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Mara Communication: Xolani Mtshizana

Honesty, hard work and the ability to spot an opportunity have taken a township entrepreneur to riches and poverty and back again, always with the same message: keep digging.

Nadine Todd




Vital stats

  • Player: Xolani Mtshizana
  • Company: Mara Communication, Keep Digging Africa
  • Launched: 2006 and 2008

At 16, Xolani Mtshizana learnt a harsh lesson: life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned.

Sometimes, you need to let go of old dreams to make way for new goals. By 17, he had sold his first business. By 22, he was named Absa’s entrepreneur of the year and sent to Paris. By 29 he had left the world of entrepreneurship and was a high-rolling ad exec – until another of life’s tough lessons caught up with him.

Today, he is the founder of Keep Digging, an organisation that focuses on inspiring and fostering the youth and entrepreneurs in South Africa.

Letting go of the old

Growing up in the Eastern Cape, Xolani learnt from an early age the importance of being self-employed. While still in school he worked part-time at CTM selling tiles, until a poor economy led to retrenchments. Part-time employees were the first to go.

Refusing to be daunted by the loss of much-needed income, the budding entrepreneur let his contacts at CTM know that he was available to lay tiles and do grouting. Since CTM didn’t offer this service, it was only natural for the tile salesmen to point clients Xolani’s way. Within months he had a fully functional network and his business was off the ground. He would sell this business by the time he was 17.

But, while he was running his part-time business and attending school, tragedy struck. “I loved fashion and pageants,” he recalls. “At this time in my life I was entering – and often winning – every local pageant I heard about. I planned to be Mr South Africa eventually.” But fate had other ideas. A local gang member stabbed Xolani in the eye. Three months of recovery later and a school year lost, Xolani emerged from hospital with the clear understanding that his pageant dreams were over.

Finding new dreams

That didn’t mean he couldn’t find new dreams though. The sale of his tile-laying business gave him enough money to launch Mara, a local clothing apparel business. He couldn’t be in pageants any more, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be involved in the pageant world.

“While in hospital I had read about the launch of FUBU in the US, and I was inspired. Our youth were wearing international skating and surfing brands, and I decided it was time to give them a local alternative – an African brand that wasn’t traditional clothing, but spoke to the youth. I used my connections in the pageant world to really connect with my target market.”

Not yet out of his teens, Xolani was still trying to matriculate and launch a business at the same time. His peers thought he was crazy  — Pringle in South Africa? It would never work. Except that it did, and as the money began to accumulate in his bank account, Absa began to take notice of their young client, eventually nominating him for their National Entrepreneur of the Year prize.

“Going to Paris was a big eye-opener for me,” he recalls. “It was my first real exposure to the power of branding, and I realised I didn’t only want to make clothes – my real passion was creating a brand.”

But, despite a growing brand, a strong manufacturing partner and a prestigious award, Mara would not be immune to the devastation that the influx of Chinese goods wreaked on the local textile market. Within two years of returning home from Paris, National Converter Industry (NCI), (the company that held the licence to manufacture Bodyglove in South Africa) was forced to close. Since NCI also manufactured Mara apparel, the brand was hit hard. By this time however Xolani had focused on building a Mara brand, over and above clothing, which included training himself in the InDesign and Adobe graphic design platforms.

“Losing the factory was a blow. My skills set had really grown, but we couldn’t stay in the Eastern Cape. I took my wife and child and moved to Joburg.”

From entrepreneur to exec

Once in Joburg Xolani started from scratch. His entrepreneurial dreams were not over, but he needed to support his family. He joined the local CTM while he figured out what to do next. His branding experience with Mara, his focus on the youth and township troubles, and his newfound love of design led him to a printing house. He wanted to start an educational youth comic book, Gulova, and he needed a company that could print it for him. The printer hired him, and agreed to launch the comic book. Only three issues ran, but it was enough for The Firehouse media agency to notice Xolani, his passion and his talents, and he was head-hunted in short order.

By 2008 he was a high-flying executive, driving a sports car and enjoying his late twenties. It took a car accident to pull his life back into sharp focus. “It’s amazing how quickly we can lose focus,” he admits.

“I was always willing to be humble and put in the work, but a few years of ease and good money meant I had forgotten my passions. Sitting on the side of the road, next to a smashed sports car, I realised that I needed to get back to those passions. I needed to keep digging. I am a passionate advocate of South Africa and our youth, and I had lost sight of that.”

Keep digging

Xolani resigned there and then, and got Mara Communications, which he had launched two years earlier, back off the ground. With a focus on corporate communications, publications and branding, Mara pays the bills. Keep Digging Africa, which was formed at the same time, is Xolani’s social enterprise.

“Through corporate sponsorships we are able to educate the youth through our magazine, and develop their entrepreneurial awareness.” Xolani also drew the attention of Monash University, which has since given him a bursary for an economics and politics degree. “I’m always looking for ways to improve myself,” he admits. “It’s what ‘keep digging’ means. Never give up.”

