From R2000 to R200million: A lack of formal education did not limit M&N co-founder Zibusiso Mkhwanazi

From using his bedroom as his boardroom. Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, the group CEO of M&N Brands, the holding company that owns among others Avatar Agency JHB, Avatar Agency CPT, now owns a posh Melrose office. Picture: Juniour Khumalo.
From using his bedroom as his boardroom. Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, the group CEO of M&N Brands, the holding company that owns among others Avatar Agency JHB, Avatar Agency CPT, now owns a posh Melrose office. Picture: Juniour Khumalo.

An informal, hands-on training is just as invaluable – if not more pertinent – as a formal education.

Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, the group chief executive officer of M&N Brands, the holding company that owns Avatar Agency JHB, Avatar Agency CPT, Avatar PR, Mela Events, Bozza and is a living testament to this.

From a measly start-up capital of only R2 000 and a bedroom which doubled up as his office, Mkhwanazi is all too familiar with the struggles of start-ups and entrepreneurs in South Africa. But now he epitomises how practical preparation can complement a formal education and go a long way towards one growing their own business empire.

Mkhwanazi is a former street hawker, who at some point during his entrepreneurial journey, did not possess any formal tertiary education. He only had informal training gained during his formative years selling sweets to his classmates.

Now he boasts a clientele that includes Caltex, H&M, Sanral, Westbank, DeBeers and Wits University.

For five years he managed the SAA advertising account in South Africa, Angola, Argentina, Australia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, China, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Scotland, Switzerland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, the UK, US and Zimbabwe.

In addition, Mkhwanazi and his business partner, Veli Ngubane, have expanded their empire under the umbrella company M&N Brands realising their dream of owning an African-owned agency network, for Africans, by Africans, with a turnover of just over R200 million.

City Press met up with Mkhwanazi at his posh Melrose offices. The soft-spoken entrepreneur reminisced on how it all started.

“While still in primary school I learned how to make a single penny go a long way. I can say with certainty that this was when my entrepreneurial qualities were born. My mom used to buy me a packet of sweets to sell at school and for the first time I realised the value of money.

“As early as Grade 4 I made a bit of money buying and selling sweets to my classmates. I soon realised that I could maximise profits if I roped in some of my friends to do my bidding. It registered in me from a young age that the plan was not to work hard, but to work smart. I asked my friends to sell sweets for me and I paid them in sweets. This made me more profit than when I was selling alone.”

According to Mkhwanazi, this hands-on grooming by his mother during his formative years left a mark in his life. From a young age he developed a different relationship with money and how to generate it.

Fast-forward a few years later and Mkhwanazi recalled how at the age of 17 his mother sat him down and “was honest” that she would not be able to take him through university.

“My mom one day said, ‘son I probably won’t have enough money to take you to school’. I had to pursue a love for commuters which I had at that time and I had to monetise it. My mom could provide R2 000 for me to pursue my dream for anything tech-related.”

During school holidays, with the informal training that he had attained while selling sweets to his classmates, he expanded his venture to street hawking at the corner of President and Small Streets in the Johannesburg inner city.

He also dabbled in fixing computers, which had started as a hobby and later helped in unlocking his new-found digital empire.

“I soon realised that just fixing computers would not get me to where I wanted to be in my business. This is when I branched off to website designing.”

Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, the group CEO of M&N Brands, the holding company that owns among others Avatar Agency JHB, Avatar Agency CPT in his office in Melrose Johannesburg. Picture: Palesa Dlamini

Mkhwanazi founded a website design company called He rounded up capable university students at the then Witwatersrand Technikon – which later changed to the University of Johannesburg. Together they used his rented apartment to design websites for big corporates.

He said that there was a general fear of technology, especially back when he started

“My first business capitalised on this fear of technology because I saw when I started in web development that IT people were doing websites and they didn’t look great at all. They worked, but they didn’t look great and the problem was that marketers had a fear of doing technology themselves and I created a business around this.”

From these seemingly small-time endeavours, Mkhwanazi merged his small business with one of its biggest competitor at that time called KrazyBoys. “So we became, at the time, part of the top five biggest web development agencies. This was in 2006.”

During this entrepreneurial journey, Mkhwanazi met his business partner and co-founder Ngubane.

“Ngubane started as an employee at KrazyBoys. It was during that time together that I realised there is something in this guy and decided to involve him in my next venture,” he said.

This chance meeting gave birth to what is now South Africa’s largest black-owned and managed advertising agency Avatar. Mkhwanazi explained why the pair named the business Avatar Agency.

“The name, among other things, means a digital representation of oneself and as a business this is what we specialise in; connecting the physical world to the digital world in advertising.

“What we are at the end of the day is [that] we are an ideas-led business, we study our customer’s business and the market in which that company operates then use data to draw insight on the consumer consuming their product. Having done this, we build strategies around communicating effectively between companies and consumers utilising targeted messages that resonate with the consumer on channels like social media, TV, radio, print and outdoors.”

Mkhwanazi has more than 20 awards and accolades to his name, including being selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders; a finalist at the All Africa Business Leadership Awards in partnership with CNBC Africa in the young business leader of the year category; and a finalist at the Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur Awards.

M&N Brands is involved in the Esihlahleni Women’s Empowerment, a non profit company dedicated to empowering women from disadvantaged areas.

Mkhwanazi is also the founder of David’s League, a mentorship programme that balances issues of spirituality and business. It has seen more than 500 small businesses through its doors.

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July 2020

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