A BAG FULL OF DREAMS

CityPress - - Business - LE­SETJA MALOPE le­setja.malope@city­press.co.za

Collen Mashawana ar­rived in Jo­han­nes­burg in 2000 with big bags filled with fruits from Venda and even big­ger dreams. Fast-for­ward to 2017, and Mashawana seems to have found his gold and, as ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Afribiz In­vest, a hold­ing com­pany that boasts a diver­si­fied port­fo­lio of in­ter­ests through 14 sub­sidiaries, he is cer­tainly op­ti­mistic that the coun­try’s econ­omy can only present op­por­tu­ni­ties, even in these tur­bu­lent times.

Born into a fam­ily of three in Tho­hoyan­dou, Lim­popo, Mashawana was raised in a typ­i­cal small fam­ily, and was min­i­mally in­volved in his grand­mother’s in­for­mal busi­ness and his fa­ther’s tourism busi­ness.

Priv­i­leged enough to go to one of the lo­cal pri­vate schools of Li­ivha, he pro­ceeded to ma­tric­u­late at Tshikevha Chris­tian School be­fore clutch­ing his big bags and head­ing south to join his el­der brother who was based in down­town Jo­han­nes­burg.

“The game plan was to come and look for the gold.

So when you come to Jo­han­nes­burg, you al­ways hear there’s gold and you come and look for greener pas­tures,” he said.

“So I went straight to my brother who lived in Hill­brow at the time, car­ry­ing all those bags.

“They used to call them Mashangaan bags. I re­mem­ber when I came to Joburg I was darker than I am to­day, more con­fused, and my brother said let’s meet in Sand­ton so I took my big bags with all those ba­nanas and got a taxi to Sand­ton to meet him,” he said, laugh­ing about his very first day in Jo­han­nes­burg.

He reg­is­tered as an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy stu­dent at a lo­cal col­lege while work­ing as a packer for a na­tional re­tail store and that was when the jour­ney be­gan.

Mashawana said that, when his brother moved to Lyn­d­hurst, he started a pay­phone busi­ness and later a car wash, also in the area, while still work­ing.

“I was the first per­son to start the pay­phone busi­ness in that area and I em­ployed some­one to run it and over the week­ends I would take over,” he said.

Mashawana man­aged to get a bet­ter job at Mi­crosoft af­ter com­plet­ing his qual­i­fi­ca­tion but his busi­nesses were also boom­ing and, as a re­sult, he went on to open a restau­rant in the area and an­other in his home­town, busi­nesses he later sold when he moved on to es­tab­lish a hold­ing com­pany.

“I think my strong point is to sell. So at Mi­crosoft I was a call cen­tre agent and was sell­ing,” he said.

Af­ter spend­ing three years at Mi­crosoft, he moved on to Di­men­sion Data where his ca­reer im­proved dras­ti­cally.

It was at that com­pany in 2006 that he was ex­posed to the work­ings of gov­ern­ment and its pro­cesses, as he was pro­moted to a di­vi­sional di­rec­tor po­si­tion. “I con­trib­uted so much to that busi­ness that I be­gan feel­ing that I could do this for my­self,” he said of the de­ci­sion he took to call time on his em­ploy­ment and go into busi­ness full time with Afribiz, a com­pany he had started ear­lier on with seven other part­ners, in­clud­ing his brother. “I got to a point when I had the ti­tle, I had the ac­count­abil­ity, but I didn’t have the full author­ity,” he said. Afribiz went on to en­tirely own seven com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing four con­struc­tion com­pa­nies, and ac­quired stakes in seven oth­ers, across var­i­ous sec­tors.

“My pas­sion is in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment re­ally. I ini­tially thought it was IT but when I un­der­stood in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment, I re­alised it is some­thing I am pas­sion­ate about,” he said.

Mashawana said the hold­ing com­pany planned on up­ping its sub­sidiaries to at least 30 com­pa­nies, through merg­ers, ac­qui­si­tions and takeovers, across var­i­ous in­dus­tries, in or­der to own the en­tire value chain of projects it em­barks on. “Our ob­jec­tive is to even­tu­ally list in the next three to five years and in do­ing that we can’t do it on our own. We need to have the right part­ners, the right ca­pac­ity and so on,” he said.

He re­calls the busi­ness bap­tism he got when mar­kets took a dip sev­eral years ago and, be­cause of his busi­ness’ de­pen­dency on con­struc­tion and IT ten­ders, he lost al­most ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing per­sonal prop­erty.

“Our big­gest rev­enue at that point was com­ing from tech­nol­ogy. Things went re­ally bad. I lost a lot, we re­trenched staff, I lost my per­sonal prop­er­ties, I lost my home, lost my cars,” he said of the events lead­ing up to the de­ci­sion to di­ver­sify the com­pany port­fo­lio.

Mashawana said that, though the com­pany still gets a sub­stan­tive por­tion of its rev­enue from gov­ern­ment con­tracts, it is not heav­ily re­liant on that busi­ness any more.

On his im­pres­sions on the cur­rent state of the coun­try’s econ­omy, Mashawana said busi­nesses had the re­spon­si­bil­ity to still lobby in­vest­ment into the coun­try de­spite the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances.

“Gov­ern­ment is still spend­ing every day. And I am still speak­ing about the sec­tors which I am in now; gov­ern­ment is still build­ing houses; gov­ern­ment is still spend­ing,” he said.

With bold plans to find his own trea­sure in the city of gold, Mashawana seems de­ter­mined to fi­nally re­alise the big dreams he ar­rived with 17 years ago.

PHOTO: SIL­VER SIBIYA

BLACK GOLD Afribiz In­vest founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Collen Mashawana worked his way up the cor­po­rate lad­der, start­ing as a packer in a re­tail store

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