I’m a lover of creative things and a warrior for the arts, but before we get to all that, some gratitude: Thank you for visiting my site. And a question: Do you find that you are confused about what you want to do with your life? I was too. For a long time. I have spent much of my life in that state. I’ve always been drawn to writing and to technology and to poetry and to business and – you see how quickly this gets really murky – and I’m only one paragraph into my story.
What I do – The Quick Version
I’m a writer, journalist, and web developer. I spend my days documenting society, arts, and culture, telling stories, and helping artists launch their creative brands. I believe that every serious artist should be able to make a living from their work, should they wish to, and I’m on a mission to find the best tools, ideas, and resources to help artists succeed. I experiment with business models, monetization ideas, and new technology in my own creative process as part of this journey of discovering.
Here are my main creative outlets online:
- Fungai Writes
My writing website
- The Words of Iz Mazano
I use the pseudonym ‘Iz Mazano’ for poetry
My journey as a photographer
Essays, fiction, poetry
Here’s the LONG version of it all.
WARNING: Long read, and lots of photos, below.
If you want the short version of the bio below, click here.
At school, I was that child who wanted to do everything; chess club, science club, start a magazine, start a museum society, read every book in the library, write a book, build a house out of wire and cardboard and wire it up with working lights…
Creative things, in general, just fascinated me to no end.
And still do.
For A’ Levels, the last two years of high school, we had to choose three subjects, either in the arts, the sciences, or commercials – you couldn’t mix unless you really jumped some hoops because if you wanted to get into university you needed the right combination of A’ level passes to get into the most sought after courses.
It was a carefully constructed funnel onto a narrow highway of possibilities.
I picked sciences, because that was the sexy thing to do – if you could get into sciences you did. That was the modus operandi. It fulfilled parental wishes. It impressed the girls. It put one in line for a career in engineering or medicine, which we thought was all any student ever needed.
But, because I could not let go of the arts totally – FOMO – I added a fourth subject; French. Sucker.
The University of Alternative Doorways
In 1997, I started an Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), and after sitting through a class on the material properties of concrete, soon started skipping classes so that I could spend time in computer labs across campus (G034, Faculty of Commerce was my favorite hangout). It was my first time using computers and I was sucked in hard. I dived into Lotus 1,2,3, Wordperfect, Pascal programming, and then HTML.
Any lab that opened its doors for me and gave me a password to use on their computers was a hangout.
I joined a student paper at the UZ, Vision Magazine, and started contributing regularly to it. Tsitsi Masvaure was the editor then. I also met Brian Gondo, who ran another student publication, Campus Magazine. They would go on to be the two co-founders of my first ever business, Venekera Works Technologies, three years later.
In 1997, my second year of college, I became the photographer for Vision Magazine and then started doing desktop publishing for it. There are no words to explain the little mental orgasms that took place as I sat in front of my first Apple Mac (lent to me by Father Nigel Johnson, who ran the magazine) and brought words and images together, words wrapping around cutouts, images expanding the meaning of the words. I would spend whole weekends sitting there, laying out pages as Aldus Pagemaker and I made magic.
The camera I used was a 35mm Pentax (lent to me, once again by Father Nigel Johnson). It got me access to all sorts of events and offices. When you waved a big camera around, people gave you respect (now, it seems things have changed and many people mistrust photographers walking around brandishing their devices).
The most challenging thing was buying film. On a student budget, a single reel was costly and so it meant tightening up in other areas to make photography possible. I got about two reels a semester for work on the magazine. That was 72 photos. If I wanted to take any more, I had to buy my own film.
It was worth it. That camera got me into the Miss Zimbabwe pageant without a ticket or press pass. It got me into the midst of student demonstrations and skirmishes with police. It got me into the VIP Pavillion at the University of Zimbabwe graduation where I photographed President Mugabe for the first time and then got told by one of his guards that I was getting too close.
The adrenaline of moments like that. The thrill of being right there, capturing the event from such a close range, lit me up. I wanted to do more of this! I was hooked. I wanted to document more. I have been taking photos of events and people since then. You can find out more about that journey on FungaiFoto.com. And, if you really want to know, my journey with the camera started when I was 12.
In the meantime, on campus, I had started programming a Pascal application for my third-year project that was meant to make it easier for the university to allocate rooms to students (Pascal is a now-defunct programming language). I called the application Roomfinder.
I wanted the application to be web-based so the project propelled me into the world of websites. A fellow Engineering student, Tendai Nyamukapa, gave me my first programming guidelines (to clarify the haze of what I was learning in class) and I found a site, Davesite.com, which had an HTML tutorial (HTML is the programming language that is used to build web pages).
