ENTREPRENEURS AROUND THE WORLD

Meet the Bill Gates of Ghana

Brash, ambitious, and optimistic, Herman Chinery-Hesse has already accomplished what many considered impossible--building a thriving tech business in his native Ghana.
ALWAYS ON: Herman Chinery-Hesse, in downtown Accra, picks up his cell phone a hundred times a day.

Per-Anders Pettersson

SHOP AFRICA: Happy Ideall (right) and Mawuli Okudzeto (left) have signed on with Chinery-Hesse. His website aims to provide merchants like these an outlet for selling their wares worldwide.


Per-Anders Pettersson

THE DREAMER: Chinery-Hesse, at his daughter's ballet school, sees Ghana as the next Singapore.

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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.

Most people consider opportunities and Africa to be mutually exclusive concepts. We have come to see Africa as more a cause than a place and its population not as a market but a class of victims. Of the 20 cover images of Vanity Fair's Africa Issue, published last year, not a single portrait featured someone who owned a business based in Africa. And although the issue's guest editor, the Nobel Prize -- nominated pop star Bono, lauded Africa as an "entrepreneurial, dynamic continent," the casual reader might have been tempted to ask, Who are these entrepreneurs, exactly?

Ghana is a small country in one of the poorest parts of the sub-Saharan region, but it's also a hotbed of technology entrepreneurship thanks largely to the pioneering work of Chinery-Hesse. Today, Accra boasts dozens of tech companies and one of the largest Internet cafés in Africa. Chinery-Hesse was an early investor in the Internet café, which also serves as an incubator that rents space to start-ups. He went on to found what is widely considered the first and largest software company in the country, called theSOFTtribe, where he serves as executive chairman and controlling shareholder. Chinery-Hesse has also left a wider mark on the country's tech sector. Many former SOFTtribe engineers have gone on to start other software companies, including the second largest in the country.

These accomplishments have earned him a moniker at once homespun and grandiose: "the Bill Gates of Ghana." They have also landed him speaking engagements at Harvard, Wharton, and Cambridge. Last summer, he shared a stage with Bono and Jane Goodall at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania. "Herman is the godfather of the software industry, not just in Ghana but in all of Africa," says Eric Osiakwan, a Ghanaian journalist and IT consultant. At its height in 2003, SOFTtribe employed 80 people, mostly programmers, and was booking well over $1 million a year in revenue -- a substantial sum in a country in which a three-bedroom house costs $20,000.

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.

In Texas, Chinery-Hesse was an outsider: an African who had little in common with the black Americans on campus but who was mockingly called "nigger" by his white friends. He shrugged off the taunts as innocent "teasing" but never felt entirely comfortable. "America is the most racist place I've ever been," he says, admitting that he often felt afraid to talk to strangers or to police. But he was also captivated by the place. "I saw open spaces where there was nothing but cows, and then four years later, it's a whole community." Everyone he knew seemed to own a ranch, and the pace of development was preternatural, with 7-Elevens and McMansions blooming spontaneously from wide-open farmland. He remembers this period as the time of his entrepreneurial conversion -- when he first understood how business might change an impoverished country. "Every aspect of underdevelopment requires a business," he says. "I realized that the opportunities were everywhere."

He returned to Accra for Christmas in 1990 and announced to his friends that he was coming home for good. The group had been partying at an Accra dance club, and Chinery-Hesse's friends responded with incredulity. They were thinking about how to get out of Ghana, not back in, and they had been badgering him all night for help in getting jobs abroad. (At the time, his mother was working as a U.N. official in Geneva.) "You guys are crazy," Chinery-Hesse responded. "The opportunities are right here."

Chinery-Hesse talked his way into a contract job with Accra's largest travel agency, whose owner was a distant relation. He was paid $2,000 to write a software program that automated the company's accounting and customer service functions. The program, which Chinery-Hesse called Gbefaloh, meaning "traveler" in Ga, his mother tongue, would eventually be adopted by travel agents throughout the country.

Soon thereafter, he joined with a high school classmate, Joe Jackson, who agreed to handle sales while Chinery-Hesse wrote code on an old PC in his childhood bedroom. Together, the pair turned the travel agency software into a sales tracking program. They charged a few thousand dollars a year for installation and technical support. SOFTtribe's first big contract, a $5,000 job to computerize a large chicken farm, led to an inventory management system that it sold to grocery stores throughout the country.

The pair developed more than 30 products and gave each an African name -- Akatua for payroll, Nzama for retail sales systems, and Bimbilla for accounting. There was also an American Idol -- like text messaging application for TV game shows and a system for managing Internet cafés. From 1994 to 2003, the company grew from two coders sharing a single computer to a team of 80 working in an office in the tony Airport Residential Area.

