You are a prime example of what it means to be a “citizen of the world”; can you share your background with us?
I suppose I am. I was born in the UK. I currently live in Dubai. I am of Indian origin. But our family history spans over 120 years in Africa. So I am truly an African at heart.
Your family had to leave Uganda and Rwanda; both times under horrific circumstances…
Acclaimed as Africa’s youngest billionaire, Ashish J. Thakkar, founder of the Mara Group and Mara Foundation is a man who embodies all the qualities that make a man great and make us proud to be fellow Africans
Before I was born, my family had to leave Uganda when then-president Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian minority. My parents lost everything and started over in the UK. In the early 90s, my parents wanted to move back home, to Africa. So we sold everything and moved to Rwanda. Then during the genocide, we were forced to flee and were refugees for a few weeks before returning to a more stable Uganda. We lost everything once again and had to start all over. The Rwanda experience has definitely shaped the way I am today. I was 13 back then and remember everything very well. I learnt to never take anything for granted and how little wealth matters. In Rwanda, no matter how much money I would have had, I would still have been a refugee.
After all that trauma and upheaval why did your family choose to stay in Africa?
Because Africa is our home – we belong here. I really believe that our continent has a bright future ahead. I’m a fourth generation African and a proud one too.
You started your first company at 15, buying and selling computers – what prompted you to start this business?
I was simply passionate about business. I knew at a very early age that I wanted to become an entrepreneur, rather than finishing school and getting a “real job”. At that time my family needed it too.
Having gone into business at such an early age, would you say being an entrepreneur is a case of nature or nurture?
Both. You need great ideas, drive and passion. But you also need guidance and mentoring to actually be able to transform your idea into a profitable and thriving business.
In 15 years you have built an empire (the Mara Group) that is hugely successful by any standards; what practices worked in your favour to get to this point?
Hard work, honesty and perseverance. And of course dreaming, which I always do.
Have you made any bad investments during this journey?
My 16-year journey as an entrepreneur has not been picture perfect. I have made many mistakes, but I have never given up. You just have to dust yourself off and try again.
What lessons, if any, did you get out of those challenging moments?
That hard and honest work always pay off. And that it’s never going to be an easy ride; if it was – you should worry.
What are the trials, in your opinion, of conducting business in Africa?
I really believe in truthfulness, transparency and integrity in business. All business we do is legitimate and nothing is done under the table. So it can be done in Africa. Corruption needs to be tackled not only from the top down, but also from the bottom up. Corruption is a two-way street; governments shouldn’t take, but people should stop giving too.
And the positives?
Africa is the single most exciting continent right now in terms of opportunities and for doing business. There are simply endless resources available for economic growth and transformation. We are the next big thing.
What are the core principles of the Mara Group?
We have four core principles - whatever we do must be Pan-African, game-changing, “Mara” branded and have a positive social impact.
The Mara Group operates in more than 20 African countries, in various disciplines. What is the biggest challenge when it comes to keeping tabs on all your operations?
The key is to have truly motivated teams to make sure the day-to-day business runs smoothly. Empower people and ensure they understand and value your values.
In a continent that thrives on corruption and a culture of tenders, how have you managed to succeed in building a business that promotes a culture of transparency and integrity?
When you do things with a clean intention and a clean heart, it always works out. I am a firm believer in that. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong, but you must keep at it. No pain - no gain
Your vision, principles and drive are what Africa needs to succeed. How can we get more young people buying into this way of business and life?
There are so many young Africans out there with amazing business ideas. But we need to inspire and empower them, and create an enabling environment for these young people to be able to start up their own businesses. The small- and medium-size enterprises founded by these entrepreneurs will create employment and make a real difference within their communities.
As a Pan-African businessman, what do you think is the reason there is so little inter-trade between African countries?
Inadequate infrastructure is one of the key obstacles to intra-African trade, but also differences in the regulatory framework between the different markets. However, this trend is slowly changing, and particularly because tariff barriers to intra-African trade have been reduced. But also, I suppose, that’s what makes us [Africa] such a huge opportunity.
With the knowledge that a lot of Africa’s solutions, when it comes to unemployment and economic growth, can be found in SMEs, why is Africa falling behind when it comes to building up entrepreneurs?
