Ashish Thakkar is the founder and managing director of Uganda-based Mara Group. The group operates in numerous African countries and employs over 4,500 people. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi interviewed Thakkar about entrepreneurship and doing business on the continent.
You ventured into entrepreneurship quite early at age 15. What inspired you? And why did you go back to Uganda to do this?
My family is from Uganda and Tanzania. I was born in the UK and moved to Rwanda when I was 13. Nine months later I was a refugee with my family during the Rwandan genocide. Thereafter the family shifted to Uganda with nothing. My drive and desire to help led me to start selling computers to friends and in school in Kampala. Shortly after that I established my first company.
Give us a brief overview of the Mara Group and its various businesses?
Mara Group is a 15-year-old pan-African multi-sector business conglomerate with extensive operating experience in African and international markets. We have operations covering IT, BPO, real estate, asset management, infrastructure, hospitality, packaging, media and agriculture. The group has operations across 18 African countries. We have been recognised as a Global Growth Company by the World Economic Forum.
What kind of challenges have you faced over the years as an entrepreneur?
I was a refugee in Rwanda and started at the age of 15 with $6,000, high levels of positivity and a big vision! My entrepreneurial journey has taken me through many set-backs and taught me many lessons. However, I have channelled all that we have come up against and with a fervent desire to give back to the community. We now focus on encouraging other young entrepreneurs to achieve their goals and overcome the challenges through the Mara Foundation.
How do you manage such a diversified company operating across so many countries?
We have a dedicated team that care about Mara and its activities very much and with modern technology being what it is, it means we are in constant contact. We do not have a hierarchical structure in the organisation. Everyone counts and that means I have my eyes and ears out everywhere through my team.
Many entrepreneurs list access to financing as their biggest challenge. Do you agree with this?
I believe that access to funding is one key element out of many. For me, if I had someone to tell me how to do things, what to do and what not to do, Mara Group would be in another place altogether – 5 years ahead I would say. So for me, the first element is mentorship and having access to a community of like-minded individuals. If you have the idea, the business plan, the team and the leadership to execute it, the funding will come, but key to all this is a mentor to guide you.
How can Africa position itself to benefit from the continent’s potential for foreign investment?
With the right governance, tax incentives, educational structure and fundamental optimism, markets can develop rapidly and maintain their growth. Rwanda is a good example of what can be achieved over a short space of time with the right leadership. Similarly, Ghana is a good example of a well run country, which has invested in infrastructure.
My biggest driver is to see Africa prosper and compete aggressively on a global scale. I am very passionate about this and firmly believe that the Indian Tiger and the Chinese Dragon have had their days and it is now time for the African Lion! Mara Group proudly wears the logo of the African Lion to symbolise Africa’s coming of age and we champion this cause in any way we can.
What advice would you give to Africa’s CEOs?
The fact is that it is easier to become a market leader in Africa than in other deeply competitive markets like China and India where you will have many competitors right behind you. But you need to know Africa to take advantage of the opportunities. It is the best time for Africa’s CEOs to charge ahead and capture markets.
I would say invest now and invest smart. Think of Africa and let’s not just give its treasures away. The world has its eyes on Africa and we have to direct investment in a way that cares for the continent and develops it.
Lastly, you will be representing east Africa on Virgin Galactic’s first flights into space. Are you looking forward to this?
I am very excited. I took up this challenge to show that we, as Africans, have the vision and ability to reach for the stars!