Guess what? At the time of writing this, September 17, 2020, that very same tutorial I took over 20 years ago is still up, right here. Isn’t that amazing!? This tutorial taught me web design. In those days, there was no WordPress or Wix. WYSIWYG editors were just starting to become commonplace. I soon moved to Macromedia Dreamweaver 1.o (Dreamweaver was acquired by Adobe Sytems in 2005).
I started reading about websites and followed closely tech startup stories from the US. I was thrilled by what Jerry Yang and David Filo, the founders of Yahoo, had done. I was impressed by the rise of Hotmail (which was all the rage in the 90s) and Michael Dell’s direct to consumer model for computers.
I spent so much time in computer labs or working on Vision Magazine or other projects that my grades slipped and I had to repeat two second-year courses. My heart was no longer with the Engineering program. Some of the classes I was taking were cool, but I didn’t like the rest of them.
After my second year, I had interned at a company called Nexus Open Systems which supplied Dell computers to huge companies and organizations around Zimbabwe. One of their biggest clients was the government. My favorite part of that job unboxing and brand new computers and setting up Windows 95 and later Windows 98 on them. The next best thing was being called to all sorts of offices to troubleshoot IT problems.
An Entrepreneurial Beginning
In 1999, I went home and told my parents that I wanted to leave my degree program and start a company that would design websites. As is to be expected they told me. I was mad and ordered me to disregard such nonsensical thoughts otherwise I would lose their support. It’s funny now that I look back at it, but I could not understand why they didn’t see my logic.
During the next academic year, the Computer-Aided Learning Laboratory (CAL) in the Faculty of Engineering put out a notice for two student interns. The job was simple; assist other students to use the computers in the lab. I interviewed and, having spent so much time with computers by then, I aced the interview. A classmate of mine and I got the jobs. Here’s the awesome part about it all. We got KEYS to the lab AND the faculty building!!!
This meant I could go to the lab after supper and sit there until midnight typing code or discovering this fascinating new thing, the World Wide Web. It was Heaven.
The following year, I went back home and told my parents I still wanted to leave and that this time I had a means of supporting myself (the CAL project paid well). It was not pretty, that visit. Not pretty at all. And so in 2000, I applied to take a year off from my program. The application was approved.
I never went back.
At that time I thought I was such a badass to be leaving college, but thinking back on it years later, I realized what an act of privilege it had been. Many of the students on campus, and even my own aunt and uncle before me, used part of the grant money they got as students to support parents and siblings back home. That UZ grant paid for school fees, bought food, paid for medicine, paid for building homes.
I, on the other hand, was in a situation where my parents didn’t need financial support. My parents, who had started off renting a single room (which had served as their bedroom, lounge, kitchen, and dining room) when I was born, had managed to work their way to owning their own property and earning enough to support themselves and their family.
I had the space and luxury to chase after my entrepreneurial dreams. Many people don’t. The margin for error in many lives is so small that people have to stick to the tried and tested.
I registered a company, Venekera Works, and, in a garage at Prestage House, started The Ubagraphix Project with Brian Gondo. Ubagraphix would help us generate cash flow by offering typing, scanning, and CD burning services to students on campus. In the meanwhile, the idea was we would be looking for web design clients, which we hoped would become our main line of work. We hired some fellow students to assist us and the project kicked off.
Despite our best efforts, Venekera Works didn’t get any clients in our first few months. We started an email newsletter, called Guided by Light (because we figured technology had a lot to do with light). Getting the mailing list set up took weeks of back and forth with Zimbabwe Online (ZOL), our Internet Service Provider, as this was a relatively new thing then. Using a program called Mailman, they finally got us going.
We started sending out Guided by Light every Monday morning.
And then, I think it was in December 2000, I got a phone call from my Dad. He had been speaking to his boss about his stubborn and short-sighted son who had just left his Engineering degree program to start a website development company of all things. At some point in their conversation, his boss had said to him, “Why don’t we give your son a chance? Maybe he can design our company website.”
Jubilation! Brian and I were over the moon. We called his boss’s PA and organized a meeting. Then we had to find dress shirts, ties, jackets, and smart shoes. To cut a long story short, the Stuttafords Removals website was the first commercial site we ever did.
After that we got more clients and through Guided by Light, advertised our services to a wider and wider audience. We did websites for banks, arts organizations, and civil society organizations.