SOFTtribe's products were not particularly sophisticated, but simplicity can be an advantage in Ghana. During the 1990s, brownouts and blackouts occurred dozens of times an hour, making data loss a daily occurrence. While computers in the U.S. ran Windows on speedy processors, Ghanaian computers were poky, secondhand beasts that still used DOS. Chinery-Hesse's software wrote to disk constantly, safeguarding data in a power failure. And Ghana's hyperinflation meant that a typical paycheck required at least six zeros; this flummoxed most payroll and accounting programs. Chinery-Hesse's products handled all those zeros with ease.

The approach was wildly successful and quickly caught on with large multinationals doing business in Africa. A 1995 deal to develop the payroll system for Unilever, one of the largest private employers in Ghana, led to SOFTtribe's landing deals with Nestlé, Guinness, and several large agricultural concerns. "We were so arrogant," says Francois Bonin, who joined as a developer in 1996 at 20. "But we had the market cornered." By the late 1990s, SOFTtribe was running the payroll system of nearly every company in Ghana. Estimates as to the company's market share vary, but all agree that it was somewhere from 50 percent to 70 percent.

Chinery-Hesse's dominance of the Ghanaian software market made him not only rich but also something of a national hero. In 2003, the BBC's website published a profile with the improbable title "Ghana Trumps Mighty Microsoft," in which Chinery-Hesse argued that his company could compete with Silicon Valley's best and brightest. In 2005, technology journal IEEE Spectrum carried a lengthy story praising SOFTtribe's pioneering spirit: "If Africa has a sunny future, Chinery-Hesse will be a part of it," the article gushed.

Hello, Max!" Chinery-Hesse bellows as he jumps out of a Toyota Landcruiser to greet me, his face drawn wide, beaming with a gap-toothed smile. He had been sitting in the front with his driver, but after I hop in the back, he motions for me to scoot over and sidles up next to me.

As we launch into the blaring chaos of Accra's traffic, Chinery-Hesse apologizes for being more than an hour late. Then, he leans back in the seat, drapes one leg across the middle, and launches into a full-throttle sales pitch. "Africans don't need to beg," he says, speaking with the Anglo-African lilt of the upper class, which sounds like Victorian English set to music. "We need to participate in the global economy."

The Landcruiser takes us through Accra's bustling Adabraka district and toward Chinery-Hesse's offices. Accra is far wealthier than the rest of Ghana and is in the midst of a decade-long boom that has seen the population double to three million. The result is a dusty, sprawling mess; hovels made of cinder blocks and corrugated metal sit opposite modern shopping malls, and open-air textile factories can be found within a stone's throw of modern industrial operations. Walk down any street -- stepping carefully over the open sewers -- and you will see hawkers offering pretty much any good or service you can imagine: wrenches, toilet paper, cell phone parts, legal services, accounting help, cement blocks, luggage, bread, and fresh fish. Compared with a city like New York, there's a surprising lack of vagrancy. Few people have full-time jobs in the Western sense, but everyone, it seems, is in business.

This reflects an economic reality in Africa that, according to the University of Texas's Mahajan, causes companies to drastically underestimate the size of the market. The amount of business conducted informally -- in cash, on the street, and beyond the eyes of regulators -- is enormous. An oft-cited paper by Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider found that Ghana's shadow economy in 2003 was 44 percent of the country's GDP. That's an additional $3 billion beyond what the official statistics show. Mahajan thinks the number may be even bigger. "We have no idea what's happening under the carpet," he says.

Though high taxes partly explain the size of the shadow economy, the lack of a banking infrastructure is another cause. Only 10 percent of Ghanaians have bank accounts, and the economy runs strictly on cash, a fact that's obvious if you examine -- or, God help you, smell -- the currency itself. The bills are generally damp, tattered, and wrinkled, and have a vaguely organic odor. "If I want to pay my utility bill, I can't just write a check," says Patrick Awuah, the founder of Ashesi University, a private liberal arts college in Accra. "I have to drive over, stand in a long line, and pay cash -- or send a messenger." Nearly everyone who follows African business agrees that coming up with a way to exchange money effectively is the next big thing in Africa. In Kenya, a new service created by the telephone giant Vodafone allows cell phone subscribers to exchange money in the form of prepaid cell phone minutes. The service has attracted more than three million subscribers since it launched in 2007, and it is used as an acceptable form of tender in some Nairobi taxicabs. But there's still no way to transmit money between countries or even between cell phone carriers. "When somebody plays this game right, they'll walk away with billions of dollars," says Erik Hersman, a Kenya-born IT consultant based in Orlando.

