Johannesburg - 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.
SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.