On the cold morning of July 3rd , I took a 45 minute taxi from Krugersdorp to Johannesburg – my trip to the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein was a result of a scheduled meeting with one of the people that I was told would give me an in-depth picture of the purpose and function of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. A week prior the interview, it took a few a exchanges with Kendal via email to find a free day on his schedule – see he is quite a busy man, he is the head of Events and Marketing at Tshimologong and, unsurprisingly, word is that he was hardly present. I really didn’t know what he looked like before we sat down and spoke – when they first referred me to Kendal at reception (without providing his full name). I honestly thought I was going to be introduced to a white guy that ran the place. A day or so later, the the email exchanges changed that assumption – I could only tell that he was a black Tswana guy judging from his one email notifying me that he has taken note of my requests, “Go tswa Aifounong ya ka ” – “From my iPhone”.
It was a short walk along 41st Juta street before I found myself approaching a familiar entrance to the Precinct. It isn’t hard to miss – a building with a blue exterior wall has the words “Wits Digital Innovation Precinct” on it. So it doesn’t fail in making its existence conspicuous. The entrance walkway lead to straight to the reception – which doesn’t go without a transparent glass wall on the right, exposing a working space within which a number of people were busy on their laptops, cellphones and white boards.
I’ve been here before myself on a number of occasions but I still felt like a newcomer as I wasn’t really a member. A few familiar faces greeted me. Among them, the receptionist that was kind enough to setup a schedule for Kendal in light of my interview request. I was asked to wait a few minutes after I told them that I am here for an interview with Kendal. I sat down, pulled out my laptop and observed the area in a few intervals.
To counter the dry winter air of Joburg , the reception area, juxtaposed to its own coffee shop, has a number of heaters placed along the walls near the ceiling – adding to the cosy yet busy environment. There was a flat screen which had quotidian notifications, changing from upcoming community events, member activities to the regular static WiFi password for visitors, you just can’t miss it. The WiFi is fast and free and in a sense I think it works in enticing potential participants in as much as it preserves one’s work flow.
The entrance is comfortable yet retains a vibrant ambiance that is expected in a space that is dedicated to tech. Opposite side of the reception was the entrance to a working space which requires a biometric scan to enter. Members were going in and out, mostly young vibrant people – some had student cards, big back-packs and carried their laptops and Macs as they carried on their objectives for the day at Tshimologong. One Indian guy that was likely a dev was on lunch (you can often tell by the lack of fashion sense and that time keeping habit that often comes with geekiness ). A few gray hairs made their way in, group of executives and a few others walked like they have a lot of money to spend on ideas.
One has a good view of the reception activities and the faces of those that walk in – I was seated on a coffee table where the walkway was in view – the outside environment and the coffee section is separated by glass.
There was a medley of young women and men, some racial diversity – majority being black – they found their way in numbers into the workspace beyond for some event. I was processing this scene before being called by the receptionist. I was told that Kendal is on his way and moments later he emerged from a passage that was beyond the glass-walled workspace joining the reception area. Kendal greeted me enthusiastically – he was a short black guy, probably in his early 40s, with a few gray hairs on his beard, spectacled and calm. He was on time but that didn’t stop him from mentioning his slight delay.
“You’ve been here for long? Sorry to keep you waiting, been caught up trying to fix a couple of things. Shall we?”
We went past the coffee area and he lead me through the biometric scan door into a vast cool workspace where number of students were placed into groups – all huddled around laptops and paperwork. The area has a mix of graffiti-like art on the opposite side of the entrance, adding an urban street feeling to the space. There were a few comfortable looking couches and tables at the edge of the space – the type of contemporary furniture you would like to sink into to check emails or have a chat with a colleague on break. We went past the main workspace and found ourselves in a spacious room that is fit for meetings and presentations – it is there where we settled ourselves for our interview.
Before we could start, however, we were interrupted by a few calls that he let me know were in need of his attention.
“I am sorry I have to take this – I’m kinda in a middle of a crisis…”, he said, pulling out his iPhone 10 to address the situation. The conversation was split between different calls and some emails, all in the attempt to fix a mishap. I assumed that it probably had to do with a recent marketing process. A few minutes later he was done and had a little less than an hour for the interview. My expectation was that we would follow the line of questions I had, but because of time constraints he just went in on it in full – almost as if he is well experienced in this sort of thing – well he probably is, quite likely, as his style of speaking was elaborate. (So what I did is take his answers in place them in that format, for the full interview transcript, click on this link).
