People familiar with the Braamfontein area of Johannesburg might have noticed a few changes if they’ve been back to visit recently. Over the last year or so it’s been a hive of activity: buildings have been renovated, open air cafes have opened and there’s a general feeling of up-beat hipster-ness to the whole place.
What was a run-down part of a city generally believed to be in terminal decline has been thrown into hard reverse. It’s been spurred by the arrival of big, interesting companies like Thoughtworks in the old South Point building and a huge amount of investment from fast spending property developers like Adam Levy who can see change coming to Joburg’s centre and are racing to buy up chunks of it before the real landrush begins.
Most intriguing of all these developments – potentially – is the Tshimologong Precinct. Spawned out of the Tech in Braam initiative, this planned shared workspace and tech hub backs onto Wits University and faces a private college between Juta and De Korte street. It’s tucked away behind the achingly hip Randlords tower, with its rooftop bar and TV studio that overlook the stunning Nelson Mandela Bridge.
Tshimologong means ‘new beginning’ in Sesotho, and it’s the brainchild of Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE). JCSE is a joint venture by Wits and the City of Joburg to be a school for software excellence across the continent.
Dwolatzky’s worked in Braamfontein for eight years and knows the dark side of Joburg well. In 2008 he was stabbed while leaving the office, but he’s incredibly upbeat about the area’s future.
“It’s been magically turned around in the last year,” he says, smiling, “There are 5,000 young people living in Braamfontein now, many of whom are students at Wits who’ve come from elsewhere on the continent. Braam is very young, very African.
“It’s the place that the nerds want to live work and play,” he continues, “And they are young, ambitious and black.”
Dwolatzky believes that Braamfontein could be the definitive tech centre for Africa. He references Michael Porter’s theories of how business clusters form, and believes that Braamfontein has a unique opportunity for the continent along the lines of the ‘oval model’ described by Erran Carmel. Braam fits the characteristics for success: not only does JCSE bring both academia and government support to the area, but Guateng is already the epicentre for high tech spending within Africa. Braamfontein is fast becoming a transport hub for the city too, with good links via bus and road to the rest of town.
Johannesburg, in other words, is already the tech capital of the continent. It’s just that initiatives like Cape Town’s Silicon Cape or Nairobi’s Tech City do a better job of attracting interest to their brands.
Tshmilogong will be based around the old Inc nightclub on Juta street. The plan is for the huge dancefloor and mezzanine level to become a four and a half thousand square metre shared workspace, with breakout rooms and meeting spaces in the numerous little shrugs that – Dwolatsky speculates – have probably had a colourful past as intimate corners in a very intimate place. In the courtyard, a small pool will become the centrepiece for evening events. The plan at the moment is to let people use this space for free, and run training sessions and mentorship programs for young developers and entrepreneurs who want to use the space.
Joburg already has similar spaces, notably Jozihub in Stanley Road, but none on the scale Dwolatsky envisions for Tshimologong, which he hopes will help to bring together all the other resources in the city for tech entrepreneurs. He’s not in competition with them, he says, but wants to help raise Joburg’s overall profile among the increasing number of other African tech centres – such as those in Nairobi and Lagos.
Although the Inc structure will form the bulk of the precinct, Wits actually owns several of the other buildings on the same block – including some student residences behind Inc and an industrial catering unit – which it has connected to the university network with a fibre link. One of these will be earmarked for the new home of JCSE, and Dwolatzky hopes the corner buildings will be taken by coffee franchises or internet cafes. Eventually, he wants to persuade the city to pedestrianise the stretch of Juta immediately in front of the main entrance to the precinct to foster a street cafe-type culture for clever tech types to network in over breakfast.
“There are five buildings there that are empty which wits has given to me and said ‘do your thing’,” says Dwolatsky.
Although building work has only just begun, Dwolatsky hopes to start moving in to Tshimologong sometime over the next few months. Microsoft has already confirmed that its start-up incubator, The App Factory, will be taking up residence there and other JCSE partners are looking at using the space too.
As part of the vision to make this more than just another tech hub, though, Dwolatsky is keen to introduce a physical Maker Space into Tshimologong too. He’s approached the Centurion-based hardware hackers collective, House4Hack, to see if they’ll take up residence with their 3D printers and soldering irons.
“Software and apps is still a very interesting area to work within,” Dwolatsky says, “But the really exciting innovation is coming in new hardware.”
Of course, Tshimologong is an ambitious plan and at the moment it’s just an old nightclub that hasn’t been used in years next door to an office space with a collapsing ceiling and a lone security guard on patrol. But it is starting to get noticed – the Mail&Guardian ran a piece on the space this weekend. If it all comes together as planned, it could well be the coolest place for geeks in Africa. We’ll be checking in on its progress regularly over the next few months.