By Neil King
Ashish Thakkar, the Dubai-based founder of Mara Group, has been named chair of the UN’s Global Entrepreneurs Council. He reveals his plans for the council, the scale of the UAE’s success in developing entrepreneurship, and how Africa is emerging as a hotbed of new business.
You wonder where on earth he finds the time.
Whether he’s running his billion dollar company, advancing his social enterprise foundation, writing his book, or developing his nascent financial institution, Ashish Thakkar seems to extract a few more hours from the day than the rest of us.
Such is the scale of his activity.
But busy though he is, as of September the founder and CEO of Mara Group can add a new responsibility to his list.
It is then that he will take his seat as chairman of the UN’s Global Entrepreneurs Council (GEC), overseeing the council’s activities not just in the Gulf region, not just in Africa where most of his business takes place, but across the entire world.
His high profile appointment is the latest stage in young business leader's impressive career, which started at the tender age of 15.
In 1996 the teenage Thakkar quit school in Uganda to launch his first business importing computer parts, using a $5,000 loan. In the course of the next 10 years, Mara Group expanded into numerous industries including manufacturing, real estate, agriculture and IT services. From a small shop at a mall in Kampala, he eventually relocated to Dubai, while keeping his core business in Africa.
Mara Group is now a billion-dollar, multi-sector business services giant, with more than 11,000 employees, and no plans to alter its upwards trajectory.
Building a reputation as one of the most astute and successful young businessmen in the region, if not the world, Thakkar became involved with entrepreneurial projects, including those hosted by the UN, as well as launching his own through the Mara Foundation.
His efforts, and his incredible success, led him to be announced as chairman as of the GEC by UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon at the United Nations’ 70th anniversary celebrations in San Francisco – the city where the UN Charter was signed in 1945.
“I got exposed to the UN quite a few years ago in different forms and in different ways,” says Thakkar.
“The big exposure for me was at the general assembly that I attended last year, which was really inspiring to see the UN’s convening power and the things that they’re trying to do.
“I was also a keynote speaker at the UN Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council last year, and they held a global accelerator at the UN. That’s when I got exposed to the Global Entrepreneurship Council and started understanding what they’re doing.
“They then offered me the chairmanship of the Global Entrepreneurship Council, which was quite an exciting role, and it was kind of in line with what we’re doing with the Mara Foundation.”
The foundation is a social enterprise which is, as Thakkar says, “focused on enabling, empowering and inspiring young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs” in Africa and the UAE.
Expected to launch in other countries soon, the foundation offers programmes designed to address the life-cycle of an entrepreneur’s business idea.
“When the UN offered this role we kind of mulled it over for some time before we took it up, and the reason for taking it up first is that it’s really in line with what we’re doing as Mara Foundation.
“It’s in line with our passion and our drive that entrepreneurship is the answer. Unemployment is a big issue around the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa region, due to the young demographic our countries possess.
“The answer to unemployment is not the foreign direct investment (FDI) for large projects like our governments have been focussing on. It’s really going to be nurturing small and medium enterprises in a real sense. How do you enable, empower and inspire these organisations, these entrepreneurs, these start-ups?
“So with that focus and passion that we have as Mara, and I have personally, it’s really in line with what the UN’s trying to achieve. Having it with the UN, with their convening power and their global presence, it made a lot of sense.”
By taking up the role, Thakkar becomes not only the first African to lead the council, but the first African to even sit on the board. And what’s more, it’s the first time that the chair’s office will be based out of the UAE.
And his aims are as grand as you might expect.
“The target that we have as the UN Foundation, and myself as the chairman of the Global Entrepreneurship Council, is that we want to impact entrepreneurs in every country on earth… [to] ensure that the impact is going to be felt in all countries, regardless of size or scale or position or which part of the world they are in.
“That’s what we feel we can truly achieve, especially given the UN’s footprint around the world.”
Part of his plans revolve around an initiative launched by the Mara Foundation: Mara Mentor.
Already active across Africa, and in the UAE through the Emirates Foundation, Mara Mentor is an online community which aims to connect young entrepreneurs with business leader from across the globe, giving them access to expert advice, helping them develop leadership, decision making and planning, and providing interaction with fellow entrepreneurs.
“It’s a platform we expect to take globally,” asserts Thakkar.
“Through our own initiatives with the Mara Foundation we’ve got over 650,000 entrepreneurs on to this platform. We expect to get together millions of entrepreneurs, mentors and mentees.
“Eventually you can imagine these peer to peer conversations are just going to be so powerful, where these entrepreneurs will have conversations among themselves. Mentors are going to be irrelevant in this whole exercise eventually, further down the line.
“An entrepreneur in Nigeria, an entrepreneur in Mexico, and an entrepreneur in Sharjah, for example, can share ideas about setting up a little waste recycling plant. They can share their experiences, potentially even collaborate, but giving them that platform and ability to do so, giving them the ability to talk to people who have been there, who have done it, is so much more powerful than the theory that you get otherwise.”
