Continental influence: how Ashish Thakkar is transforming African business

Ashish Thakkar rose from teenage entrepreneur to founder of a US$100m multinational conglomerate. He tells Joanne Bladd why his Mara Group has the potential to change Africa

When Ashish Thakkar tried to register his first business in Dubai in 1996, he hit a hurdle. He was standing in court and the clerk refused his papers. “He told me: ‘There’s been a mistake in your documents. They say you’re only 15,’” he recalls. “I had to say, ‘Well, actually, I am.’” That small trading operation – underwritten by Thakkar’s father, flown in hastily from Uganda – is today Mara Group, a global conglomerate whose operations span 25 countries, and employ around 11,000 staff. Its rapid rise has propelled Thakkar, now 34, into the ranks of Africa’s wealthy elite, with stakes in property, banking, infrastructure and technology. Not bad for a firm launched by a teenager, with a US$5,000 loan.

“I really believe we’re just getting started,” he says. “The last 20 years have been preparing us for the next 10.”

Thakkar’s parents, the children of Indian migrants, were expelled from Uganda in 1972, losing everything. Taking refuge in the UK, his father worked for Ford and his mother in a Walkers Crisps factory, slowly piecing together enough to start a small business and buy a home. Two decades later, in 1993, they returned to Africa, to Rwanda. Thakkar, then 12, was sent to study in Kenya.

The following year, the genocide began. “The scale of it was unbelievable,” he remembers. “I can’t imagine what was going through my parents’ minds. We could hear gunshots every few minutes, and yet they played with us, cracked jokes.” Amid the slaughter, which saw an estimated one million Rwandans perish in 100 days of bloodshed, Thakkar and his family fled to the Hôtel des Mille Collines (the setting of the film Hotel Rwanda), before returning to Uganda. “We had come full circle,” notes Thakkar. “Then we had to start again.”

I'd stay in a two-star hotel in Deira... My biggest treat, when I thought I'd made a good deal, was Pizza Hut

Thakkar sought to help. At 15, he sold his computer for a US$100 profit. Then he repeated the trick. Within months, he had quit school and, armed with a loan from his father, was spending his weekends flying to Dubai to snap up as much IT hardware as he could fit in his suitcase, and weekdays peddling it to buyers back in Africa.
 It was, he says, the very definition 
of bootstrapping.

“I’d stay in a two-star hotel in Deira at Dh60 (US$16) a night. My biggest treat, when I thought I’d made a really good deal, was going to Pizza Hut in Karama. That was a real splash,” he laughs. “I kept an account of every dirham.”

As a teenager, Thakkar could barely get through the front door of a bank. None of the suppliers he traded with in Dubai would give him credit. Opening an office in Dubai solved that problem but opened Thakkar’s eyes to the hive of other African businesspeople plying their trade between Dubai and the continent, starved of funds. “None of them could access the credit needed to help them expand,” he explains.
“So I thought: why don’t I bridge that gap and lend to them?”

This was the start of Mara, now a pan-African brand that still runs on collaboration. Its stellar growth has been driven by tie-ups with foreign partners, pairing their global expertise with what Thakkar describes as Mara’s “feet on the street” local know-how. For multinationals keen to gain a foothold in Africa’s fast-growing cities, few firms offer the scale and access Mara does. But the end goal is not simply profit.

“Everything we do must have a positive social impact,” Thakkar says. “It must make a difference to a country’s economy and its people. Does that mean we’re an impact investment fund? No. We’re an ethical business that wants to do good, and do well.”

Today, from his office on the 146th floor of the Burj Khalifa, he overlooks the daily bustle of the Middle East’s largest trade hub. Much has changed since he first arrived. “This whole area was once a police training camp,” he says, gesturing at the urban sprawl below, “and today, it’s home to the world’s tallest tower. Vision is one thing, but execution is another – and Dubai made it happen. It’s proof to me that we do have the ability to transform. That’s very inspiring when it comes to Africa.”

