It’s hard to imagine the founding of a software company as a revolutionary act, but in 1991 in Ghana, it was. Not only were there no technology entrepreneurs to speak of, but the idea of entrepreneurship as a path to wealth was a novelty. Ghana had suffered for decades under repressive governments that were outwardly hostile to private enterprise. From 1970 to 1990, the country’s gross domestic product fell at an annual rate of 2.1 percent. Some of the most successful companies were nationalized, price controls were instituted, and owning many kinds of property, such as a car with air conditioning, was considered an indulgence that risked the wrath of authorities. Entrepreneurs accused of breaking the rules had to surrender their property and financial assets to the military government. If they resisted, they were often beaten and sometimes killed.

Democracy — along with peace, stability, and a measure of prosperity — has since come to Ghana. But it is still a hard place in which to be an entrepreneur. As a market, Ghana seems hopelessly inconsequential: just 23 million people, with a per capita income of $676 a year. Nutrition is often poor, and health care is spotty. The average person has a 1 in 10 chance of dying before he or she reaches age 5, and life expectancy is just 60 years. The country’s business climate, in which an entrepreneur can expect to spend 220 days just to get the proper business licenses to build a warehouse, remains stubbornly anemic. Interest rates are prohibitively high at 25 percent. The 18 percent inflation rate, while down from 30 percent five years ago, is high by global standards. According to the World Bank, Ghana is one of the most difficult places in the world in which to start a business, ranking 138th — after Venezuela, Serbia, and Iran.

These facts paint a bleak picture. Yet there’s no shortage of evidence to suggest that despite all its problems, Ghana is brimming with opportunity. GDP grew 6 percent in 2007, and in the first six months of 2008 the value of companies listed on the country’s stock exchange grew 56 percent. One important factor fueling growth is the explosion of mobile phone use throughout the continent. Ghana alone added 2.7 million cell phone subscribers last year. The rapid spread of cell phone service has made it much easier to conduct business and has prompted some investors to take a fresh look at the African market.

Even so, the West tends to see only tragedy in countries like Ghana. “In the U.S. media, Africa is a place where people are dying and starving, and where there are no opportunities,” says Vijay Mahajan, a professor at the University of Texas and the author, most recently, of Africa Rising. In the book, Mahajan argues that Western entrepreneurs are ignoring the next big global market at their peril. He points out that in Africa, for instance, GDP per capita is $200 higher than in India. “I’m not saying Africa doesn’t have problems — all developing countries have problems,” he says. “But the opportunity in Africa is at least as great as the opportunities in China and India.”

We’re going to turn Ghana into Singapore in five years,” says Chinery-Hesse the first time I reach him by phone from New York. It’s 6 o’clock in the evening in New York — 11 at night in Accra — and Chinery-Hesse is still in the office, supervising a late-night coding session. His voice cracks through a bad cell phone connection but betrays an unmistakable level of pride. “This is the Holy Grail. Everybody is going to be rich.”

His new company, which is separate from SOFTtribe, is called BSL and draws inspiration from Amazon.com and PayPal. When BSL launches this fall, it will let African entrepreneurs easily sell their products online and accept payments via mobile phone. Such transactions are extremely difficult in a country in which computers are rare and in which PayPal doesn’t operate. If Chinery-Hesse can sign up enough merchants and get enough people making payments with the service, he could drastically improve the lives of African craftspeople by giving them access to global markets. “This system is going to allow someone living in a village who makes 20 sweaters a week to export them at $10 a sweater,” he says. “That’s $200 a week!” It also promises to put Chinery-Hesse at the center of African commerce and make him exceedingly rich.

Not that he needs the money. Chinery-Hesse is an elite’s elite whose mother serves as chief adviser to Ghana’s head of state. He has three servants, a driver, and two SUVs, and he lives with his wife and two children in a comfortable ranch house in a gated community. At one point, he owned seven cars and two nightclubs. As a boy, he bounced between Accra and wherever his parents, both career diplomats, were posted, including Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Switzerland. He attended Ghana’s prestigious Mfantsipim School — Kofi Annan’s alma mater — where his friends recall him as brilliant, outspoken, and academically lazy. Like many privileged young Ghanaians, he left the country to attend college; he studied industrial technology at Texas State University in San Marcos.

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