Ashish Thakkar on doing business in Africa… and becoming an astronaut

As founder of the Mara Group, Ashish Thakkar is a serial entrepreneur with a vision of placing Africa at the centre of the world stage.

Ashish Thakkar, Mara Group founder

Ashish Thakkar, Mara Group founder

At 15, he ditched school to sell computers. Today, as Africa’s youngest billionaire, he has a ticket to the stars: Ashish Thakkar is not your average entrepreneur.

This son of African refugees turned a US$5,000 loan into a multi-sector investment group and is now using his business fame and fortune for good through the Mara Foundation, a nonprofit social enterprise aimed at African entrepreneurs.

Why did you start selling computers at the age of 15?

We’d just left Rwanda, having been made refugees by the genocide, and came to Uganda. My parents were starting again, for the third time, and I felt I ought to do something to help. I’d always loved business and entrepreneurship, and I really liked computers.

I got a secondhand computer from my parents and sold it to a family friend. I made US$100, and I realised that this was an awesome opportunity. So every day after school, I’d be going from door to door in Kampala, trying to sell computers. And that’s how it started.

Your entrepreneurial drive meant you left formal education early. What did your parents make of that?

It was my two-month summer holiday, and a new building had just gone up with shops available. I told my parents I’d rather do something constructive with my break, and they were happy for me to do so.

When my holidays finished, I conveniently didn’t tell them – but within a week they’d figured me out. I told them I’d go through the education system if they wanted me to, but in the end, this is what I’d be doing. They said I could try it for a year but if it didn’t work out, I’d have to go back to school but be in a grade below my friends. After 17 years, I guess I still have that option.

Being so young, was your business taken seriously?

It was very difficult – I was never taken seriously. I saw the same thing with my mother, not being taken seriously in business because she is a woman. Sexism and ageism were both issues at that time.

One of my foundation’s initiatives is Mara Women, truly enabling, empowering and inspiring women in the public and private sectors, as well as entrepreneurs. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed and one I’m passionate about.

How did the business grow so large?

I’d love to pin it down to vision, but Mara became pan-African by default, not by design. I was buying goods but found it hard to get credit, so I was advised that I needed to set up a base in Dubai. I realised that there were many people in the same situation, so I was able to offer them credit, and the cycle began.

Since 1996 I’ve been traveling to Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa – giving me a deep understanding of each market. Mara’s core strength is not sector-specific experience, it’s understanding how to work across the continent, which it does across multiple industries, including information and communications technology, real estate, tourism, manufacturing and renewable energy.

What do new business partners require?

I look for alignment – not only commercially, but in terms of having a similar passion for Africa. I want them to be fully aligned with the idea that we’re not just here to make a quick buck. We want partners who value that – who aren’t in it for the short term and want to leave a positive legacy.

How has technology changed the lives of ordinary people in Africa?

Greatly. Access to information has become much broader, and the cost much lower. We have more mobile phone users in Africa than the US and Western Europe put together; Africa has 70% mobile phone penetration but only 7% banking penetration. That’s why, with my partner Bob Diamond, Mara has launched Atlas Mara, our financial services vehicle.

What does the future hold for business in Africa?

I have never seen too much global excitement around Africa. I’ve always worked against the odds, trying to sell the African story. Today, the world is genuinely excited about the region. The west is still investing in India and China, but India and China are investing in Africa.

What motivates you and keeps you going to work every day?

I want to move the needle – to make a difference. I genuinely want to prove that if you do good, you will do well. I want to prove that you can do business on the continent in an extremely straightforward manner and still succeed. And I want to prove that Africa can do it for itself.

How does your spirituality influence the way you do business?

If there’s a recipe for my success, it’s been my spiritual leader, Morari Bapu. His core teaching is truth, love and compassion, and those three words have helped me greatly on the business front. Spirituality is important. It keeps you levelheaded and creates balance. Otherwise, you get caught up in the rat race, and even if you win, you’re still a rat.

What are the challenges for businesses and entrepreneurs in Africa?

Every market in Africa is very different. A copy-and-paste strategy is not going to work. My view is that businesses should find local partners in each market; the best combination is global expertise and African know-how.

For African entrepreneurs, the challenges are access to capital, access to mentors, scaling up, and too much trial and error – so the same solution applies. Plug in to global partners who have done it before and are better at it than you are.

What’s the next challenge for the Mara Group?

All our businesses are in the process of scaling up and there are lots of exciting things happening around the group. But the one thing that I’m really excited about is getting Mara Mentor launched across the continent and globally and creating an impact on a mass scale. The alliances and partnerships we’ve created will enable us to connect with several million entrepreneurs this year.

You were the first African to register for Virgin Galactic. Tell us more about that.

It’s pure craziness. I’ve been a founder for about seven years, and it’s been a really cool journey. The spaceship has been unveiled, and testing is under way in the Mojave Desert. We’re going to start our flights this year, but we’re not in a rush – we want to make sure it’s a return ticket.

It’s great fun. On my immigration forms now, where it says “profession,” I put “astronaut”.

This article was first published in EY’s ‘Exceptional’ magazine.