Seth Akumani, a graduate of the MEST program, is the co-founder of ClaimSync, which has created software to help Ghana's hospitals manage patient information and billing. Trevor Williams Seth Akumani, a graduate of the MEST program, is the co-founder of ClaimSync, which has created software to help Ghana's hospitals manage patient information and billing. [Enlarge]
Accra, Ghana

Software from Africa? The question sounds like a joke to many, but there's no punchline. Companies in Ghana are serious about a promising new industry taking hold in their country.

From indigenous startups and mid-sized firms founded by foreigners to new offices from multinational giants like Google and IBM, the software scene in the capital city of Accra is blossoming.

It's no Silicon Valley, but companies are finding that solutions developed for the local context are resonating across borders. Driven by sluggish growth in established tech markets, venture capitalists from around the world have become frequent visitors to this West African nation. 

Still, some local companies say it's an uphill battle to persuade investors that a tech wave is swelling on a continent known more for coups than computers.

“Our biggest challenge is credibility,” said Blaise Bayuo, founder of RetailTower, a software service that helps online sellers get their products listed on price-comparison websites. “People don't expect a software company to come from Africa.” The company hopes putting an office in San Francisco can help close this gap.

RetailTower came about after founders ran across a discussion forum where a retailer requested help getting his wares to show up on Google's shopping listings. They decided to solve his problem and realized the solution could be scaled up.

Now RetailTower has 10,000 sellers (mostly outside Ghana) and is concentrating on growing that number. It hopes to eventually charge for premium membership while keeping most of its services free.

Robert Lamptey, co-founder of mobile messaging service Saya, said you can't blame outsiders for failing to see Africa's tech potential. It has lagged the developed world, though he believes media coverage has unfairly exaggerated the continent's negatives. 

Saya was built to answer a Ghanaian problem. Smartphone penetration here is low, and people use SMS (text messaging) to chat with each other on their mobile phones.

Saya's interface organizes messages into threads and sends them over the phone's less-expensive Internet connection. By some estimates it costs 1,000 times less to send a Saya chat message than a text, and it works on practically any phone.

Only about 40 days after its official launch, the app boasts 20,000 downloads, also mostly outside Ghana. There's been a surge in EgyptIndiaIndonesia and even strife-ridden Syria, possibly thanks to its “street-chat” function that allows users to converse with others nearby.

“Building an application to solve our problem ended up solving a problem for a lot of people,” Mr. Lamptey said.

Like RetailTower, Saya is building its user base before trying to collect sales. It's testing ads that use demographic and locational data, hoping eventually to help companies target consumers who don't mind receiving useful information, he said.

The small firm has momentum, having presented at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, the mobile phone industry's largest global conference.

ClaimSync, a new health-care IT company, sees itself going the opposite route, focusing on the domestic market before expanding into other countries. Its software organizes patient information for hospitals and clinics, helping them better track diagnoses and submit insurance claims more efficiently.

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