When you consider that historically Africa’s cultural narrative has largely been told by outsiders, and that some of the continent’s best art works have long languished in private collections, the extraordinary importance of what businessman and philanthropist, Jochen Zeitz has set out to do with the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) packs a positive punch.

The result of a not-for-profit partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Zeitz, the continent’s first museum dedicated to African contemporary art is set to open in September of this year, with access for all, a founding principle. The global significance of the museum is not lost on Zeitz who has over a period of three decades amassed an extensive collection, considered by many to be the leading global collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. It is his collection that will form the heart of the museum’s founding collection as Zeitz has given it to the museum on long-term loan.

Housed in a historic grain silo at the V&A Waterfront that had stood derelict for years, British architect Thomas Heatherwick has been tasked with the job of reimagining the 57m high building with 42 gargantuan inner tubes into an iconic museum. But then Heatherwick is no stranger to conceptual conundrums, having designed the ingenious ‘seed cathedral’ for the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010, the redesign of London’s double-decker Routemaster bus in 2011 and the acclaimed Olympic Torch for the London Olympics in 2012.

Built in 1921, the Cape Town grain silo was a ground breaking design for its day, and for more than half a century it was the tallest building in the city. Split into two parts, there is the elevator tower where The Silo Hotel (that opens in March) will be located, while the actual storage silos themselves will house the museum areas.

Heatherwick’s ingenious design has sought to preserve the extraordinary cellular structure of the building by carving out an elliptical section through the densely packed silo chambers. The result is a grandiose cathedral-like atrium, or what Heatherwick describes as a scaled-up version of one grain of corn. ‘Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, we wanted to celebrate it and pay homage to the confidence and ambition of the generation that built it,’ he adds.

Laid out over nine floors, the museum will have 80 different galleries spanning more than 6 000m2 in exhibition space, and an entire floor devoted to education as part of the museum’s mission to develop a new art-loving, museum-going audience. It is an enormous achievement not just as a chronicle of what has gone before but as an icon for what is to come.

* www.zeitzmocaa.museum The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa will open on 22 September.