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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 05:52 GMT 06:52 UK
Ghana trumps mighty Microsoft

By Briony Hale
BBC News Online business reporter, Accra, Ghana

BBC News Online went to meet Ghana's answer to Bill Gates, as a part of a weekly series on the country.

The tale of Soft and Microsoft is the tale of David and Goliath.

UK-based Hermann Chinnery-Hesse was on holiday in his home country of Ghana when he accepted a school friend's bet to try to make his fortune in West Africa.

Soft's founder, Hermann Chinnery-Hesse
Hermann Hesse: Africa's Bill Gates?
Starting with a battered old personal computer in his bedroom, Mr Hesse developed Ghana's own software firm which, for the moment at least, is holding Microsoft at bay.

"No, no, we only use Soft," says the hotel receptionist where I am staying, when I ask if they use Microsoft. The shops around Accra say the same.

"We're taking it industry by industry," Mr Hesse says, who has already designed e-SuSu software for microfinance projects and the Ndua system for Ghana's timber industry.

Then, of course, there are the plans to expand into wider Africa, with business partnerships already set up in Nigeria, the Gambia, Senegal and Kenya.

'Tropically tolerant'

There needs to be software that takes account of Africa's unique circumstances, Mr Hesse explains.

"First of all it needs to be simple and cheap. Then it must be tropically tolerant and able to cope with frequent power cuts."

Shop assistant using Soft software in Accra
Shops in Accra use Soft not Microsoft
"And, most importantly, it needs to be extra secure with no room whatsoever for fiddling the books," he stresses.

Mr Hesse's company now has a staff of 70, including 20 developers, and he is just about to sell 40% of his business to international investors.

Money magnet

And that foreign investment - thought to be the first agreed by any technology firm in West Africa - is what makes Mr Hesse happiest and, presumably, richest.

"Soft has no collateral," he says, "no factory to take over if everything goes pear-shaped."

Software developers for Soft
Soft's developers originally had to share one PC
"These people are choosing to invest purely because of African intellectual property and that makes me very, very proud."

"Technology is the only way for Africa to get rich," Mr Hesse says, "we don't have a proper infrastructure and we can't compete in manufacturing..."

"But if you put me behind a PC and tell me to write software for a Chinese customer, then I can compete brain for brain with anyone trying to do the same thing in the US."

Microsoft agents

And Soft's exuberant founder denies being worried by Microsoft's small presence in Ghana.

Soft's corporate headquarters
A far cry from Microsoft's HQ
"For the moment Microsoft's software is too expensive, too complex," he replies.

He also points out that Soft can provide on-the-ground support for its software applications, should anything go wrong.

In the long term, however, Mr Hesse admits that his firm will probably capitulate to Microsoft.

"Ghana is not rich enough yet," he says, "when we're rich Microsoft will come and do whatever they want."

"But we're still not afraid," he adds quickly, "we'll be the Microsoft agents in Ghana, we've got the local knowledge."

That pattern has already started to emerge.

Last chance?

Infosys, India's largest software firm, is just about to enter the Ghanaian market and it is using Soft for marketing and support.

Mr Hesse, in any case, says he is most likely to have retired by the time Microsoft makes a concerted effort to corner his marketplace.

Nevertheless, while his bet has undeniably been won, Mr Hesse is still passionate about the need for Africa to concentrate wholeheartedly on developing its fledgling technology businesses.

"This is the first opportunity we've had to compete for a long time," he says, adding that the efforts of the government and the aid agencies should be to establish high-speed communication links rather than bailing out the old economy.

"We missed the first boat when industrialisation passed us by.... we can't miss this boat, otherwise Africa will have missed the boat altogether," he warns.

Hermann Hesse
"Every area that is not developed is an opportunity, rather than the other way round."

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