Dubai is a “fantastic hub for doing business in Africa.”
So says Ashish Thakkar, founder of the Mara Group. The company has a presence in more than 22 African countries, and all its activities are focused on the continent. Yet, Mara has its head office in Dubai.
Thakkar explains that Dubai is well connected to the rest of the world in terms of air access. State-owned airline Emirates flies to over 20 African destinations. “The fact that Dubai connects Africa with Asia, with Europe, with the US is extremely convenient.”
He adds it is often easier to travel to West Africa from Dubai, than it is from South Africa’s Johannesburg. As the commercial hub of Africa’s most sophisticated economy, Johannesburg is often touted as a gateway to the continent.
Africa’s tough migration policies also make it more practical to have a head office in Dubai, according to Thakkar. It only takes a few days to secure visas for Dubai.
“Today our migration policies on the continent are challenging. For Africans to travel within Africa is not easy. Getting visas to countries of our own is challenging.”
Thakkar was speaking at the Africa Global Business Forum, hosted in Dubai last week. The event was an effort to strengthen business relationships between Gulf companies and Africa. Dubai also has the ambitious goal of becoming a gateway for business into Africa.
Thakkar grew up in the UK and Uganda. He started his first business 18 years ago, when he was only 15, by buying computer equipment in Dubai and selling it back in Africa. He says his original reason for setting up in Dubai was to access credit. “I couldn’t get credit as an African company from suppliers abroad. I was advised if I set up a base in Dubai, and become a Dubai company, I could actually get credit.”
Mara has interests in manufacturing, business process outsourcing and property. Last year Thakkar also teamed up with former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond to form Atlas Mara, which invests in banks on the continent.
While Mara initially set up in Dubai to secure credit, these days it is in the emirate purely out of operational convenience, not for financial reasons. In 2013 Atlas Mara listed on the London Stock Exchange, and the majority of its funds came from US-based investors.
Thakkar adds he wants to create employment in Africa, and therefore wouldn’t outsource jobs from the continent to the Gulf. “Would I do business process outsourcing in Dubai? No. Would I do manufacturing out of here to distribute into Africa? No.”
He highlighted the importance of having a local presence in Africa. Thakkar spends 20 days a month in the continent. “My head office is in Dubai, and my regional offices are in the 22 countries that we operate in. You have to operate very locally.”