From starting an animation studio to launching a tech company: Meet SA’s first black animator

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David Phume. (Photo: Supplied)
David Phume. (Photo: Supplied)

In 1994, David Phume was just a 12-year-old boy living in Rockville, Soweto, who dreamt of a future beyond his township environment.

His father bought him animation software that led him to a career in animation.

After completing 3D animation studies at Boston Media House in Johannesburg, he landed his first job at Red Pepper Productions as a 3D animator.

“At most industry events and in local animation communities I’d be the only black guy in the room,” David tells YOU. “At that time, I became the go-to person in terms of graphics and animation and soon accepted the title of being South Africa’s first black animator.”

In 2005, at the tender age of 23, he founded Penthouse Motion Pictures. The broadcast design and animation studio has gone on to win numerous creative accolades.

In 2011, he did a mentorship programme at the San Francisco animation studio Animation Mentor, where he studied character animation. While there, he also discovered he had an interest in artificial intelligence (AI).

Now at 37 years old, David has turned his entrepreneurial spirit towards developing Africa’s robotics and AI industry.

“The journey started in 2016 but I’ve always had a love and a passion for technology. Had I not done animation back then I’d have definitely been a computer programmer,” he says.

David has since been back to San Francisco to establish links with businesses involved in robotics and AI. He’s also travelled to India and worked with a team of experts in the field.

“The biggest mistake was to copy all that I gathered in these countries. I had to firstly look at the colour of my skin and then I needed to look at the fact that I’m African. I decided to be true to myself and identify my own country’s problems as well as our continent’s challenges. That’s when I actually found a true sense of what my mission is,” he says.

Through his research, David realised that Africa has a big problem right now in the form of economic slavery. And at its core is our lack of technology and affordable access to it.

“We’ve always been dependent on other countries for technology. To be independent, we need an army of technologists that are in Africa and that are going to move Africa forward,” he explains.

To address this, David enrolled in an online course in robotics and AI with leading ed-tech platform Udacity. He went on to launch Blackhain.ai, a technology company that is founded on four pillars: to inspire, identify talent, nurture skills, and innovate. These four pillars allow David and his team to execute his mission.

The first pillar, to inspire, has led David and his team to establishing a tech-art studio whereby they create, collect, sell, and donate art pieces that strongly embody Afrofuturism. These pieces are a combination of technology, sci-fi, and African art.

“We want to work in a place that always reminds us of what we’re doing. We also want people to walk into this space and be reminded of who they are and to leave this place feeling inspired.”

So far, they’ve made a piece called Coloniser which illustrates how people’s minds have been colonised.

The second pillar is about identifying and nurturing raw talent. To this end, David and his team have visited schools around the country and are working to showcase that talent in a robotics challenge TV show.

“Six schools will be competing against each other with the aim of finding African roboticists,” he says.

David Phume's robotics

The show is in its pre-production phase and David is working on a broadcasting deal. Due to the lockdown, some of these plans have been delayed but David’s team is confident that they’ll have an online version of the show ready by September.

“Once you’ve identified that talent, you want to nurture that talent and that’s why we decided to launch a School of Robotics and AI, which speaks to the third pillar,” David goes on to say.

From their planned TV show, they’ve identified five candidates for study at the School of Robotics and AI. They’ll be enrolled in the programme on fully funded scholarships. The main courses in this school are robotics engineering and AI programming. Those candidates with no computer programming knowledge or experience, David says, will take compulsory courses in C++ and Python before entering the programme.

“My goal is to have more than 5 000 students from across Africa to be enrolled into this robotics and AI programme by 2025,” he says.

The school is partnering with online learning platforms, including Udacity, to give these learners credible qualifications in computer programming, AI and other courses.

The last pillar, innovation, is executed in Blackchain’s innovation lab. This lab creates customised software for enterprises and business communities.

“Africa has never taken science and engineering seriously and it’s time for us to identify and nurture this talent,” David maintains.

“We need to also awaken Africans to the fact that we shouldn’t get excited about things we don’t understand. We need to stop being just consumers but take a stand and be creators.”

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