The Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct’s newly launched gaming incubation hub is already working hard to close gaps that are preventing young South African gamers from benefitting from the US$90.7 billion global games market. Supported by Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), this innovative initiative addresses several critical shortfalls – including poor business skills, a lack of mentorship and funding shortfalls.

The Tshimologong Precinct is a digital innovation ecosystem in Braamfontein under the umbrella of the University of Witwatersrand, that provides skills and on-the-job training whilst accelerating the growth of digital enterprises. It enables students and entrepreneurs to showcase their work publicly and access commercial opportunities. The gaming incubation hub focusses on this segment of the digital economy, providing highly equipped facilities and specialised support for start-up gaming enterprises.

Alongside IFAS, AFD first partnered with Tshimologong in 2018, providing EUR 950,000 (R 14,500,000) in funding for the establishment of the Digital Content Hub at the precinct. The partnership was renewed in April this year and a further EUR 450,000 (R7,200,000) in funding paved the way for the creation of the gaming incubation hub.

“The initial investment in 2018 was a first for AFD in digital innovation in South Africa. Furthering the investment reflects our recognition of the cultural, creative and tech industries’ important contribution to the social and economic development of the country,” says AFD Head of Operations in South Africa, Audrey Rojkoff.

IFAS has been a partner since Tshimologong’s inception. Working closely with the Precinct and AFD, it identifies and develops French partnerships in the creative industries, which have also ensured the growth of Tshimologong.

Joy Mawela, the precinct’s Head of Digital Content Hub, says the launch of the gaming incubator followed research on the local gaming industry that was convened by Tshimologong in 2020.

The findings from the research report, which identified weaknesses and suggested future growth strategies, noted that the importance of mobile game development both for Africa as a consumer market and internationally as a driver of the global industry’s growth, should not be underestimated.

Mobile games are expected to account for 52% of the global games market, already valued at US$90.7- billion. Although there are no reliable figures for the value of the mobile gaming market in Africa, mobile games are already the most popular gaming platform in Africa with South Africa having the fastest growing mobile gaming market worldwide.

However, this is off a small base and Africa remains the smallest game market globally. Out of three of the country’s 60 active gaming studios, only six employ more than 10 people. Instead, the majority of studios are microenterprises that are not active commercially and have no cash flow.

Cape Town and Johannesburg are hubs of an industry that is more than 80% white male dominated with significant barriers to entry for females and African entrepreneurs. A lack of opportunities is seeing home grown talent looking to work for global developers.

According to the report, both private sector investment and government support are urgently needed to realise the full potential of gaming in South Africa. This includes the creation of incubators such as Tshimologong’s.
Its nine-month long gaming incubation programme aims to not only lower the entry barriers for African start-ups but assist with access to market. The programme also provides a series of workshops centred on entrepreneurship, business foundations and building soft skills relevant to the industry.

Ntumba Katabua, senior project manager at AFD, adds: “With this initiative, we hope to see African gaming content being exported as opposed to just African gaming talent.”

Mawela says that each of the incubates will be supported at different levels from advanced level through to the very early stages of development. “The idea is to upscale SMMEs and also to empower and equip them with tools that will help them to develop games that are not only playable but can be taken to market because they are of world class quality. We also want to make sure they remain sustainable by connecting them to decision makers that can take each project further,” says Mawela.

This is expected to address another problem – the lack of development of a truly African gaming aesthetic.

Skinnyboy, a studio that describes itself as “unapologetically African” has incorporated a lot of African themes into its already advanced game called Banana Republic. Although the overall aim is to utilise the sophisticated equipment provided by the incubation programme to get their game onto retailers’ shelves, they also have a wider vision.

Skinnyboy founder, Thabile Maganyane, says: “I hope to see a stable gaming ecosystem in South Africa that is flowing with game developers and players. There are good gamers out there that are not getting the recognition they deserve. I hope to see the gaming industry grow into something that brings a lot of success and more to our country.”

Lesley Donna Williams, CEO of the Tshimologong Precinct, concludes: “The gaming sector is a very exciting space globally with the adoption of new users during lockdown. However, South Africa is losing out on this incredible opportunity with talent not being absorbed by the local industry, so they are either leaving the sector or the country. We need to grow larger professional studios, which will help to attract investors and publishers of African content.”

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