He turned to me with the same enthusiasm and seriousness he had earlier, quite ready to give us the answers to the questions I had for him.
“So you said which media you from?”, he asked.
“Rooted-Tech, a tech blog we just started recently….”, I said. He pulled out his pen and took down the name of the blog, “Oh yes I remember, sure we can go ahead on the interview…”
So tell us a bit about this place – what is it and what do you do here?
We are Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. The word “Precinct” is used deliberately because we believe that the work we doing isn’t constrained in one space or one building – rather it is a dream and vision that we have that the work that we are doing, which goes beyond just 41 Juta street.
So we are a digital incubator. We work with digital and tech start-ups. That’s what we are looking to do, that is our primary focus and that’s what we are here to do.
Besides the startups that get incubated here, we also have a co-working space. So we have other members of the tech-community, that rent space, rent a seat… on a monthly basis, to use the facilities; printing, Internet, really quick Internet 500 MB per second. We even share it with our neighbors – got like a bunch of people living in their apartments behind us…yeah. Also landlords and they use our Internet. We made our password username “freelyavailable”. It’s part of our thing, democratising the access to the Internet, you know? Part of the challenge of 21st century digitization of the continent is access to the Internet.
The people that approach you – are they usually young people ? Also, do the people that approach you have more experience in industry? Like what’s the disparity there? Who usually comes in?
So we get approached a lot by young people because we are a Wits owned entity. They come in and co-work and get incubated and take part in our hackathons and meet-ups. We have approaches by the more mature entrepreneur – they got deep domain understanding, the solutions they come with are imbued with understanding of that industry – which is great – so their approach is totally different as well. So I’d say great majority of people we work with are young people. Matured entrepreneurs make sure that we stay relevant to young entrepreneurs and we are also very keen on creating a safe and comfortable place for the older entrepreneurs to come work out here.
Could you briefly explain the process these digital ideas undergo before they hit the market?
To incubate them we use the lean methodology – to the point where they are strong enough to stand on their own and maintain a profitable business. It is very much basic. This has all been sourced, we didn’t create this curriculum. The very basic tenants that we work off – these are words that get thrown around quite a lot in the industry like “fail fast”, “fail forward”, “don’t be scared to take risks”, “test all of your hypotheses”, “test again and go back” and “work more on your assumptions” – so those are the most important things to make sure that we get an idea of how good your innovation is. I mean everyone got a good idea that is gonna solve the world’s problem, solve the community’s problems, but have you tested the hypotheses? Who is your end user? Do they want to use it? How easy it is for them to actually interact with whatever it is that you are producing? So that is the basis of the coaching that we do – to make sure the hypotheses are tested so that when you do go out there, your idea is tried and tested and you have gone back and forth to market – interacted with your mentors, your peers and you find sometimes that you have pivoted, and what you had in mind initially becomes something completely different after a few sessions of the testing of your assumptions. So those are the most important things – all of course looking towards getting to the point where you are out building – another commonly brandy minimal viable product. Those are the things we look at in terms of getting our cohorts and startups ready for the rest of the world.
Are there some projects and ideas that you can briefly mention that are currently in the incubator phase? Or any project you are collaborating in? if not, what successful projects are worth mentioning ?
The Project that I am working on right now is something that we working on where… the equivalent of our development banks in South Africa – the French version of that and the French embassy, we got in a deal with them – well a partnership, where we are going to create a digital content hub. And literally the purpose of the digital content hub is to create content that is digital. We launching it on Monday (09th July) and obviously we just dealing with some of the backend of that – the logistics that went a little awry just now but I believe that we have just fixed it. Well, the reason I am mentioning it is that it is a big part of our launch into creating a voice that is relevant to the industry. We do not believe we can ever be the sole owners of a voice in helping Africa become digitized – Joburg first [laughs], then South Africa, then the continent but we believe that we can be part of an ecology, part of a system – part of a ecosystem to be exact – where there are many different voices and each one as strong as the other, each one as interesting and as compelling as the other. We just want to make sure that we are a relevant part of that bigger thing. Through that is this partnership that we got with the AFD. So we launching it, It’s worth several millions of rands over a couple of years and we are going to be creating content from animation, skills academy – incubating people to become animators – incubating people to become gaming programmers, coders and creating content for everybody. We want SAMRO on board – SACEM will be the French version of SAMRO, with Multichoice – we want them on board, with whoever. You’ll be hearing a lot about it in a couple of weeks so this is a bit of a scoop.
