Editor’s note: This story was featured in Ventures Africa magazine’s February/March issue.
Ashish Thakkar is a lively person. Even at 7:30am, when we meet in the London Park Lane Intercontinental Hotel, he is bright-eyed and every inch the energetic entrepreneur. Yet ‘entrepreneur’ is a pretty inadequate description of the founder and CEO of the Mara Group, which has 7,000 employees across 19 African countries and a turnover in excess of $100 million per year. How about ‘mogul’, which harks back to his Indian roots? Or ‘conglomerate empire builder’, since his business interests cover an astonishing range, from agriculture to high tech, from real estate to packaging? More often these days he’s referred to as a ‘billionaire philanthropist’, since he created a series of not-for-profit foundations that mentor and support thousands of African start-up companies and entrepreneurs, helping to put them on the path towards the riches he has made. Ashish J. Thakkar has a personal net worth of around $260 million, or R2.2 billion, making him a billionaire by South African Rand values.
Ashish Thakkar Background
Only 31 years old, Ashish (he prefers to go by his first name) retains the infectious enthusiasm of a teenager who has just received the keys to his first car and cannot believe his luck! Dressed in blue jeans, black suede loafers and a casual grey jacket, he looks out of the window as the sun rises over Hyde Park and starts at the beginning, with the story of his forefathers leaving India in the 1890s.
“They sailed for 45 days to Uganda, in search of trading opportunities,” he says, making it sound like a commercial Noah’s Ark. Decades later, having built up a business in East Africa, his parents were thrown out by Idi Amin and resettled in Great Britain, in the Midlands city of Leicester. Here, his parents started over by selling ladies’ fashions, driving vans to markets all around England, often getting up at 3:00am. Ashish and his sisters shared the workload and the rewards. “If I sold a certain amount, I would get a bike or something,” he says.
In 1993, when he was 12 years old, the family sold their business in the UK and moved to Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide began just months later, subjecting the family to weeks of terror as they hid in a hotel and watched bodies pile up around them. Finally, they managed to escape in a chartered plane. “We were literally back on the street. That’s what drove me and made me want to start a business,” says Ashish.
At the age of 15, after the family had moved and restarted its life yet again, this time in Uganda, Ashish sold his personal computer to a family friend. The $100 profit he made convinced him that there could be plenty of money in IT. More sales to friends, family, even his own school soon followed, as did a kind of ‘pop-up’ shop over the summer holidays.
Ashish soon began acting as an agent for other African business people importing from the Middle East, and established an office in Dubai. In addition, he often travelled to source IT goods for the African market. He recalls one trip to Singapore, which he undertook to meet suppliers. He was only 15 years old and had the misfortune of having his passport stolen. When he phoned home for help, his father responded, “Never mind the passport, how are the meetings going?”
Fearlessness is a common trait in entrepreneurs, but somehow Ashish has more of this than others, perhaps because he grew up seeing his parents lose everything and start over more than once. So how, exactly, did a teenager convince adult businessmen to trust him? “I pitched it to them like, ‘it’s already happening’, because I was scared they’d do the same thing,” Ashish says. “I’ve taken huge risks, many times.” Ashish says he was always sure to visit the home towns or villages of his African clients to better understand their communities and their business needs. “I went to their homes, because I was really banking on them,” he says. Yet, however wealthy he has become, his attitude remains that he has nothing to lose. “When you manage to start from nothing it builds up your confidence,” he says with a grin.
Ashish Thakkar Influences
Though he left school at age 15, Ashish is a keen learner, open to the wisdom of others. He shares this habit with his hero Richard Branson, whose Virgin conglomerate is united by its founder’s energy and enthusiasm. The two have become friends and Ashish will fly on the inaugural Virgin Galactic mission, becoming the first East African in space (for a fee of $200,000). “He’s such an amazing guy, he’s a great role model,” says Ashish. “He has the ethos of being true to yourself and to the world.”
Truth is an important quality for Ashish, one that runs through all his business dealings and into his personal and spiritual life. He has been deeply influenced by the Indian guru Morari Bapu, who has attracted many millions of followers to his talks in halls and stadiums around the world.
“We have four core principles,” Ashish explains. “First, whatever we do has to be game changing. It has to break the mould. So for example in IT, people always talk about ‘offshoring’, but we wanted to do ‘onshoring’, so that we’re creating skills in Africa. We’ve just signed a contract for a few hundred million dollars, in competition with Indian contractors. You can make more money with offshoring but it’s not sustainable and countries don’t like it. Second, it has to have a positive social impact. We’re not an NGO [non-governmental organisation], but we would never get into mining and exporting minerals as they are, just to make a quick buck. We don’t automate processes unless it’s necessary. In fact, I’ve stopped automation in some places – we’d rather create employment. Third, whatever we do has to be Pan-African, something we can replicate. And fourth it has to be Mara branded.”
These principles neatly summarise Ashish’s combination of practical business thrust with his ethical concerns. Onshoring and non-automation are good policies for African employment, but they’re also smart moves for the future. With 7,000 employees and growing (Ashish reckons this number will reach 9,000 in 22 African countries during 2013), Mara is reaching a size and scope where it can expand into almost any new sector and thrive as a result of economies of scale and the ability to cross subsidise.
African governments have taken note of Ashish’s incredible success and apparent leadership skills, and he now sits on a number of governmental advisory panels. He’s also an active member of the Commonwealth Business Council and the Young Global Leaders group of the World Economic Forum, which meets every year at Davos in Switzerland and has become a driving force for change.
From an African perspective, the kind of change that Ashish wants to promote is more truthfulness, transparency and integrity in business. “We don’t do brown envelopes,” he says (paying bribes under the table). “And we don’t tender to governments because that’s messy.” Ashish believes that corruption needs to be tackled not only from the top down through initiatives such the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African leadership, but also from the bottom up. “Corruption is a two-way street,” he says. “Governments shouldn’t take but people should stop giving. There has to be a culture change, the system has to change.” Of course, a major corporation like Mara has to deal with governments, so how does he react when faced with threats and requests for inducements? He draws inspiration from his guru, who says: “Truth should be conveyed humbly, not aggressively.”
So is he really African, I ask him – having Indian grand-parentage, an English education and a home in Dubai? “I believe I am an African,” he says, pointing out that both his parents were born in Africa and that his family has been on the continent for four generations. And if you compare Mara to its competitors, there are very few companies with genuine operations (rather than just representative offices) in so many sub-Saharan African countries. “We have created an African business in a true sense. We only go into a country when we’ve signed a deal, when we have a billing entity. For example in Chad, we have 250 people there, despite very low levels of governance.”
Mara is still growing and still setting up in new countries, with operations in Cameroon, Angola and Botswana likely to commence by the end of the first quarter of 2013. Recent ventures include a 26,000-acre farming project in East Africa, a major hotel, convention centre, shopping mall and office park in Uganda, and a similar development in Tanzania. Entry into each country will present its own challenges. “Whenever we go into a new country, we map out each business, looking for areas where we’re not present, because we understand our businesses and we understand each region. Then we take advantage of trends,” Ashish says. “For example, in agriculture, we look for places where there is a shortage of food, where we could own land and where there is political stability.”
Ashish and his Mara businesses and foundations are clearly making a fundamental difference to the way business is conducted across the African continent. Certainly there must be a whole generation of Africans who are now aware of Mara and of Ashish Thakkar and who have begun asking themselves how they could do something similar.