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Joburg digital precinct aims to nurture new generation of tech entrepreneurs

BARRY DWOLATZKY The Tshimologong Digital Precinct hopes to attract companies developing digital products such as digital hardware, software and content

Photo by Duane Daws

RAVI NAIDOO The catalytic nature of information and communications technology makes it the fastest-growing sector to attract investment

SOLOMON ASSEFA Technology giant IBM is has established its thirteenth research laboratory in the world, in Braamfontein, as part of its ten-year equity equivalent investment programme

28th August 2015

By: Sashnee Moodley

Senior Deputy Editor Polity and Multimedia

  

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Although the Tshimologong digital precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, is just one of the city’s districts dedicated to economic and social development, it aims to use information and communication technology (ICT) to help solve social and economic problems in Johannesburg through innovation.

The precinct is the brainchild of Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) director Barry Dwolatzky, who also heads software engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where the JCSE is based.

Initially envisioned as a precinct that would function as a catalyst to encourage the creation of a digital cluster, Tshimologong – meaning ‘a place of new beginnings’ in seTswana – will be revitalised and redeveloped to attract investment.

Development of the precinct began in 2014 and comprises five buildings owned by Wits, which will be renovated and equipped to meet the digital aspirations of Dwolatzky.

The precinct comprises 3 000 m2, or half a city block, and construction is expected to be completed in the second quarter of next year.

Dwolatsky says, in the 1990s, he became interested in economist Michael Porter’s seminal work on industrial clusters – a geographical area focusing on a specific industrial activity.

“The most famous cluster in the digital sector is Silicon Valley, [in California, US]. I wondered where in Africa might we hope to create a digital cluster and my conclusion was that Braamfontein would be a good candidate.”

Braamfontein was chosen because it is situated near a major research university and businesses; it boasts good infrastructure, public transport links and a pool of skills.

The precinct hopes to attract companies developing digital products such as digital hardware, software and content. Dwolatzky tells Engineering News that there is a strong interest in financial technology, applications, games and the Internet of Things.

Some of the investors and partners of the Tshimologing digital precinct include Wits, the City of Johannesburg and technology giants Microsoft and IBM, as well as telecommunications company Telkom.

The City of Johannesburg has also committed to investing further resources and work into the Braamfontein area for the next ten years, during which time it hopes to attract more private investment in the area.

Tech Ecosystem
City of Johannesburg Department for Economic Development and Tourism executive director Ravi Naidoo tells Engineering News that, through various precincts in Johannesburg, the city is trying to ensure that the economic logic of a particular area is enhanced.

He adds that it is hoped that Tshimologong will attract start-ups as well as large companies, enterprises and entrepreneurs.

“This forms part of the ecosystem we are trying to build. We are interested in ideas that are going to contribute to solving problems in Johannesburg or help solve companies’ problems. This is where growth happens,” Naidoo declares.

City of Johannesburg head of broadband strategy Zolani Matebese says developing the precinct is about creating an ecosystem and a culture of innovation and entrepre- neurship, as well as encouraging people to take the first step in developing their businesses and ideas.

The city has collaborated with the JCSE on digital programmes such as the inaugural Hack.Jozi Challenge, a competition for Johannesburg-based start-up entrepreneurs, which took place earlier this year and aimed to foster skills, innovation and entrepreneurship in digital technology.

Naidoo says the city supports the establishment of partner institutions such as the JCSE.

“We use that partnership to run projects and jointly build areas in particular sectors. It is really about supporting ICT entrepre- neurship through the Tshimologong digital precinct and in conjunction with the JCSE partnership. As the city, we will initiate and fund programmes such as Hack.Jozi and bring in a lot of our partners. That gives impetus and resources beyond what we will fund,” he says.

Multinational Aspirations
Microsoft South Africa has established the AppFactory, in partnership with the JCSE. The AppFactory is an internship programme that recruits young developers and helps them acquire vital work experience while building fun and innovative apps that will be published in the Windows 8 store.

IBM has expanded its Research Africa laboratory, in Nairobi, Kenya, into Braamfontein, as part of its ten-year equity equivalent investment programme (EEIP) and as part of the expansion of IBM Research Africa. IBM will invest R700-million through this programme to support South Africa’s continued economic development in the strategic areas of research and development, ICT skills development and enterprise development.

IBM’s new research laboratory aims to develop commercially viable solutions to spark new business opportunities across key sectors such as smarter cities, transportation, public safety, healthcare and deep science.

IBM South Africa EEIP executive director Gavin Pieterse tells Engineering News that the laboratory is operational and research programmes are under way. From 2016, the laboratory will be collocated with Wits in the new Tshimologong digital precinct.

The collaboration agreement with Wits entails the university’s providing the infrastructure for IBM’s entire EEIP, including the new laboratory, for ten years, rent-free.

“This has enabled us to direct the bulk of the R700-million towards maximising the number of beneficiaries in the EEIP,” Pieterse says, adding that IBM’s investments in Tshimologong comprise the internal fixtures and fittings of the laboratory and the costs of utilities.

IBM Africa research director Solomon Assefa will lead a research team at the laboratory, with the laboratory focusing on advancing big data, cloud and mobile technologies to support South Africa’s national priorities, transform key industries and help build critical infrastructures.

It’s inner-city location will also enable IBM’s new researchers to form part of a ‘living lab’ that will explore the role of advanced digital technologies and big data analytics in urban renewal.

“We believe that IBM’s cutting-edge technology has an important role to play in delivering on South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) and its Research Development and Innovation roadmap – making the country more efficient, creating opportunities for young people and businesses, making systems and services more accessible and inclusive, and establishing South Africa as the home of world-leading scientific research,” Assefa tells Engineering News.

He says, in addition to intelligent infra- structure and transforming key sectors, IBM’s research laboratory will contribute significantly to developing the local innovation ecosystem and boosting a dynamic new community of programmers, designers, developers, entrepreneurs and start-ups.

ICT Investment
Matebese says ICT is one of the key pillars of the NDP and is, therefore, a key sector in economic growth and job creation.

ICT was previously regarded as a jobless industry, he adds, but it has developed into an industry that is creating jobs in all sectors.

Naidoo agrees, adding that the catalytic nature of ICT makes it the fastest-growing sector to attract investment.

Matebese believes that the Tshimologong digital precinct is already a success, owing to investments by multinationals such as Microsoft and IBM. This success must be exponentialised and consolidated, with new entrants encouraged to enter the market, he adds.

It has never been easier to start a business in the ICT space, Matebese declares.

“The City of Johannesburg has taken an ecosystem approach to everything it does. Our broadband platform reaches all regions of the city and we are adding free WiFi to ensure people benefit from it,” he says.

Meanwhile, as part of the City’s CoJedi learnership programme, 250 disadvantaged youth who have a Grade 12 mathematics qualification will be trained as fibre and server engineers and successful candidates will graduate with industry-standard qualifications.

The 250 participants have undergone four months of technical training since March and will enter six months of in-service training on fibre maintenance, networking and content, as well as Website creation and Photoshop.

Naidoo adds that the City of Johannesburg is undertaking these activities to complement activities at the Tshimologong digital precinct.

It is part of the city’s broadband strategy to unlock the potential of ICT entrepreneurs

“ICT is the lifeblood of Johannesburg. The city is a connector city of the country and region. We have the most intensive ICT use in the country and, therefore, we have to promote its use because it is the vein of the whole city,” he states.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

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