On skills development, like coding – can you briefly explain how Tshimologong offers this? – what are the prerequisites for one to be trained in programming? Do they have to be associated with Wits? Can anyone be considered?
Anybody can come in and you’d enjoy it – you get a space where you can plan and take your skills to a different level or any different route. Just basic programming. Those specific languages I believe are the foundation for all other coding languages where you can get to a point where you can branch out or focus on one specific topic, if you want. For example, when we talk about coding we working on a project with a big client where we gonna take on, once we sign a deal – the details I’ll give you – is we going to be working on creating a cohort of blockchain coders. So there aren’t a lot of block chain coders worldwide… in 2017 there was like 5000 worldwide. That speaks volumes right? So we are quite keen to get this project off the ground – keen to get into a space where we are able to address that shortage of skills in blockchain coding…
The entity that’s helping you in creating this cohort of blockchain coders… care to share the name?
Professor Dwolatzky’s vision is for Braam to be our very own “Silicon Valley” and engender an economic renaissance. How close are we to this?
I’d say we are pretty close. I haven’t been to Silicon valley myself, I’ve just seen it in movies you know (laughs). But I say this because… the one thing stands out when you walk through this door is that you find a lot of young people who are being deliberate about what they are doing. So people don’t work through this door and spend the day here out of accident. People are being deliberate about pursuing tech, pursuing digital as a livelihood – a means to an end, as a means to solving societal issues or a societal problem… and that is I think a key ingredient in saying – yes creating a Silicon Valley in Braamfotein is becoming a reality. The kind of partnerships that Tshimologong has got with different members of the South African economy and medium in Joburg attest to that as well. Some of our strategic founding partners like ABB – ABB might know the naming sponsors of formula-e. That’s one of our strategic naming partners. IBM, one of twelve research labs world-wide and it’s about 10 meters away from where we are now – Based in our Precinct. ABSA, Microsoft – these are just some of those big name companies that carry a big punch in the tech-industry. Wits as well, in terms of the research they got, the research that they bring to this place – students come with their own volition – some come through a programme, so we definitely well on our way. So right now we got a class that is run by MIT, on start-ups. So MIT being the foremost leading tech-institution in the world.
Tell me more about the MIT class back there – what are they exactly doing there?
So it is an arrangement that we started a couple of years ago, through Professor Dwolatkzy – with MIT – whom were quite interested in what he was doing – part of the inspiration comes from the (Candice?) Square in Boston – he arranged some of their students and graduates and MBAs to come and interact with young students from Wits, take them through their paces and teach them about entrepreneurship – digital entrepreneurship – and to do this with MBAs from MIT.
How much does it cost to be part of this MIT course? What are the prerequisites for one to be involved in this?
It’s free of charge. The deal we struck with MIT – Tshimologong and MIT carry the cost for it. We advertise as widely as we can and have people revert with different responses and we swift through that and get a cohort of – I think of about 40 people – and they come and sit during the holiday and this is what they get out it.
How does one apply ? When is it done…?
Once a year – round this time of the year [June]. It’s gonna happen again next year. We need to make sure that you on our mailing list and as when it comes up then we can see that it is time for it again and send you an application – then take it from there.
Does Tshimologong have some kind of consensus on how to target youth unemployment in South Africa? If So, what are the key approaches that Tshimologong has in doing this?
Well first is starting a tech digital incubator – we’ll address that – I’m yet to mention the maker space that we’ve got but I’ll get to that as part of the thing. A tech and digital incubator – what it does it creates a new understand of what is available out there. Entrepreneurship in this country has swung from being a swear word to being the panacea for all of our socio-economic ills. By swear word I mean that entrepreneurs were people that didn’t pass their studies – you know that was the thinking. That if you are an entrepreneur you failed at something and if you failed you must be a loser – that is the South African way of thinking and it is still prevalent now – that if you fail then you are a loser. Which now in “global speak” failing is a good thing – it means that you went out there and took risks and you tested your idea and it didn’t work and maybe you just changed it a little bit – changed it up or discarded it and tried something else. At least that is what we are trying to teach – that failing doesn’t necessarily mean end of it all. The challenge is that some people only have one shot, so sometimes when you fail then that’s it you know – you need to go and try somewhere else because you can’t get back up, you can’t get that hand up that you would have needed to really get passed it.