We started working on a website that we hoped would become a hub for business information and news in the country. We called it YourBusiness. It never took off, because we soon realized that when you were building a massive website, Dreamweaver templates just didn’t cut it.
We needed a content management system. We identified one. It was an IBM product and it was priced at over US$2,000 dollars. We didn’t even have US$200. So YourBusiness died. Many years later, we did develop a business platform, OneBusiness, based on that original idea. By then, open-source content management systems were commonplace. We used something called Mambo, which had an offshoot that went on to become Joomla. WordPress would come later.
But even before Mambo and Joomla, Tapiwa Mungate, a young tech enthusiast, introduced us to a content management system called PHP Nuke in 2003. I remember when he explained to us that there was an application available for free that enabled you to add stories in the back end and it would show them on the front with pictures and ratings and search capacity and comments and bulletin boards. We went crazy excited and contracted him to build an entertainment website we were planning. It was called Itsbho.com
A little monster of a website
By the time Itsbho.com was launched in November 2004, I had learned PHPNuke and knew how to put together a nuke site and manage the tech and content side of things. We wanted the site to become the goto place for entertainment news in Zimbabwe. One of the things it had to have was pictures of artists and events, but not just any pictures, they had to be fresh, recently taken images.
I called up some of the newspapers in Harare to see if we could buy photos from them. Two didn’t seem to have a clue as to how to sell us pictures. Zimpapers said they could and that we needed to talk to someone in their library. I visited their offices in the Harare CBD and was stunned by the prices they quoted me. With all the money we had for our operating expenses we could only afford two photos. It was totally funny.
I decided to resurrect the photographer in me and started going out to events to take photos. At this point, I had a little Fujifilm FinePix40i point and shoot camera. It was digital and so I was free to take more photos than before. The problem was most events took place at night and it took very bad low light photos. I resolved this by carrying the lamp from my office with me. I would plug it in right up close to the stage, turn it on, snap a few quick photos and then turn it off. Artists hated having a light shining right into their faces. Venue managers hated me running around creating a distraction for their patrons and sometimes blocking the view. But both loved the idea of free publicity and so we made it work.
Itsbho.com took off like a rocket. Within a few months, we were doing millions of hits. We launched a discussion forum which was one of the most popular in the country. And then one day the site crashed.
We hosted it in the United States, thanks to a friend who rented out server space and had used his credit card to register the domain for us. The site was using up too many resources on his server. He asked us to pay more so that he could upgrade the service. We did. Got the site back up and were flying again. A few months later it crashed again. And again.
Finally, we made a plan to move to our own hosting service.
Back in 2002, my parents came to see our ‘office’ in the Prestage House garage. My dad was not impressed. He called me shortly afterward and said that he and my mom wanted to rent out the living room in their house to us for a decent rent. “You can’t have clients coming to see you in that filthy garage. What sort of business are you running?”
We accepted the offer and moved the website development operation to our family living room, leaving Ubagraphix operating in the garage.
All this time, my parents were advocating to leave the country and join the tens of thousands of others who were heading to the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Australia, etc. I told them I could not leave my business to die. They offered to buy me a ticket. Still, I could not accept that option. It felt like quitting and I truly believed we were building something great and it would be only a matter of time before it took off.
We spent several months in our new offices before my father evicted us for failing to pay our rent. It was not funny at the time.
We scrambled to find money and got a place in Hillside, Harare. It was a two-story townhouse with two bedrooms. Brian and I took residence upstairs and the ground floor became the office. We closed Ubagraphix and hunkered down to sell some websites. We did not want to be evicted by our new landlord. About a year or so, we moved to a place in the Avenues, owned by the same landlord. We were always scrambling to make payroll and pay the bills and often had to borrow from friends to get it all to balance.
As all of this was happening, I was writing in the background. I took the time, whilst at college to type out over 600 poems I had written as a teenager in Bulawayo. Whilst, at college I also started to work on a manuscript for a novel. In 2003, I was accepted onto a program called Crossing Borders run by the British Council. It linked aspiring writers in Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe with established writers in the United Kingdom. Each writer on the program was assigned a UK mentor. We would send our mentors regular samples of our writing and get feedback on them.
The writers from any single country would meet to read and critique work and share opportunities for writers. It was the first time I had been in a writing group. Those meetings remain to this day, some of my favorite memories of being a writer.
I wrote more about the Crossing Borders experience on my poetry website, The Words of Iz Mazano.
