his stay in the US and UK, and frequent jetsetting as the son of Ghanaian Diplomats, engendered a strong desire to contribute to the industrialization of his homeland. He had developed a personal complex about African underdevelopment – a condition that grew more strident with each encounter he had with adversity as an ambitious African immigrant committed to standing out from the pack.

In 1990 thereabouts, he resolved to return home and do something about his cravings. He had no money. Industrial development as a personal mission, in those circumstances, seemed like a cross between a fairytale and a gothic fantasy told in turns by an idiot and a barroom brawler.  Herman did not despair.

He had a desktop computer, which probably set him apart from a great many of his peers. He had a brain busting with ideas. He had thus all the material inputs that he needed, and a plant fit for purpose. For the software industry, that is. Like the goddess breaking forth from the greymatter of the god, thus was theSoftTribe born. Herman spawned a veritable tribe of e-Warriors and assorted biz-geeks and let these loose upon the land of Ghana, conquering doubt and obstacle everywhere they went, and for their reward and the glory of their chieftain, the booty of government and private sector contracts flowed – first a trickle, then a flood.

But globalization was to deal the course of Herman’s mission a blow. Most of his clients begun to source their software and allied products and services from overseas, inducing severe diminishing returns in theSoftTribe business model, and botching plans of continentalising the dream by expanding to West African powerhouse, Nigeria, and further afield. The dream was wounded, but it lived.

More than just survive, it may triumph in Herman’s next big venture, BSL. BSL just launched the MX platform, which is to power the Nii Tettey Trading Protocol (nttp://) and transform African industry through trade (the continent has a 5th of the world’s population but accounts for only 2% of tade). Like most darn smart ideas, it is pretty simple: make it easy for folks around the world to get to know about, to appreciate, and to buy African goods. To unbundle Africa as it were. Yep. That simple.

Herman has scoured Ghana (he hopes to extend the model across Africa stage by stage) looking for folks making awesome stuff that the rest of the world can do with more of. He is cataloguing these on a eCommerce portal ( so prospective buyers can buy directly from source.
The amazing part follows.

Conventional wisdom as far as eCommerce is concerned is that the system works according to the principle: ‘capable seller, capable buyer’. Herman’s innovative idea lies foremost in how he goes about improving upon the capacity of the sellers.

A ton of ‘African Liberty Cards’ are being printed and are coming soon to an African shop near you. When you buy one of those you can literally load your cellphone with the face value of that card. Once that is done you can SMS your orders directly to a craftman, say, featured on the site and get that fancy drum you’ve always wanted delivered straight to your door in a couple of days.

The streamlining of the intricate logistical processes involved in this process is what constitutes the nttp innovation. As Herman puts it in his customary pithiness, "there is internet in the town and SMS in the bush." Meaning: the telecom boom has provided the means to now build an infrastructure to connect marginalized African producers with increasingly more adventurous consumers in the affluent world.
So I said to Herman, "Dude, why not save on marketing costs by focusing on a niche for now, say African art, and then pitch the cards as luxury vouchers to exclusive clubs across the Affluent world’. Herman smiles in that disarming, yet condescending, style of his. "Why narrow this down," he asks? "Africa has never been open for trade before, who knows what will happen?’ I stare at him blankly at first, then, slowly, my skepticism about a fully open platform begins to dissolve. "Who knows, we may just find out that Ukranian housewives love Nigerian romance beads." Herman winks wickedly. I, blushingly, change the subject to whether I can have that swell-looking $50 African Liberty card as a souvenir.Souvenir? Ducks are green! Who knows what might pop up on at that value in the weeks ahead.

Bright Simons is IMANI’s  Development Director and an  affiliate of