How top businessman Ashish J. Thakkar approaches investment in Africa

We start up businesses from scratch. Over the years, we have become Africa’s largest IT company in terms of footprint, and Africa’s largest call centre company. Today, we are exploring new sectors, including glass manufacturing, maize farming and many more. We currently operate in 19 sub-Saharan African countries, which we hope to expand to 22 by the end of this year.

Ashish J. Thakkar

Ashish J. Thakkar

I believe that the real opportunities lie in creating new businesses. Our business model consists in partnering with international companies that bring in subject matter expertise, while we possess in-depth local domain knowledge. We co-invest and typically do a 50/50 joint venture. To date, we have never exited any of our businesses because there has still been such high growth.

When it comes to assessing an opportunity, it comes down to having a physical presence on the ground and actually spending time in these countries. There is no substitute for that. At the end of the day, reports are only theory. Until you are on the ground, getting your hands dirty and getting a feel for what’s happening, you simply cannot assess the situation properly. Reality can be very different to perception; the perceived risk is bigger than the actual risk. In fact, the larger risk lies in your general approach. If a company deploys a “copy-and-paste” strategy, the risk automatically increases because they are just not managing it well.

In terms of the challenges we face, I constantly hear about the skill deficit. However, I am convinced that this deficit can be breached. For instance, we set up a call centre business two years ago, employing several thousand people in nine different countries. Starting out, the skills did not exist, but we put training mechanisms in place and today we have an oversupply. When required, we can create the skills on the ground. The willingness is there, the ability is there, and that’s what you need more than anything.

Similarly, I like to look at the infrastructure challenge as an opportunity. The fact that we have to set up power units sometimes makes the entry barrier higher, because it simply increases the cost of doing business. Nevertheless, there are opportunities here too, and so it is all about about how you tap into it.

Overall, strong leadership is really important. It sets the tone for how your business runs. We don’t do anything under the table; everything is done in a transparent manner. And, most importantly, we make sure that every single one of our projects has a positive social impact on the local country and its people. Some people see this as profit for purpose, but to me, it is simply running an ethical business. Being local in the true sense of the word is absolutely crucial; we are a for-profit company, but, at the same time, we strive to make a difference to communities.

Ashish J. Thakkar is founder of the Mara Group. Mara Group is a multi-sector family business that has evolved into an investment company. Based out of Dubai, Mara has pan-African interests, with operations in 26 countries spanning 4 continents, and employs 7,000 people. This article first appeared in Ernst & Young’s 2013 Africa attractiveness survey.