We want to buy your company
Towards the end of 2006, I received a phone call from Geoff Goss, who was the CEO of Celsys Limited, a Zimbabwe stock exchange-listed company in the technology and printing sector. He wanted to meet to ‘discuss some business.’ I figured they wanted us to do a website for them. Curious, and excited I met with him and what he said was the last thing on my mind. Celsys was interested in buying Venekera Works.
I was totally knocked over by that one. Buy? did the man say buy? But we were not interested in selling. Exciting as the prospect was, we had this vision for the company and were keen on achieving it. At this point, the Venekera Works had been going for 6 years.
I had a chat with Brian and our other business partners and then with our board. We were not interested in selling.
And so 2006 came to an end. At this time the economy in Zimbabwe was taking a battering. There were food shortages, petrol shortages and inflation was spiraling upwards. Power cuts got more intense and soon most businesses and many households had generators. But if you couldn’t find the fuel, sometimes even a generator was not helpful.
Running the business became harder and harder.
Early in 2007, I took Brian and Joseph Bunga, a member of our board to a meeting with Celsys. They made a tempting proposition. “We love your work and we know you love what you do. Imagine if you didn’t have to worry about payroll and bills and electricity, etc and all you had to do was focus on building amazing websites?”
That got us. Even though we told them, we’d go off and give it one final thought, I had been won over.
In April that year, Venekera Works moved into the Celsys Limited headquarters and became Celsys Marketing.
Things did not end well between Celsys and me. We had such divergent views of how the business was meant to run and, on my part, I didn’t handle those differences like a leader. But that is a story for another day.
I left Celsys in December 2007.
My first wife, Shingie, was at the time doing her masters in Norway. I spent some time with her in Bergen over the festive season and did a lot of thinking about what I wanted my next move to be. I started playing around with some ideas and put up a few websites, The Zimbabwe Internet Report, Zimbablog, and my first personal blog.
But the pull of arts and culture was strong. Around June 2008, I started building a website whose working title was The Zimbabwe Jam.
2008 was the height of Zimbabwe’s first post-independence economic collapse. Some supermarkets were totally empty. People would park their cars in lines for fuel and leave them there for days while waiting for the delivery of petrol or diesel. Business people on day trips to Johannesburg in South Africa would load up on bread and bring it home in the evening. Meat, sugar, salt, cooking oil; all of these commodities became available on the black market and through rings of connected friends.
Even newsprint was in short supply and at one time the biggest paper in the country totally cut out the Arts & Culture section.
Zimbabweans left the country in droves.
But still, as all of this was happening, music was being made, books were being written, fashion shows took place and spoken word artists dropped new stanzas into the ether of protest. Art was alive and well and I wanted to document it.
By the time the new website launched in November 2008, it was called The Zimbo Jam, later renamed to Zimbo Jam. I picked up my camera and started the labor-intensive work of documenting arts, culture, and society around me.
Zimbo Jam quickly made inroads within the arts and culture community and soon even big papers were copying stories and images from our site. I soon hired an administrator and then journalists and other team members.
More than any other single project I have ever run, this site challenged me, opened doors for me, and defined my career and purpose. In running Zimbo Jam, I connected to Zimbabwean music, fashion, writing, and young people in a way I had never done before.
In 2020, the National Arts Merit Awards created a special section to honor Zimbo Jam as an Outstanding Online Arts Publisher. This led to a whole new category being created. We won it again in 2013, 2014, and 2020.
Running a business in a country where the economy was in tatters and where inflation was breaking world records was impossible, and yet many people did it and so did we. It was stressful in many ways, not least in that by the time clients paid you, even 30 days after you had given them a service, the money was worth a fraction of what it had been at the beginning of the transaction.
We also had to contend with endless power cuts, fuel shortages, and other challenges, but somehow we kept on going.
I haven’t’ been involved in the day to day running of the site since 2016 and, thanks to the efforts of Stuart Moyo and Takudzwa Chihambakwe, it is still alive today.
Life can stop you in your tracks
On the evening of March 15, 2011, I was sitting at home (which was in the same house as the office) watching CNN reporting on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. It was around 1030pm. Shingie was at a work function. The intercom at the gate buzzed. I picked up the receiver to find it was the driver from Shingie’s work. “She’s been involved in a little accident,” he said. “I came to take you to the hospital.”
A drunk driver had flown through a stop sign and rammed into the driver’s door of vehicle Shingie had been driving.
The events of that night are still clear in my head. I didn’t realize until it was too late, that I was watching her die. I was so sure that I would go first. By 3am, about 5hrs after the accident, she breathed her last.
That broke me.
It broke us. Shingie’s whole family. Her friends. Her workmates.
