Brash, ambitious, and optimistic, Herman Chinery-Hesse has already accomplished what many considered impossible -- building a thriving tech business in his native Ghana. His new goal: to spark an entrepreneurial revolution in Africa by bringing e-commerce to the most remote corners of the continent.
It's just past midnight, and Herman Chinery-Hesse can't sleep. The 43-year-old entrepreneur is lying on his back, eyes closed, mind cranking.
He's working through the details of a pitch to American and European investors -- many of whom have never backed a company like the one he's proposing. The pitch is absurdly ambitious: a tech company that aims to reshape the business climate for small entrepreneurs in Africa while grabbing a share of the $28 billion that Africans living abroad send home every year. His start-up is a long shot, will cost millions of dollars to execute, and could take five years to get off the ground. In other words, it's not the kind of thing you would expect from a company based in West Africa, a place known for many things -- malaria, civil wars, famine -- but definitely not disruptive technology companies.
But Chinery-Hesse thrives on just this sort of contradiction. He's a technology entrepreneur on a technologically barren continent, an atheist in a deeply religious country, and a capitalist raised amid the excesses of socialism. He also loves an uphill battle -- and this particular battle is just too intriguing to pass up.
I know this because I'm lying in bed next to him. I had come to Accra, the capital of Ghana, to understand what African entrepreneurship looks like, and I had sought out Chinery-Hesse in particular to answer this question: Who in his right mind would sell software in Africa? I had been following him around for a week, a frenetic experience that typically began each day in the late morning and lasted until midnight. I observed Chinery-Hesse make hundreds of phone calls, send thousands of text messages, and smoke a carton of Benson & Hedges cigarettes. And now, I was cowering close to the edge of a king-size bed around midnight, reluctantly conducting an interview.
This is not as weird as it sounds. Business in Africa is much more informal than in the United States. Meetings are not typically pegged to a specific time, and lateness -- even several hours' worth of lateness -- is not considered worthy of reproach. And then there are the sleeping arrangements. In Africa, it is not uncommon for two people of the same sex, when pressed for space, to platonically bunk up. This point had been mentioned to me several days earlier, but it acquired a terrifying immediacy when the tiny hotel where we had intended to stay was booked, and a friend of Chinery-Hesse's offered to let us stay at his place.
Chinery-Hesse is an imposing man. He stands 6 feet tall, has a Tony Soprano -- size gut, and possesses a salesman's mannerisms, including a blistering laugh and a fondness for crass language that belies his upper-crust background. Most of the time, his clap-you-on-the-shoulder pose is endearing. But his size and tendency toward overfamiliarity make him a less than ideal companion in situations -- a bed, say -- in which personal space is scarce.
Still, it's a big bed, and I figure I can simply turn on my side, avoid eye contact, and fall asleep quickly. Chinery-Hesse will have none of it. "We can still chat," he says matter of factly from the other side. "You can still ask me questions."
When you come to Africa, take everything you know about Europe or America and turn it upside down." This advice, given to me by a Ghanaian entrepreneur named Kingsley Awuah-Darko, was meant not as preparation for unfamiliar mores but as a key to understanding business on the African continent. Judge a company in Accra by the standards you would apply to one in Akron, and you're likely to form mistaken impressions and miss opportunities.