I’m talking a little bit in circles, it is because there’s a lot of stuff that’s uh… that applies to my answer to this question. It is also important that we let you know that in terms of the skills development and addressing the skills shortage in tech and digital – it is a global phenomena but being part of this particular endeavor, as understood this tech-incubator we are addressing that. So teaching people how to code – it is everybody that needs coders, banks need coders, big companies need coders, people who are creating apps need coders, universities need coders – so everybody needs some kind of a program that is going to help them interface with the hardware. So that is a big part of the big part of what we are doing to address that. Also, like I said with the incubation we do the same thing – we found out that some people have actually moved from other industries and come into this – one used to be a banker or one used to do something else. You’ll find that they got a way to help place graduates into businesses and therefore they come and sort out their digital businesses.
To backtrack a little bit. You did say about creating like a hub for… sort of like having a roll out of people that have their ideas and helping them build on them. With respect to what I am trying to do with my friend , for example machine learning and tech-media – would this place help me in doing that? And how would you get involved?
One of my partners is called Jam-Lab. So Jam-Lab incubates journalists. Some of the journalists they incubate are written media journalists – there’s one, for example, that works in community radio – so I think it’s an entire gambit that gets covered – so I would imagine that there’s scope for you in the program? If not, there’s a scope for you outside of the program. So we got incubation programs that are run in specific to a bluechip that’s paying for seats for a number of people and “this is what they want to happen out of it”. Out of that, we realized that we also need to create access to people from the community to some of the learnings in that. So there’ll be a 12 week programme and each time the cohort comes through and with specific things that they taught in web framing [sic], typing, UX and so on. We want to make that available to the public as well, so people who are interested at that point in their lives can come forward. We are also doing meet ups, with the likes of IBM – the first one we going to do is on the 19th of July, we going to talk AI – AI in business. We can do a lot with AI – things like intellectual property in AI, that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of things we can do – there’s a lot we can do in IT. So right now our focus is to make sure that our programmes that closed are accessible to the public for meet ups… and also have periodic meet ups and master classes that are sponsored by some of our other partners that speak to tech – so you might find that the UX meet up was a master class is something you might interested in, like AI, you can come to that instead.
How often do these meet ups happen?
We have two a month and we had a very quiet May because we had a lot of events we were working on – very quiet June because we had a lot of events we were working on. Please understand that this is a startup in itself, so some of our processes are not set yet. We haven’t went through our 12 month cycle yet-
Tshimologong has been in existence – the current form hasn’t been through a 12 month cycle. Prof Barry started Tshimologong – I think it has been 3 years we’ve been in this space – the building next door – they broke this building down, refurnished it and sorted out the building next door, so we now have this block. It has always belonged to Wits but they weren’t using it…. So in its current format its less than a year old, but with Prof Barry working , fund raising, incubating, running Joburg Software Center for Engineering, its been in existence. It was launched in September 2016 but our CEO was appointed in October or September last year. I was appointed in mid November. Full cycle in its current format hasn’t happened.
Consider someone fresh out of high school with an interest in Tech development but no technical knowledge. What advice would you give them on the best way to get up and running in this space?
I think you should just come in and talk. Come in and tell us what you got an interest in. Come in and tell us what is it that you want to do. We find that most people that do come in from the “street” say “I got this idea, can you help me design an app for it?” – which in itself is a bit of a challenge simply because we don’t have the capacity, currently, in our current format – we do not have the capacity to design apps. It costs a bit of money, takes a bit of time – and you need the right kind of person to be able to translate an idea into an app [for example]. So it’s a capability we working on – we working on building but rather do stuff from scratch we reaching out to others that have got the capability already to build. So we then create the connection – like I said, we working within an ecology and we believe in collaboration.
In terms of tech developers, the labor costs of developers from outside the country are generally much cheaper than local developers. What is your opinion of local developers losing out on jobs to cheaper foreign labor? Should our young developers reduce their expected rates per hour?
