British-born Ashish Thakkar, founder and managing director of Mara Group, migrated to Uganda at the age of 12.  But he did not relocate to the continent for nothing. Ashish’s entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to start selling computers to friends and his school in Kampala, and before long he founded his first company, Raps. As the years rolled by, so did his penchant for startups. He founded Riley, a manufacturing company believed to make the most modern corrugated packaging plant in East and Central Africa; and Kensington, a real estate business in Dubai and Africa. Talk about serial entrepreneurship!

In 15 years, under the management of Ashish, Mara Group has grown into a globally recognised firm with over 4,000 employees and having operations in 17 African countries.

In addition to expanding his venture’s portfolio across different continents, this young entrepreneur takes giving back very seriously. Through Mara Foundation, The Group has been able to impact over 2,000 students in 2 countries through different initiatives like assisting rural secondary schools; entrepreneurs mentor programs, business incubation centres and venture capital funds.

In his words, “It is very important to give back but give back in a meaningful and impacting manner.”

Ashish who was recently nominated for the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum says he is just getting started! Be inspired by this interview:

You were recently nominated for the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum. Congrats on that! Prior to this year’s WEF Africa, what were your core expectations for the event and were they met?

Thank You… It was great and as usual WEF and YGL events always exceed expectations. The amazing blend of public and private sector leaders and open discussions make it extremely interesting, as long as you contribute that is (smiles).

The Mara Group started out as a small IT shop. But today, you have ventured into different areas where you are making visible strides. What would you say has been the driving force behind your success?

A combination of passion, vision and determination. It was hard and challenging in every respect but we kept at it, keeping in mind our end dream. Honestly, is even more important as what goes around comes around. There’s a bigger force watching us all.

Looking back at when you, at age fifteen, first started selling computers in Kampala (before setting up Raps) till date, what crucial things have you done to grow your business into what it is today? 

I’ve worked very heard; long hours and a lot of blood, sweat and tears (smiles). Not giving up and dusting myself off and doing it again has been key.

How do you manage such a diversified venture? What informs your decision on expansion?

We have a lot of processes and professionals. But we still go a lot on gut instinct as nothing can replace that. If only banks had guts!

Did you have any regret moving to Uganda, leaving behind a system that most people would consider perfect? How did migration to Uganda help or affect you in the process of starting your business, and how is your company competing to help improve Uganda’s GDP?

No regrets. Don’t get me wrong- I’m proud to be a British citizen but there’s a lot we’ve got to do in emerging markets so you can really make an amazing impact. In terms of helping improve Uganda’s GDP, as a group we are one of the larger tax payers and also manufacture products, which Uganda uses to import and now it exports those same products.

As a business enterprise working in different countries, what are some of the challenges you face and how are you overcoming them?

The usual issues, ethics, bureaucracy and different laws and policies within regions. We keep at it and get there in the end.

Most business owners often look to government leaders to solve all the problems in order to ensure they thrive. Do you agree with this school of thought?

Absolutely not! We must make things happen on our own and if we get frustrated we should shout and scream but we should never look for “special favors” as those things don’t last.

As an entrepreneur, what would you say is the most important resource- Idea, Money or People? And what informs your choice?

Idea is the most important and then I would rank people. Without an idea, money means nothing. Obviously you need capital to make it happen, which you can structure with the right idea and people.

Aspiring entrepreneurs often struggle with finding their first seed-fund or funds to expand their venture.

It is always the tough part. However you need to be passionate about your venture and persistent. Eventually it always works out. It is easy to quit but also very boring.

How did you finance your first business venture and how did you get resources to expand it into what it is today?

I started with $6,000 load and slowly grew it from there. I created a track record from day one, which meant doing everything above board and officially, which allowed me to access debt once I built a few years of good track record. Always think long term and never be short sighted when creating a business…short-term pain are long-term gains.

Tell us about your involvement in Africa Leadership Retreat. What would you say has been your contribution to the development of the vision of Africa 2020?

We were sponsor(s) and I was a speaker. My vision for 2020 is making an extremely bright self sufficient Africa.

What do you like most about being your own boss?

I wish I was! I work for my people (smiles).

At what age do you intend retiring? Have you started putting in place an exit strategy yet?

I’m just getting started!! (Smiles)

Tell us about a time you made a terrible business decision. What was this experience like? What core lessons did you learn and how did you bounce back? 

I was too desperate for business and trusted the wrong clients. This meant losing cash flow as some debtors turned out to be fake. This was a huge blow for me as I was playing with very little cash flow and this made it even tighter. But instead of dwelling over this, I got up and learnt from the mistake. Never be too eager, you end up not thinking through things and you never end up looking at the worst-case scenario, which is critical.

What more should your employees, clients and/or customers expect from you?

Higher quality service at all times. We strive to perform to our utmost- even if we are number one in that market.

Which (African) entrepreneurs inspires you and what lessons are you learning from them?

Sir Richard Branson and Ratan Tata are great inspirations due to their humility and passion.

How do you feel about representing East Africa on Virgin Galactics first mission into space?

Can’t wait! Extremely excited!

When is it happening?

Hopefully next year. Tremendous progress has been made on the testing and it’s extremely exciting. The Virgin Galactic team are doing a great job.

Any advise for budding entrepreneurs on the continent?

Don’t give up! It is our turn to make things happen. It is ours to mess up, make things happen!

Image via WEF Africa


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