Open area workspace (IBM Research-Africa)
The IBM Innovation Hub is part of Johannesburg's "Silicon Valley." The iClub, above, is a common space where students collaborate with IBM researchers. (IBM Research-Africa)

A former nightclub in Johannesburg is now a popular place for startups.

The IBM Innovation Hub on the University of the Witwatersrand campus in Johannesburg is just one example of the growing ties between the United States and South Africa. Students and IBM scientists can collaborate at the Hub while local startups have access to IBM technology and mentorship from university researchers.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan toured the Hub while he was in South Africa March 14 as part of a two-country tour in the continent. During his trip to Africa, Sullivan met with business leaders and other groups in South Africa and Angola to reiterate the new U.S.-Africa strategy that aims to bolster the economies and security of the U.S. and African nations.

People sitting around a table with food (U.S. Embassy South Africa)
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan spent his first morning meeting with business sector executives about growing U.S. investment in South Africa. (U.S. Embassy South Africa)

One of those business leaders Sullivan met was Solomon Assefa, vice president of IBM Research — Africa & Emerging Market Solutions. The American tech development firm partnered with South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology to open its second African branch in 2016 at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Tshimologong Innovation Precinct, dubbed Johannesburg’s “Silicon Valley.”

Assefa says IBM researchers are in South Africa to explore how to best use artificial intelligence and to dig into big data sets in a way that can develop a technically skilled workforce and foster “innovation-based economic growth.”

Two men standing in an office (U.S. Embassy South Africa)
Deputy Secretary John Sullivan (left) met with IBM Research’s Solomon Assefa. (U.S. Embassy South Africa)

The Hub last year celebrated Mandela Day by hosting a dozen aspiring startups for training in design thinking, a problem-solving approach that focuses on teamwork, creativity and user experience. At the end of the day, each team was paired with an IBM researcher to create a path forward for their enterprises. Mandela Day honors Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and a civil rights icon.

IBM benefits from a long-standing relationship between U.S. and South African business sectors. The United States and South Africa traded $14 billion worth of goods in 2018. Some 600 U.S. companies are in South Africa employing more than 200,000 South Africans. Collectively, their production is responsible for 10 percent of South Africa’s gross domestic product.

While in South Africa, Sullivan also visited a Soweto health clinic that is working with a U.S.-backed program to prevent HIV infection.