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World-class tech hub planned for Joburg

Tshimologong Precinct will be launched in the coming year, making Johannesburg Africa’s latest technology centre. The hub, which will be set up in Braamfontein, will look to bring together some of the city’s best minds to collaborate and create new digital technology.

It is a project of Wits University’s Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE). Speaking at a media briefing on Tuesday, 24 June, JCSE chief executive Barry Dwolatzky said Johannesburg needed a big technological hub that provided a space for anyone looking to learn, interact with other tech developers, and turn their ideas into businesses. Except for Jozi Hub at 44 on Stanley and Open in Maboneng District, both of which were small operations, Dwolatzky said the city “hardly has a hub”. And the two already up and running “would not be classified as tech hubs when compared to those around the world”.

Dwolatzky spent a year visiting hubs in the US, Europe and the rest of Africa to get ideas of how to build and run one. Tshimologong, he said, was set to be on par with some of the biggest hubs in Africa, including 88mph in Cape Town; iceAddis in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria; and the continent’s best, iHub in Nairobi, Kenya.

Even Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau pledged his support for Tshimologong; in his State of the City address in April he said the metro would partner with Wits in developing the hub.

Most of the 40% that Gauteng contributes to the country’s gross domestic product is generated within a 10km radius in Johannesburg. Close to the centre of that circle is Braamfontein. This is one of the reasons Dwolatzky said it would be the ideal location for a hub.

Braamfontein is home to about 10 000 young people, many of whom are from other parts of Africa. “This is a young African inner city area. If you walk through these streets you will hear every language from Africa spoken. We have a huge population that is bright, mobile and dynamic living in Braamfontein.”

Furthermore, Wits’s East and West campuses are in Braamfontein, and the University of Johannesburg is just three kilometres away. Both have a combined 80 000 students. There are more than a dozen major businesses and organisations in and around the area that need digital support, such as SABMiller, the world’s second largest brewery; mining house Anglo American; First National Bank; and Cosatu, the labour federation. These, said Dwolatzky, were potential clients for businesses that would start up in Tshimologong.

Wits University has already dedicated R30-million to Tshimologong to buy the four buildings on Juta Street and renovate them. Dwolatzky said the university had put in as much as it could afford. Now the JCSE was looking for about R20-million from business and the government to complete the reconstruction.

While visiting hubs around the world, Dwolatzky looked at the business models Tshimologong might adopt. The first he spoke of was the commercial option, where people were charged to use the facility. The second was sponsored and subsidised by the government or social benefit organisations. “They will come and throw money at the project. Few of these succeed because it is expensive to run.

The third was a combination of the two models. It was the one Dwolatzky wanted to adopt, calling it the Robin Hood strategy. This required the member to meet set criteria in order to use the hub. These may include contributions to innovation, skills development, the hub’s social mix, as well as a willingness to learn new skills.

The hub would rely on the honesty of the people using it when it came to payment. Those who could pay the fee would be prompted to do so, while those who could not afford it would be able to use the facility for free. Members who were cash-strapped would either be subsidised by the profit the hub made or through donor funds. “We have crunched the numbers and we are convinced we can get the right mix of people who can pay and those who will be there for free. The moment a person comes through the door everyone is equal. It’s like walking into a church. It makes no difference whether you have paid to be here or you got a free seat, you are part of a community.”

Some of the space will be rented to corporates for meetings and events. The facility will be able to have between 300 and 400 members and, according to the JCSE’s calculations, may cost each person up to R2 000 a month. For the hub to be effective for those using it, a wi-fi connection of up to 60 megabytes per second is needed. “For this hub we need something that exceeds people’s expectations.”

Dwolatzky gave an assurance that anything produced within the hub would belong to the individuals or groups that created them. The hub would only go as far as coaching and mentoring members, assisting in getting their businesses running and introducing the creators to venture capital. “The rule about these hubs is that the person who creates the intellectual property owns it. Wits will not claim any innovation or creation as their own.”

Image 1: The Tshimologong Precinct will look to draw from Johannesburg’s best tech talents and become one of the biggest technology hubs in Africa. Above is an artist’s impression of the hub. (Image: Johannesburg Centre of Software Engineering)
Image 2: Barry Dwolatzky, pictured above, says the JCSE will transform an old nightclub in Braamfontein into the Tshimologong Precinct headquarters. (Image: Shamin Chibba

Shamin Chibba @ mediaclub

 

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