Chinery-Hesse is convinced that he will be that someone. His vision, which he sketches out for me over breakfast -- a hamburger and a cigarette at a luxury hotel in Accra -- is to create a new currency: scratch cards, like the ones used for prepaid phone service, that BSL will sell in African specialty shops in denominations worth from $5 to $1,000 in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, starting this fall. Each card will have a unique code, which can be sent to anyone in Ghana via text message. The recipient then either picks up his money at a Ghanaian post office or has it deposited directly into a bank account. The cards will be marketed and distributed by Money Systems, an Accra-based money transfer company that operates in the U.S. and Europe. "We're going to plug our customer base into what Herman is doing," says the company's founder, Kingsley Awuah-Darko, who plans to give away $5 cards to current customers to promote the new service.

Chinery-Hesse envisions a host of uses for the cards, including money transfer within Ghana and the payment of remittances by expatriate Ghanaians to their relatives back home. But the real value, he hopes, will be something he calls "micro-trade." The idea is to help Ghanaian entrepreneurs sell their products on the Web and accept payments without a computer, a website, or even a bank account. To this end, he has spent the past year recruiting dozens of local merchants -- craftspeople, clothiers, art dealers, and food companies -- whose merchandise BSL's 10 employees have been cataloging and photographing. The products will appear on ShopAfrica53.com, a website that will eventually boast products from all 53 African countries for expatriate Africans eager for a taste of home and for Westerners interested in buying directly from local merchants. So far, some 50 merchants have signed up and have agreed to pay BSL about a 10 percent commission on everything they sell.

One such merchant is Unique Ceramics Centre, a $160,000-a-year ceramics manufacturer in Accra. The factory and store are on a mud road in a rural part of town that is deserted except during rush hour, when goats and chickens make way for bumper-to-bumper traffic. As founder Happy Ideall shows me the production process, in which waist-high vases and clay drums are fed into huge wood-fired kilns, he confesses that business has been erratic. In the late 1990s, buyers from T.J. Maxx and Pier 1 Imports (NYSE:PIR) propelled his company to close to $250,000 in annual sales. But those stores fell on hard times, the dollar's value plummeted, and Unique Ceramics lost all its big accounts, forcing Ideall to lay off most of his 90 employees.

Today, the 42-year-old Ideall, with a receding hairline and a self-deprecating sense of humor, focuses on selling to local buyers and to export markets through trade shows. But trade shows, which require about a $3,000 outlay just to ship a container to the United States, are hardly risk free. Ideall tells me that at the last show he did, in Washington, D.C., there were lots of interested buyers from smaller boutiques. "People fell in love with our products, but the trouble was that the retailers wanted small quantities -- three of those or four of these," he says. Now, those small orders will be possible. They will come to Ideall via text message, and payments will be transferred directly into his bank account. "We don't have a base in the U.S., and we don't have any way to make consolidated shipments," he says. "That's why I like Herman's idea."

Two days later, I go to see another of Chinery-Hesse's partners, Mawuli Okudzeto, the founder of Mkogh, a 30-employee clothing company in central Accra. Okudzeto, a handsome, wire-thin man with a whisper of a voice, has been in business since 1984. The company sells branded T-shirts favored by young Ghanaians and a line of high-fashion apparel aimed at the upper class. The richly colored linen shirts and dresses, which cost from $50 to $150 each, are beautiful. "Perfect for the diaspora," Okudzeto says, as he shows me a large cardboard box full of pictures of American celebrities who have visited his shop over the years. There are snapshots of the rich, famous, and once-famous wearing Okudzeto's African-style gowns: Beyoncé, Jermaine Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Don King. Given such a robust international fan base, one would think that the company would be primed for the U.S. market. But though, like many high-end retail entrepreneurs in Ghana, Okudzeto has dabbled in the Web, he has never been able to accept online payments. If you are a well-to-do American in search of an African look, you still need to physically present yourself in Okudzeto's shop, pick out your clothes, and pay him.

In 2003, SOFTTribe received several hundred thousand dollars from an Accra investment firm, the first time a software company in Ghana had raised venture capital funding. The investors had their eyes on the big government contracts Chinery-Hesse expected to land by building a full-fledged corporate software system that would compete directly in Africa with systems offered by Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). Eventually, Chinery-Hesse believed the company could be a global player. "We are getting to the point where a PC could run a government's entire payroll system," Chinery-Hesse says. "We expected to offer software all across West Africa. And then we started hitting a brick wall."

Chinery-Hesse miscalculated SOFTtribe's ability to lure government contracts, which tend to go to European or U.S. bidders. From 2003 to 2005, the company failed to win a single bid, pushing Chinery-Hesse into the arms of his erstwhile competitor, Microsoft, which had been looking for a Ghanaian distributor. Under the terms of a deal struck in December 2004, SOFTtribe became a Microsoft partner, selling and installing the Redmond software giant's products in Ghana and rewriting SOFTtribe's applications to work within Microsoft's enterprise software offering. The move was announced in a blockbuster press conference at which Ghana's president, joined by Microsoft's executives, praised the move as a breakthrough for the African software industry. But it left Chinery-Hesse feeling frustrated and marginalized. He had wanted SOFTtribe to become the African Microsoft; now it was an African installer of Microsoft products. "We were programmers and inventors, not consultants," he says. "I'm a geek and a gangster. Instead, we'd become corporate."

