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Tropically Tolerant Software
Ethan Zuckerman, 25 Aug 05

When you order lunch in a restaurant in Accra, Ghana or shop in one of the grocery stores in the upscale Osu neighborhood, there's a good chance the bill will include an unfamiliar brandname at the bottom: "SOFT".

SOFT, or "the Soft Tribe", as it's become known in Africa tech circles, is one of Africa's most interesting software development firms. Led by Hermann Chinery-Hesse, Soft's 65 employees maintain dozens of pieces of software that help Ghanaian companies manage payroll, total restaurant bills, manage government documents and pay taxes.

Soft's success gained the attention of the BBC, which declared that Soft was outcompeting Microsoft in Ghana. Now Chinery-Hesse has turned the tables, signing an agreement with Microsoft that makes him a local representative for Navision, an application suite designed for mid-sized businesses. Soft has access to the Navision source code and is working on add-ons for the tool, which support microlending transactions, opening a new market for the package.

Pascal Zachary - who profiles Chinery-Hesse in a recent article for an IEEE website and in a paper in online journal First Monday - mentions that he first met the entrepreneur as he was pouring diesel fuel into a generator to power his developer's computers. When I first met Hermann, we were sitting in a metal shipping container that housed roughly a dozen Soft developers - the ambient temperature was about 130 degrees and I wondered whether Hermann's computers or the Geekcorps volunteer I was about to send him could survive the heat.

The local conditions in Ghana - extreme heat, harmattan dust storms, uncertain electric power and, above all, old, slow computers - have inspired Chinery-Hesse's philosophy of "tropically tolerant software". Tropical tolerance means that programs write to disk often, anticipating power cuts, and send data to central servers when connectivity is available. They often run on 386 and 486 hardware, sometimes using forgotten development environments like Clipper, a database development language for early DOS machines.

Imported software rarely runs well in the challenging environments found in Ghanaian businesses. And very few accounting packages have built-in support for transactions in cedis (the local currency) - since there are roughly 10,000 cedis to a dollar, some accounting packages choke on the nine and ten-digit numbers needed to represent major transactions in Ghanaian currency.

With the knowledge of local conditions and a willingness to target products to markets that are initially very small, Chinery-Hesse is running a successful business and, in the process, helping to train the first generation of Ghanaian programmers. And that may turn out to be at least as significant a contribution to technological leapfrogging in Africa as the concept of "tropical tolerance" and the idea that locally-made software may make more sense than imported code.

Thanks to Emeka at Timbuktu Chronicles for the pointer to the IEEE article.

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Shouldn't older, pre-euro software that can handle liras be able to handle cedis?

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 26 Aug 05



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