The idea for ‘Keep Digging’ comes from a photo of Madiba which was taken at Robben Island before I was born. A tall, thin man, leaning on a spade, the image spoke volumes to me. I saw a man who kept digging his way out of oppression, until finally our country was liberated.

This is a vital message for our youth.

You need to always keep digging, and working towards your goals. No one is going to solve all of our problems for us, and township kids need to understand this. Populist rhetoric isn’t going to put bread on your table. The only person who can do that is you, and the only way to do it is to keep digging. Put in the work, look for opportunities — recognise them and be willing to make the most of them. Don’t expect things to just fall into your lap.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Watch List: 11 Teen Entrepreneurs Who Have Launched Successful Businesses

These teens are proving that you don’t need a driver’s licence – or the ability to vote – to create and execute a successful start-up.

Diana Albertyn



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In South Africa youth entrepreneurship is encouraged as the best way to build the economy. Teens are no longer relying on tertiary education to jumpstart their careers, as many high school students become budding entrepreneurs. From make-up to confectionary and tech-centred ventures, youth entrepreneurship is taking the business world by storm.

“It’s easier than ever to become an entrepreneur, and technology has a lot to do with it. You’re a tech-savvy millennial, and Internet and mobile technologies make it easier to connect and identify with people, based on shared values and ideals,” says Michael Freestone, founder of the MJF Group. “All entrepreneurs wonder if their companies will succeed, but you don’t really know until you try. So, do it while you’re young and have little or nothing to lose.”

And that’s exactly what teenagers across the country are doing. While being a teenager is stressful enough, without worrying about marketing and your bottom line – these young entrepreneurs thrive on success, which must be their secret sauce to their winning business ideas.

  1. Rabia Ghoor
  2. Cory Nieves
  3. Nathan Woodrow
  4. Isabella Rose Taylor
  5. Mikaila Ulmer
  6. Moziah Bridges
  7. Tony McPherson
  8. Anthony Veck and Malvin Musanhi
  9. Reabetswe Nkonyane, Phumla Mvila, and Thandokazi Mtshakazana
  10. Omphile Sekwele and Didintle Nkambule
  11. Fisokuhle Lushaba and Wendy Nkosi
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10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

The future of entrepreneurship has never looked so bright…these young entrepreneurs share their wisdom around building a successful business.

Nicole Crampton



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Natural Talent Can Become Your Success


Thabo Khumalo

Thabo Khumalo – ToVch

“I learnt to design and sew while assisting my mother who was a seamstress, and that is when I realised that I had a talent to create,” Thabo Khumalo explains. “But I never knew I was an entrepreneur.” Thabo Khumalo started his company ToVch in 2010 and has since appeared in South African Fashion Week, Soweto Fashion Week and Mpumalanga Fashion Week.

Khumalo has a small but engaged audience, who he communicates directly with. “The brand has a dedicated audience, and the social media presence also allows me to continuously scan the fashion environment to keep up with external forces.”

The Lesson

One of the most challenging aspects of launching his businesses was marketing the brand with limited funds. He used social media and word-of-mouth to market. “On social media, people share your brand with others simply because they want to,” says Khumalo. “It’s a powerful platform, and it does not cost anything.” Khumalo built up his company using support from a strong online network, which became his marketing strategy.

Read more on How Fashion Start-Up ToVch Built A Brand Presence With Only A Little Budget.

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For Founder Of National Tekkie Tax Day Having A Higher (Business) Purpose Keeps Her Driving Forward

The NGO space isn’t easy. It’s a constant uphill battle to connect scarce resources with the vulnerable. Annelise de Jager has persevered in this space because she’s tapped into her personal purpose and values.

Nadine Todd




Vital Stats

  • Player: Annelise de Jager
  • Initiative: National Tekkie Tax Day
  • Launched: 2013
  • Visit:

Use your purpose to drive you forward

Connect your purpose with what you do, and you’ll find untapped reserves of perseverance and the discipline needed to achieve your goals.

Purpose before profit is not a new concept in business. In fact, it underlines the motivations behind some of the most successful entrepreneurs. It’s also not reserved for social enterprises alone.

However, it is in the social entrepreneurship and charitable spaces that living one’s purpose first found a foothold, mostly because without a strong purpose, the work would just be too hard, and many would give up.

Annelise de Jager, founder of National Tekkie Tax Day, unpacks how she’s used living her purpose to drive her forward, even when she’s faced almost insurmountable challenges and disappointments.

Make ‘living a life that matters’ intrinsic to everything you do.

“I was lucky in that I didn’t ever need to sit down and say, ‘I want my life to matter, so I need to do x, y, z’,” says Annelise. “It was intrinsic for me. However, in the past five years I’ve become acutely aware of it, and I’ve seen how important the ability to look beyond oneself is when you’re facing disappointment and challenges.