I’m a pretty positive and upbeat person. I used to believe that if you wake up in the morning and fill yourself up with positive things that’s enough fuel to keep you going. I was wrong. Sometimes life forces you to sit down. And sometimes just getting back up to face yourself, not even the world, is that hardest thing.
For years I ran on air, after that. On the momentum of past successes. Slowly, everything I had ever built, fell apart.
Innocence is a strange thing. You cannot reclaim it once it’s gone. When I think back to the way I used to be, I realize I am not that person anymore and that I will never be. The things I used to be able to do in the way I used to do them. Those are all gone. And I know now that we are always dying and we cannot reclaim those parts of us which have died. Even our bodies heal wounds by making new flesh. We must build new things so that life continues. We must grow. We must find ways to blossom even on the rocks of hard things.
I am now working on being the best person I can be now.
I have been lucky and found love again. I am finding my confidence once more and taking steps to build new things.
Entrepreneurship is Hard
In October 2011, I wrote an article titled Don’t Stop Believing. In it, I spoke about how hard entrepreneurship can be. When we started Venekera Works in 2000, in our young minds we figured that within a few months we’d be making enough money to sustain ourselves. It took us years to get there, and even then, we were always getting hit by curve balls thrown at us by the universe.
I’ll give you one example. In 2013, I found myself without a place to stay. My friend Joseph Bunga, took me in for a few days, but I didn’t want to infringe on his family space too much so I moved into the office. At this point, my business was renting out three rooms in a house used as an office by Pamberi Trust in Avondale. I used the bigger of the rooms as a photo studio, office, and meeting room. That room also became my bedroom and living room. The photography backdrop served as a great way to hide my suitcases and clothes.
During the day, I would meet with team members and clients in that very room and they would be none the wiser.
In the morning, I’d make sure I had showered before the first person came into the office so that I wouldn’t be freshening up in the office bathroom as the staff was coming in. I hid it so well, that it took weeks before the team knew I was living in my office.
Business was especially hard at this time and we owed a lot of money; rent, months of half-paid salaries, service providers. It was a mess.
I remember one member of the team who had left her job to go elsewhere. We owed her money and I promised I would pay it as soon as we could. One day, her sister visited me. “My sister is living in poverty,” She said. “I am not leaving this place until you pay me what you owe her.”
“I don’t have anything, right now,” I explained.
“Give me the money you are going to use for fuel this week. How do you get to work? How do you buy food?”
I had to tell her. She became one of the only people at the time to know that things were so bad that I was living right there in the room where we were talking and that the couch she was sitting on was my bed.
That visit hit me hard. As an entrepreneur, people join your team and give up their time for the dream that you share with them. Your end of the bargain is to at least pay them a fair salary.
A year at Harvard
Business improved mid-2013. We found a town house on Herbert Chitepo Street which could serve as both home and office again, but this time with a room for me to sleep in :-).
In 2015, I was awarded a Nieman Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University. It was a step away from the business that came at an opportune time. I needed to refocus and find myself again.
The fellowship was an amazing year. It enabled me to take classes at Harvard Business School, The Kennedy School of Government, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I made new friends and learned new things.
I also started working on another novel (Let’s call it Novel Attempt Three (NA3) because by this time I had two incomplete ones stored for future attention ;-), along with lots of unpublished short stories and poetry).
Towards the end of my fellowship, my wife, Verity, was offered a job in Kenya. She accepted and so our next stop as a family was Machakos, a small town about 50km (30miles) southeast of Nairobi. That was in August 2016.
Machakos birthed a novel
There were no distractions for me in Machakos. I had no networks there and no work commitments. So I hunkered down and wrote. I wrote like a maniac and a year and a half into our Machakos stay, I finished the first draft of the manuscript.
I have reworked it several times and, as I wrote recently, it’s still a work in progress. NA3 will become Novel One. That is my goal.
Western MA and this new chapter
We spent two years in Kenya and now are based in Western Massachusetts in the USA.
I am starting again. I am developing websites that push creative endeavor again and writing – a lot. I am supporting other artists again; I recently launched Valley of Writers, a site that celebrates the rich heritage of writing in this part of the country. It’s still in beta testing and the feedback so far has been encouraging. A bit more work to do before it’s ready. The big project I am working on will bring Valley of Writers, Zimbo Jam, and everything else I am working on together. I call it ConsArray 3 (That actually means something, but explanations will have to wait for now – this is a long page).
When you see me making up code names for projects, you know I have found a deep excitement for life again.