Neither here or there. I think that phenomena is across the board regardless what profession one is in. Labor is expensive in this country – in some instances. You find that labor in other instances is a lot cheaper – for example, an American consultant would get, let’s make it simple, a R100, European consultant would get R88, a South African Consultant would get about R65. So that’s not altogether true across the board that South African developers are more expensive than developers from elsewhere. What you do find though is that developers from elsewhere are a lot more experienced than local developers, they have capabilities that South African developers do not have – for example, a prime example would be software testing. A lot of testing of software is sourced out to India because they have been doing it for decades and they’ve kept up their capabilities. This used to be the case in South Africa but at some point it became a easier to farm it out and as a result the capabilities within the tech-ecology fell back. Currently most of our software testing is done by Indian-techies, based in India. So what should be happening – I’d like to rephrase the context of the question – we should be building capabilities in-house, building capabilities in South Africa as opposed to consuming what is been created elsewhere… and part of that is we got our software testing developing validation center which does software testing – our most famous example of this is a couple of years ago the Gauteng Department of Education decided it was going online for registrations. Year one, BOOM, crashed. You know about it? It crashed in 2016. So we went to knock on E-gov’s door – we told them with this arrangement we can do work for you – come to us, we’ll test software for you, we’ll test the coding for you. Is it good code? is it bad code? and can it withstand the ten thousand to forty-thousand simultaneous hits that you want? Year two, it happened, year 3. So that’s because that exists there but it exists in isolation, there aren’t a lot of similar centers that can do that for multiple clients. So that needs to be developed and we working on that. We are actually starting a program where we are going to create software developing and try to create a cohort of software developers.
Compared to the tech development in Cape Town, how does Johannesburg compare?
I think the VC industry is a lot stronger than it is in Johannesburg. The appetite for risk used to be higher in Cape Town than it is in Johannesburg – the reasons for that I can’t tell you yet. In terms of solutions that you find, they are not different – they just as relevant to what’s in favor of people. We find that there has been a positive growth – positive surge for tech that is good and tech that is sustainable and tech that is relevant. Not this flashy tech (see my post on neomania!) – flashy tech is cool, I mean I love flashy tech, but I also like tech that actually means something – tech that makes a difference. Someone created a taxi-app called Kwela, what it does is that it specifically targets women – it allows them to access information to help them plan their travels using taxis better. Let them know that there’s a strike at that taxi rank – queues at that taxi rank – this is available or whatever is happening related to that. So as a woman who has to maybe travel alone it is a lot easier to plan, a lot easier to plan work safety into what one is thinking. This is because in South Africa women are the most marginalized – African women at that because they the one’s most likely to be using taxis – If you go past anywhere in a line, waiting for a taxi before or after work, you find that 90% or so is women – so it is fantastic, it’s tech that is sustainable, it is relevant to people – so there’s that kind of stuff.
He looked at is watch. It was a few minutes past one and we decided to stop the interview. We were constrained by time and our exchange met its conclusion. I thanked him for his time and he was keen on hearing from me soon regarding the interview. We walked back to reception, a short conversation on how I could become a member and my hopes in being a regular at the place accompanied our paces – I also wanted to be involved in contributing to the local development of tech, I thought that any aspiring tech-entrepreneur would want this too. We said our goodbye’s and for Kendal Makgamathe, it was back to Precinct business. For me it was back to reflecting and planning.
If Professor Dwolantskzy’s vision comes to fruition and if indeed it is viable within the tricky economical landscape of South Africa, it will greatly transform tech-entrepreneurship in Johannesburg. It would effectively answer the problem of youth unemployment and it will benefit small businesses that desperately seek to be digitized. Currently, I think Tshimologong would benefit more people if it becomes more accessible to those that aspire to create solutions as it is relatively expensive to be part of because funding for membership may be an obstacle for the impecunious – but word is you just need to poke a few people with your brilliant idea and perhaps you’ll be lucky to be given a sponsor, of sorts. So your hustle is key. I also figured that it helps if you are a Wits student – perhaps your research or academic related idea can gain traction with the help of a well connected network of mentors, professors and funding opportunities.
There’s something infectious about Tshimologong, something that just sticks with you – you just feel the urge to be involved and be working on something that matters. The people and staff walk in there with a purpose and the space itself, resourced and confined within a few blocks from the familiar walls of Wits academia, revivifies the hopes of fresh opportunities in young people who dare to dream. So if you are tech-entrepreneur, a student with a STEM major or you are a person that is willing to exchange their years of youth for building on a great idea, my question is – why not check it out and exploit whatever serendipity throws your way?
All Photos: Tshepo Molane.
To find out more about the Precinct, visit the Tshimologong website: https://tshimologong.joburg/