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Philippi Village – Cape Town’s new business centre

Out of the ruins of a derelict cement factory in the heart of one of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs, an astonishing hub of enterprise and activity is rising. Philippi Village has ambitions to change the way local business in the area is conducted, offering the kind of A-grade office environment you might expect in the buzz of Cape Town’s trendier urban spaces.

In Philippi, however, it rises unexpectedly out of the chaotic streets where informal vendors stake out their own places of trade, with or without licences, and the economy lurches along haphazardly. A visitor would be forgiven for believing Philippi to be a forgotten zone, a pocket of neglect in the transformation agenda of post-apartheid South Africa. But stepping into The Hub, the newly completed centrepiece of the old NPC (National Portland Cement) factory, the impression is immediately dispelled.

The building itself is a transformation of genius that was designed as a thesis project for a Masters in Sustainable Design by one of Cape Town’s acclaimed (and usually high-end) architects, Philip Briel. Intended to provide a space where people come to work to find inspiration, the clever integration of the debris from the demolished factory into the walls of the new building offers a tangible example of the idea that new and lovely things can be created in broken and abandoned places.

But while he has lent his creative talents to the physical transformation of the vast factory space, the project is not of Briel’s making. He is a relative latecomer to an ambition that was forged in the early 2000’s when The Business Place Philippi – an organisation that functions as a gateway to entrepreneurial development – became the owner of the old cement factory premises. The property was purchased by The Business Place (Philippi) as a social responsibility project, with grants from Investec Bank and British American Tobacco.

The Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch raised funding to partner The Business Place Philippi in conceptualising the project, which is ultimately intended to become a mixed-use development with light industry, housing, food gardens and even a hospital. The residential section and the gardens are planned down the line, but The Business Place Philippi has been operating since 2005 in a renovated smaller building on site where business support services could begin. This has seen significant uptake, and more than 4,000 people have been through its doors, all receiving business development services of one sort or another.

The renewal of the much bigger factory precinct as a business office space required development funding of a completely different order. A massive cash injection – of R80-million – has come in the form of a joint investment from the Bertha Foundation, based at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, and the South African government’s Jobs Fund. The two have put in R40 million each, enabling the construction of the new Business Hub and setting the ball rolling for the remainder of the visionary project. Already the ground floor, with its clean lines and sweeping double-volume spaces that incorporate welcome shafts of natural light, has been fully let. Half of the offices on the first floor, which has been configured to offer much smaller premises, have been taken up. And the top floor has been designed to accommodate large companies such as call centres. 

A pre-primary school has opened its doors, a Leap Maths and Science Academy has begun operating and the Department of Coffees is about to start trading on the mezzanine concourse. A City Library will welcome readers soon in one of the bigger spaces on the ground floor. Alongside these are a number of entities which have a similar vision: to make a difference to the lives of people in the area. Abalimi Bezikhaya – one of the founding members of The Business Place – which provides support to urban micro-farmers is there; so is the AfriCan Café which provides bakery and coffee shop skills training in remodelled containers which it runs as fully functioning coffee shops. Simphiwe Shoes is the small business startup of Simphiwe Mthywa who used to run a franchise outlet for a national chain before he took the leap to go solo. One of the founder members of The Business Place Philippi, Alan Fleming, designed a container-based fish farm, of which 2 prototypes operate on the property, growing 2 tons of tilapia per year. Conceptualised to bring commercial aquaculture into a poor urban environment, ‘The Fish Farm’ has captured several innovation awards already.

The next phase at Philippi Village will see the launch of a Container Walk, situated on the property, which will be integrated into the Village. In this phase, which has been planned as the pilot for a bigger Container Walk, 24 remodelled shipping containers will be available to small businesses in a dedicated precinct. The design for these containers was put out to tender and the winning design, which was required to give business owners flexibility in how they configure their premises individually, is presently in production. The first 24 containers will all be occupied when they arrive on site – they are already fully subscribed and more are in the pipeline.

Amor Strauss, the general manager of Philippi Village, describes the success of the Container Walk project as a curved ball. Without advertising, within a five-day period, 250 people applied for occupancy of the 24 containers. She and her team decided to weed out those who were taking a chance from those who were serious about starting businesses and they called for deposits. Within a week from that decision, they had collected R60,000 in deposits. 

“We didn’t see that coming. It has just been phenomenal.”

The Container Walk will open when Philippi Village is officially launched in September.

The plan for the Village to be a creative space where people gather for more than just doing business will ultimately see the creation of a residential component, a light industrial zone and an area that will be called the Village Square housing food outlets and providing green spaces for socialising and relaxing.  The design will see the transformation of further dilapidated structures on the property to become a user-friendly space for the people of Philippi.

In the past few weeks, The Hub was handed over to Philippi Village by the building contractors and tenants are now busy retrofitting the spaces they have reserved. There is an air of optimism in the corridors.

For Thomas Swana, CEO of the Philippi Economic Development Initiative (Pedi), the project is a no-brainer. It is set in the heart of an area that is poised for greater development, with a raft of infrastructure catalysts either in planning or about to begin, that will change the way the suburb functions. Streets are to be upgraded, the MyCiTi bus system will be expanded into the area, and the two train stations that serve Philippi are to be modernised.

Philippi has a great deal going for it, although it has significant challenges as a result of its decades of neglect. These have to be managed, and clearly understood, notes Swana, and above all the community needs to be engaged in any decisions and changes that affect it. But, he believes, the new focus on the area is a transformational opportunity. 

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