“It helps you look beyond the now, find a solution and keep pushing on, because there is a bigger goal at stake. The biggest revelation for me has been that anyone can figure this out and use it as a tool to achieve their dreams and purpose — you just need to trigger your intrinsic motivators.

Related: ReWare Did One Crucial Thing That Most Entrepreneurs Are Too Afraid To Do

“Figure out what’s really important to you, and then align this with what you’re doing, in both your business and personal journeys. Robin Bank’s Mind Power and Shaping your Destiny courses are a great place to start.”

Don’t be afraid to ask what’s next

Critical to Annelise’s journey has been the realisation that when goals are met, we need to ask ourselves: What’s next? “Too many people achieve their goals and then feel adrift. You should meet your goals. Your ultimate vision should change. That’s growth, and it’s critical if you want to keep moving forward.

“Our experiences inform our knowledge base and world views, and so as you live and run your business, that view should be changing, bringing with it new challenges and perceptions. Don’t be scared of it; embrace it.”

Annelise went to Potchefstroom University to study social work where she joined the university’s musical revue group, the Alabama Student Company. “Alabama was given the opportunity to tour Taiwan, but I was about to graduate. Travel is high on my personal values list, so I started a second degree in communications to stay in university — and — in Alabama.”

New experiences can be the source of great ideas and strength

Studying communications opened Annelise to a new discipline that she loved. “Marketing and communications are so filled with energy — an energy social work didn’t possess. I loved both, and I wanted to find a way to meld them together. This would ultimately shape my business, The Marketing Team, after I’d been a social worker for a few years. Don’t be afraid to adjust your plans based on new experiences; they can be the source of our greatest ideas and strengths.”

Related: Reel Gardening Warns That Innovation Is Never Easy

No experience is ever wasted

“We spend too much time trying to plan exactly what we should be doing, where and when, instead of following our hearts and instincts,” says Annelise. “No experience is ever wasted. Once I discovered my love for communications, I questioned whether I’d wasted four years studying social work. I hadn’t.

“Both disciplines became the bedrock of how I would assist the charitable space in South Africa. Experiences open our eyes, our hearts, and our understanding. They give us empathy and patience. They allow us to view things from other perspectives. If you want to really make a difference in other peoples’ lives, these traits are invaluable.”

Be open to finding answers in unexpected places

“By 2004 I felt rudderless,” says Annelise. “I’d been running my own business, handling communications and marketing for NGOs, developing campaigns and even assisting NGOs to run more as businesses than under-funded organisations, but it didn’t feel like I was doing enough.

“Part of the problem was that you can only give people the tools to work with, you can’t make them use them. Another problem was under-funding. Corporates spend billions each year on CSI projects but they don’t like to fund salaries and basic operational expenses.

“It’s frustrating because volunteers can’t do what needs to be done — most households need two breadwinners, which limits the availability of volunteers to assist.

“I was looking for a way to add more value. Should I start my own NGO? Where could I make the biggest impact? I’d been offered an excellent coaching position, which would allow me to walk away from the problems this sector deals with daily. It was tempting, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

“At that time I attended the Global Day of Prayer in Argentina on behalf of a client. It was at that conference that I had an almost supernatural experience. I left knowing exactly what my purpose was.

“How these realisations come to you is less important than the fact that you’re open to them. Deep down I knew what I wanted and needed — I just needed the courage and fortitude to follow my path. My experience in Argentina gave that to me because I allowed it to.”

Always find the strength to persevere.

Nothing worth doing is ever easy. In the NGO space, this is particularly true. “I developed the idea for National Tekkie Tax Day because NGOs constantly asked me to help them develop funding campaigns. I developed this fundraising model when I launched Casual Day and ran the project successfully for 18 years.

“But I also believe the NGO space can benefit from a more unified mindset to overcome donor confusion and fatigue. This is my new focus, but it’s difficult to get organisations to shift their mindsets. National Tekkie Tax Day is a step in this direction.

“It encompasses 12 national NGOs and 1 000 regional organisations across five categories — but there’s one product and one national marketing drive. Donors can choose a category to support.

Related: How Fintech Zoona Is Solving Customers’ Real Problems

“I’ve needed to persevere to help NGOs see the benefits in working collaboratively, and corporates to see the benefits of supporting the operational costs of NGOs.

“I don’t have a high profile job at a top company. People don’t call you back in my world. And yet you need to keep pushing forward against incredible headwinds.

“I wake up each morning and repeat the mantra that my success helps everybody; my failure helps nobody. There won’t always be easy wins, but with the right purpose you can persevere. You can make a difference.”

Support National Tekkie Tax Day on 26 May 2017

12 national charities | 1 000 local charities | 5 sectors to support

Animals, Bring Hope, Children, Disability, Education

Available at Toys R Us, Clicks and Babies R Us or online at

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