In the past, too much attention has been granted to foreign direct investment. But to create sustainable growth and combat youth unemployment, African governments need to create a nurturing environment for young entrepreneurs and SMEs. They need to provide them with the tools to succeed, including granting tax incentives and creating more of an enabling environment. There are many things to be done. But we as the private sector also have a huge role to play; we can't expect government to do everything.
Being based in the UAE and your business taking you all over the world, do you still have anything to do with Uganda?
Of course, we are still vey active in Uganda. We’re building an Intercontinental hotel, convention center, shopping mall and office park there and have another six companies there. But I don’t spend much time there as home is now in Dubai where the group head office is.
Does being the youngest billionaire in Africa come with any sort of pressure from society or business?
I don’t see myself as Africa’s youngest billionaire. Wealth should never be a measurement. However, I want to be a good role model, especially to African young and women entrepreneurs, and give them the same opportunities that I had. Hopefully by me doing so it will inspire other privileged individuals to also give back in a meaningful manner.
You launched the Mara Foundation, a non-profit part of Mara Group. What are the primary objectives of the foundation?
The Mara Foundation is our social enterprise that focuses on emerging African entrepreneurs. Our mission is to provide comprehensive support services including mentorship, funding, incubation centre workspace and business training to African entrepreneurs. We believe that these support services will transform entrepreneurs’ business ideas into profitable and thriving business entities that will employ other Africans and contribute to the local and national economies.
In 2012 you launched the Mara Launch Uganda Fund to assist entrepreneurs. How has this been received?
With a lot of enthusiasm! The Mara Launch Fund programme is a venture capital fund investing in innovative and high-growth enterprises. Since the leading cause of business failure is lack of operating capital and encumbered access to capital, we are providing essential funding to entrepreneurs to help bridge start-up businesses to the sustainable growth stage in the business lifecycle. Uganda was just the pilot; we are now taking this pan-African.
At the Afropolitan we often hear from young entrepreneurs that it is difficult to find mentorship programmes and mentors. Do you agree with this sentiment?
It’s important for young entrepreneurs to find good mentors, but not necessarily easy. Knowing this, we have created Mara Mentor, our foundation’s flagship mentorship programme. The programme is free of charge and universally applicable to all business categories and companies. We tap some of the most influential business mentors to participate at no cost to the mentees. Within a few months, the mentoring platform will also be available as a mobile app. It’s easy to sign up at https://mentor.mara.com.
You are committed to philanthropic initiatives in Africa; why do you believe it is important to give back to the community?
I believe that if you’ve been given the tools to help others, then you must do so. It is all about creating impact, not about how much money you make. At the end of the day we are all trustees for the Almighty and must make a difference before leaving.
You have the honour of being a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (YGL) – what does this mean to you?
I was extremely flattered to be recognised as a Young Global Leader. Because of that, I have had the opportunity to meet some truly amazing people. The YGL has been like a family. I love it!
You will be the first African to head out on Virgin Galactic’s quest into space – what excites you about this mission?
It’s something that started off for fun, but it gives me a lot of pride to represent Africa during this trip. I think it’s going to be quite an amazing experience! It’s a way we as a continent can also tell the West that even we have the vision and ability.
We hear you are collecting flags from countries in East Africa to take on the trip; is this true?
Yes it is. In a way it is sending a strong message to the world that we, as Africa, are ready to play an important role on the global scene. But I’m representing the continent and not only East Africa.
What life lessons do you hold dear that you have learnt from your spiritual leader and guru Morari Bapu?
Morari Bapu has three core teachings, which are truth, love and compassion. He is an amazing inspiration and an important part of my life. He teaches you truth, how to be honest, how to be a better person. Love, how to love everyone around you, regardless of religion, colour and race. He teaches compassion, like how to give back, with no hidden agenda and no particular intention.
You do not seem like a man motivated by money. What keeps you going and keeps you excited?
Impact, not wealth, is what drives and inspires me. But smiling while doing it is the most important part!
Mara started out as a small IT shop almost two decades ago, but since then the Group has evolved into an international multi-sector business with operations in 26 countries. The Group is headquartered in Dubai, but its main focus is on Africa. Mara's current businesses operate in a broad range of sectors including information technology services, business process outsourcing, agriculture, real estate, hospitality, packaging and asset management….