JOHANNESBURG — A recent R14.5m funding boost from the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) for Braamfontein’s Tshimologong precinct is another feather in the cap for the digital innovation hub. The precinct – which is the brainchild of Professor Barry Dwolatzky, the director of Wits University’s JCSE (Johannesburg Centre of Software Engineering) – first opened its doors in 2016. And while it’s owned by Wits University, it has an open approach that allows anybody to walk off the street, learn new digital skills and build technology solutions. It’s the kind of initiative that we need more of in South Africa and in this interview, the precinct’s CEO, Lesley Williams, tells me more about recent developments at the hub. – Gareth van Zyl
On the line with me got I’ve Lesley Williams, who is the CEO of Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Lesley, before we get into the latest partnership that you struck up with Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the French Institute of SA can you tell us what the precinct does exactly and what it focuses on?
So the name is Tshimologong Precinct and it’s quite a tongue twister. It a Tshwane word that means ‘place of new beginnings’. So, for us, we’re really driving a shift in Braamfontein. We’re setting Braamfontein up as a digital innovation precinct. What that means for us is that it this is the place of technology innovation. So, from a hardware perspective, moving into manufacturers, from a software development perspective as well as from a content perspective. We work with both government (specifically provincial government at the moment) and we have a good relationship with the city as well. We work with multiple corporates and entrepreneurship is at the heart of everything we do. We are an entity that’s wholly owned by Wits University, so we have access to university talent as well.
You’ve got a very interesting positioning in the Johannesburg CBD. It’s really at the heart of things.
Yes, downtown Johannesburg is quite vibrant. I think many stakeholders have come onboard to try to shift what the CBD looks like and I think we had an interesting tipping point. For me, the contribution of Tshimologong is that we believe in this narrative around ‘Africa Rising’ but for us, specifically, we want to make sure that as Africans we aren’t just going to be mere consumers of the world’s technology. We’re very keen to make sure that we’re creating meaningful technology that’s, firstly, locally relevant, but at the quality of international export. Some of the work that we do includes entrepreneurship incubation but we’re also contributing to the skills gap within the digital economy.
Even though it fundamentally falls under Wits, it’s open to many people, to entrepreneurs or people who even come off the street?
Totally, and we’re deliberately a separate entity from Wits University, even though we are owned by Wits. So we are welcoming. Many corporates come to us with specific problems. We’re doing quite a bit in the mining industry, for example, where there is a shift in the mining sector to be relevant. We speak about Industry 4.0, so from both the government as well as corporate perspective, when we are addressed with challenges we get our entrepreneurial community to work on some of these challenges. We’re also spinning out a lot of entrepreneurs from industry but we are open to individuals walking in and we’ll support you where you need be.
Now, you’ve just got a R14.5m boost from the AFD – can you tell us a little bit more about that?
It is a tripartite agreement, if you like, between Tshimologong, the French Development Agency, as well as the Institute of France (I’ll use the English translation). It’s really targeted at developing the content side of the work that we’re doing. So earlier on I mentioned hardware, software, and content. To be more specific, content for us is from virtual reality, artificial intelligence, gaming, animation and music. For us, what the investment allows is a few things. The first is a skills transfer between French agencies as well as agencies and entrepreneurs in SA: that’s primarily for job creation. The second part is around entrepreneurship opportunity and creating access to markets for both French companies in SA, as well as SA companies in France. The third leg of the partnership is around driving international investment to ventures in SA. It’s quite exciting. We already had some of our entrepreneurs pitch at Paris Day a few months ago and just being exposed to that international market opens up a whole lot of opportunities.
Do you think that this is opening the door for more partnerships in the future?
Definitely. For me, this sets a standard about where and how we look at international relationships. I think from a trade perspective, it is coming in from a different angle by making sure that it’s mutually beneficial. But from SA’s perspective, we’re making sure that we’re playing at an international level. I speak to many of my friends across the continent and quite often their bar is what we’re doing in SA and I think SA has a role to play in setting a standard across Africa, but also to make sure that we’re internationally or globally aligned. And this sort of partnership both enables that but it sets a precedent around how we both engage with other counties, and other embassies, and it challenges us to sometimes push above our weight and it stretches us as a nation.
I guess it will also spur on more local digital content development?
Totally. Something that I’ve come to realise in the past few months is that just by travelling a lot in SA, I think our unique contribution is that we develop meaningful tech. I think there’s cool tech that you get in various parts of the world. For example, a kitten greeting you at a hotel (a robotic kitten). Now, there are some interesting elements that come together in the technology there but is it locally relevant? I would argue not. Whereas I see some of the entrepreneurial or the opportunities of the ‘Maker Space’, for example, where our entrepreneurs are designing solutions that are relevant at a city level, at a township level, and you can take cool-tech and apply it in new ways. I think certainly these solutions can be exported to other developing nations.
What do you hope will come from this hub in the next few years?
Various things. So if I zoom into animation, for example, there is a huge shortage for animators globally. There’s a shortage of 30,000 animators, and some of our top-guns in SA are being invited and/or poached to work in other nations, which I think is a fantastic problem. I want us, as a nation, to be the ‘go-to-place’ in terms of accessing world-class technology. I also want to make sure that we’re producing enough talent because we need to retain their skills internationally, but we also need to liberate it globally. So, that’s it for me, as South Africans and Africans we need to play at a global level and be the continent and the country of choice to access talent.
Lesley Williams, thank you so much for telling us more about the precinct and I’m sure that a lot of people are probably going to end up visiting after listening to this podcast.
Yes, please do come over. We’re always welcoming and open to further engagement.