Thanks to the Microsoft deal, SOFTtribe slowly began winning contracts, first a small piece of a national identification card contract, and this year, a large contract to manage the government's payroll system. Still, Chinery-Hesse longed for something grander, the kind of software that wouldn't require government approvals or corporate pitches. He began thinking about cell phones. They are everywhere in Ghana. Fifty-foot steel cell phone towers dot even the most remote parts of the country, and cell phones are used by even the poorest people. What if he used the ubiquitous text message to send money? He recruited Bonin, by then considered one of the top Microsoft developers in Africa, and the pair began working furiously on a money transfer protocol.

Chinery-Hesse announced his plans onstage at the TEDGlobal conference last year in Arusha, Tanzania. The event, an offshoot of the annual TED conference in Monterey, California, had been inspired by a Bono speech, but it became an unlikely flash point in the debate over capitalism in Africa; a number of speakers strongly denounced Western aid. Chinery-Hesse couldn't have been happier. "People in America'�are not depending on some strange philanthropist from far away," he said, smiling and gesturing wildly from behind the podium. "Africa won't need help from anybody." Before he left Tanzania, he had rounded up about a million dollars in angel investment.

And so began a mad dash to create a new company, the mode that Chinery-Hesse relishes most. I hear him pitch BSL two dozen times while I am in Ghana -- to friends, to potential business partners, and to strangers. One day, while we are driving through the city's outskirts, he points to a couple of shirtless young men who are carrying sticks with something looking vaguely meatlike stretched across them. "Dried possum," he says, with a broad grin. "We can export that." A few minutes later, in yet another outbreak of enthusiasm, Chinery-Hesse says: "We're taking all of these peasants and putting them on the Web. That guy making plates is going to be so rich, he's going to be buying software from me."

It's hard to talk about Chinery-Hesse's efforts to bring Ghana into the global economy without considering the country's last brush with globalization: the slave trade. The gold routes that brought Europeans to the country in the 15th century -- and gave Ghana its colonial name, Gold Coast -- paved the way for the trade in human captives that began in the early 1500s and continued for 350 years. The Europeans' coastal forts were converted into large prisons, and today, they are the country's chief tourist attractions.

Chinery-Hesse told me I had to see the slave castles to understand his country, and on a Sunday morning, he gives his driver the day off and drives us to the oldest castle, several hours west of Accra. With the Atlantic Ocean to our left and vast fields of scrub to our right, we pass fishing villages and roadside stands where vendors sell bread, fruit, and fried octopus. "Do you see all this opportunity?" he asks. "Ghana is the size of England with one-third the population -- and there's gold in the ground." A little bit later, as we pass a hillside town with perhaps a hundred small mud houses, Chinery-Hesse calls my attention to the irregular projections emanating from rooftops. "Look at that," he marvels. "TV antennas on bamboo poles." Even fishing villages house hordes of potential consumers.

The castle is both magnificent and terrifying: brilliant, whitewashed ramparts obscure small, windowless cells. During the height of the slave trade, hundreds of people were packed into each of these dark rooms, which still evoke a sense of desperation and oppression. There are stains and gouges on the walls, and a smell of mold lingers in the dank air. It's impossible not to feel overcome with emotion upon reaching the last holding cell, the Door of No Return, which led to the slave ships -- and, for those who survived the harsh crossing, to slavery in the Americas.

While I tour the castle, Chinery-Hesse sits in the parking lot and talks on his cell phone. His senior managers are back at the office putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation for investors, and he needs to touch base. The efforts will pay off in June, when the company raises several million dollars more, enough to begin distributing scratch cards and launch the website this fall. "Herman is trying to create a whole new industry," says Awuah-Darko. "That will take time, and that will cost him lots of money, but he's ahead of the game."

On the drive back, Chinery-Hesse passes the time by pointing out every possible sign of wealth: a shiny Audi sedan, pineapples at the side of the road, a cell phone tower peeking from behind a green hill. It is, of course, yet another pitch for his money transfer system. But more than anything, it reveals a faith in the future of Ghana and a sense of wonder at its vast potential. He tells me that he is finally on the verge of converting all this possibility into something real. He imagines luxury hotels on this now-empty coastline and well-compensated farmers exporting their products at market prices. "I just love the scenery out here," he says, momentarily letting go of the steering wheel to admire the lush surroundings. "We're not on holiday. This is where we live."

Max Chafkin is an Inc.staff writer.

IMAGE: Per-Anders Pettersson
Last updated: Oct 1, 2008




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