The ex-refugee who built a Sh10bn empire
At 33 years old, Ashish Thakkar is one of Africa’s youngest leading billionaire. Here is how he made it and the plans he has for African entrepreneurs
By Boniface Otieno Kanyamwaya
Ashish J.Thakkar, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Mara Group and Mara Foundation, has had a bitter sweet experience in Africa. It is the continent where his family was persecuted and fled. It is also here that he became a billionaire.
He says that his family emigrated from India to Africa in the 1890s and sailed for 45 days to Uganda in search of trading opportunities. Decades later, having built up a business in East Africa, his parents were thrown out by dictator Idi Amin and they resettled in Great Britain, in the Midlands city of Leicester.
Here, his parents started over by selling women clothes, driving vans to markets all around England, often getting up at 3am. Thakkar and his sister shared the work load and the rewards. “If I sold a certain amount, I would get a bike or something,” he says.
When he was 12 years old, their family sold their business in the UK and moved to Rwanda. But the Rwanda genocide began just months later in 1994, subjecting the family to three weeks of terror as they hid in a hotel and watched bodies piling up around them. One million people died in that conflict.
Finally, they managed to escape in a chartered plane. “We were literally back on the street again. We had no home and no money. What drove me to start a business was the need to support my family,” says Thakkar.
At the age of 15, after the family had moved and restarted life again, this time in Uganda, Ashish decided to sell personal computers to a family friend. The profit that he made convinced him that he could make money in IT. He made more sales to friends, family and even his school became a customer. He also opened a ‘pop-up’ shop over the summer holiday.
He vividly remembers how he used to visit the home towns of his African clients to better understand their communities and business’s needs.
“I went to their homes because I was really banking on them,” recalls Thakkar.
He then became a dealer for Middle East importers and consequently established an office in Dubai. In addition, he often traveled to source IT goods for the African market.
He recalls that when he started, business was challenging.
Communication was not as quick as it is today. African governments were also not looking up to SMEs to create jobs.
The Chairman of Global Entrepreneurs Council says that African governments were more focused on foreign direct investment and large projects yet the real answer to youth unemployment lay in growing SMEs.
“The fact that Kenya and the US are hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit shows how passionate countries are about entrepreneurship. They are now realising that this is the answer to unemployment,” says Thakkar.
To him, the most difficult issues to grapple with back then were access to guidance and advice. He says that there were no stories about successful entrepreneurs that he could read at that time and be able to get an idea on how to go about it. The other challenge, and which still remains an issue today, was access to capital as banks could not lend to small businesses.
However, to him, entrepreneurship is all about passion and not the business idea nor starting capital. He says that passion is key as it will help entrepreneurs get the right idea and raise start-up capital.
If you do not believe in your business, nobody else will.
“When you are starting, you are not only selling the idea to investors but to your staff members and your customers,” he says.
To date, his small trading operation which started more than two decades ago has snowballed into Mara Group, a diversified conglomerate with US$ 100 million in revenue.
Mara has tentacles in real estate, tourism, financial services, information communication and technology, renewable energy and manufacturing.
The group’s operations span 25 countries in Africa. What is more, he has employed more than 11,000 employees across these nations.
In 2014, Ashish launched Mara mentor, an African multi-lingual online portal and mobile app for youth mentorship and entrepreneurship in Ghana. This is part of his initiative to cultivate an entrepreneurship culture among the country’s teeming young population.
Mara mentors which is deployed on web and mobile platforms, links upstart African entrepreneurs with successful and established business leaders in the continent for advice and mentorship. It is designed to enable entrepreneurs build their networks and access the guidance that they need at the early stages of their business.
What has been the driving force behind his success?
He says that initially, the driving force was to support his family but years later, his focus shifted because he wanted to do business in a different way and impact the lives of Africans.
The other guiding principal which has seen Mara grow to where it is today is the fact that they have spiritual leaders as a family (Mr.Moraru Babu) whose teaching revolves around truth, love and compassion.
He says that if you implement the above on a personal and professional level, you will not only become a great human being but a great entrepreneur.
Challenges& Way forward
The entrepreneur notes that there is need for African countries to amend their public policy frameworks for start ups in order to encourage them formally register their business.
“They need to learn from countries like Rwanda and Kenya where the government’s leadership has been amazing,” he says.
Going forward, Thakkar would love to see Mara Group and other African businesses become global case studies on how to be successful and make an impact in Africa.