Ashish Thakkar 2
Thakkar speaking at the US-Africa Summit, hosted by the White House in 2014

For Thakkar, Africa brims with promise – and he’s not alone in his view. The region is the darling of investors, drawing US$71.3bn of FDI last year. Home to 1.2 billion people, surging urbanisation and a rising middle class, Africa is the new frontier for foreign firms seeking to stave off waning domestic growth. But doing business can be tricky. Patchy power, red tape, opaque laws and sparse infrastructure are just some of the hurdles that can deter multinationals. In Thakkar’s eyes, however, these oft-cited bottlenecks are in fact huge business opportunities.

“Sub-Sahara has the same amount of power as Spain. Yet we have 800 million people, and they have 40 million. It’s a massive opportunity,” he says. “We didn’t have landlines, yet today Africa has more mobile phones than Western Europe and North America. There will be 700 million smartphones in Africa by 2020. The way people live, access commerce, trade, is all going to change because of this. We can truly leapfrog.”

Atlas Mara plays into this approach. Launched in 2013 as a joint venture with ex-Barclays boss Bob Diamond, it seeks to disrupt African financial services and unlock much-needed credit for firms. A London listing raised US$625m, which it has since put to work buying up assets in seven countries, including Rwanda, Nigeria and Zambia.

“We want to be a bank for business. That’s what is lacking on our continent, and it’s hurting growth,” says Thakkar. “Traditionally banks here take deposits, put them into treasury bills, and don’t lend. But we will.”

Thakkar believes mobile money will be key to ushering in a new era of finance in Africa, if banks exploit the region’s vast mobile phone usage. “Mobile money has been led by telecom operators,” he says, “but we can do a lot of innovation there. This is something Africa can be a trailblazer in.”

This is the Africa Thakkar wants to see: a dynamic continent that is self-sustaining and can meet the world on its own terms. Trade, not aid, is the lens through which this is filtered. That Africa is still too often portrayed as a supplicant of the West, or a fragile tinderbox of conflict and unrest, is a source of huge frustration.

There will be 700 million smartphones in Africa by 2020 - the way people live, access commerce, trade, is going to change

“Africa suffers from perception versus reality,” he says bluntly. “Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. In a time of global food shortages, 60 per cent of the world’s rain-fed arable land is in Africa. We have 52 cities with over a million people in them. The statistics show our continent is transforming
– and yet the picture you see is of hunger and aid. We don’t need people to feel sorry for us. We want people to do business with us.”

In this, Thakkar is leading from the front. In 2009, he launched Mara Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes African entrepreneurship. It offers support, training and help in gaining access to capital to entrepreneurs, with a particular focus on youth and women. “Our joke is we support everyone apart from old men,” Thakkar grins. Among its tools is Mara Mentor, an app that links rising entrepreneurs with veteran businesspeople for advice and expertise, and has reached 850,000 to date. Eventually, Thakkar hopes to add a credit-rating arm to the platform, able to pre-approve entrepreneurs for loans, and a crowdfunding space. “That would be game-changing,” he says.

World Bank data show more than 40 per cent of Africans live in poverty. Africa’s ability to lift these people above the breadline and thin unemployment is closely tied to its capacity to spur growth in small businesses. Without more profitable SMEs, it can’t do it.

“The answer to unemployment is not attracting foreign investment, or grants. It’s cultivating SMEs,” says Thakkar. “The government’s role is to create an enabling environment for growth. Fix that, and we can fix unemployment.”

With two decades of business under his belt, Thakkar is seeking new challenges. He made headlines when he signed up to go into space, having paid out US$200,000 for a seat on Virgin Galactic’s maiden voyage, and is set to become only the second African astronaut. “I’m taking all our flags,” he says, poker-faced. “I’m going to be plastered in them.”

He may be literally aiming for the stars but Thakkar’s biggest ambitions remain in Africa. “My ultimate dream is to see a self-sustainable continent, where we don’t depend on aid and are a centre of innovation,” he says. “I’m excited about taking Africa to Silicon Valley, not the other way around.”