For Thakkar, it feeds into a much bigger picture that he aims to impact through Mara and the GEC.
“I’m a big believer that if you want start-ups to succeed, and if you want to truly enable, empower and inspire entrepreneurs, you’ve got to look at this as an ecosystem,” he says.
He points to three elements that he considers vital to the development and sustenance of this ecosystem.
“There’s informal education. Education is crucial, but our education system doesn’t teach entrepreneurship. If you think about the youth particularly in Africa, their parents are either civil servants or farmers. Who do they turn to for advice if the education system doesn’t provide if?
“They can’t get it in their households, they can’t go up to you randomly in the street and nudge your shoulder and ask you a question. Where do they go for advice? As important as education is, informal education is crucial. Things like mentorship, which is very important.
“As a young entrepreneur, if I’d had access to mentors’ advice and practical guidance, I wouldn’t have tripped up as many times as I did.”
The second element he highlights is access to capital, something he explains comes in two forms: access to debt and access to equity.
“We need banks to lend to SMEs, which currently is not the case,” he continues.
“The banking model in the Middle East and Africa has really been focused around the large corporates and the large organisations where they feel more comfortable. Lending to SMEs is a crucial, crucial, crucial piece of our ecosystem.
“For access to equity, we need more venture capital funds. We don’t have enough venture capital funds in the Middle East and Africa. The UAE probably has more than the rest of the region but it’s still not enough compared to what the demand is, and the requirements.
“So we need to cultivate an environment for venture capital funds to make progress, and we need organisations and corporates to also play an active role in this space because it’s important.
“It’s important for them, too. Disruption within their own organisations needs to happen, and the only way to disrupt themselves is by funding people who have the ability to disrupt them, so venture capital - even if they don’t want to do it from the good of their heart, I think it’s a smart and prudent business decision.”
The third and final aspect of the ecosystem is public policy.
Thakkar says: “We need to ensure that laws and policies are in line to support start-ups and scale-ups in their environments.
“There are so many countries where 65 percent of private sector employment is created by SMEs, yet four out of five SMEs fail. Some of them fail because of public policy, because the laws for a huge mining company are exactly the same for a start-up.
“Things like labour laws, where if you fire somebody in a start-up you’ve got to put 18 months of their salary in an escrow account while you battle it out, you’re collapsed, you’re gone. So you have to create policies which will encourage entrepreneurs.
“Here we don’t have this issue, but in other parts of the world, such as Africa and India, there’s a huge informal sector. Start-ups don’t want to register themselves because why pay tax and why be part of the formal sector? Creating favourable tax policies to encourage them from the informal sector to the formal sector is a huge element which can in the medium term hugely benefit governance, but also help these organisations because then they have access to debt, they can value themselves, have access to equity, and so on.
“Starting a business at the age of 15 with no capital, no ability to network, I understand first-hand what it’s like. It’s not a feel-good factor, it’s something I’ve lived through personally, and it’s something we’re really focussing on.”
With his chairmanship due to run for two years, Thakkar believes there is plenty of time to set positive change in motion.
Especially, he says, because of the passion coming out of the UN.
“I’m very lucky that the team at the UN Foundation and the UN are so passionate about this cause – they really do take this seriously.
“The previous leadership of the organisation has been amazing and really set the groundwork and framework, so it’s a very exciting time to be a part of this.
“If we end up impacting entrepreneurs in every country on earth at all, that in itself is going to be such a huge thing for us. But the vision is obviously the entire ecosystem, even if we start in some of the processes of the entire ecosystem, it will be a great thing.
“This is not a destination, this is definitely a journey.”
Thakkar’s own journey has led him to Dubai, where Mara Group is headquartered, and from where he coordinates his operations.
It’s a city, and the UAE is a country, that he feels particularly excited about when it comes to entrepreneurship.
“I think it’s amazing when you think about what the UAE government has done overall,” he says.
“Abu Dhabi particularly with the Emirates Foundation is hugely passionate about entrepreneurship and enterprise, how to cultivate it and take it to the next level.
“It’s really encouraging to see because sometimes these concepts and initiatives are at the 30,000ft level and never get down to the grass roots, and in this I’ve really seen that it truly is getting down to the grass roots.
“And then you think about His Highness’s office here - Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum - his entire organisation, from people like HE Muhammad Al Gargawi, to Ohood Al Roumi, his team members. These two individuals I know well, and every time I engage with them they are so passionate about this course, they are so on top of things.
“Dubai is really a vision that turned into a reality. Dreaming things and coming up with things and being inspired is one thing; executing on that and making it happen is an entirely different ball game, which Dubai has proved it has the ability to do and continues to demonstrate that ability. And that is hugely inspiring.”
Dubai’s emergence as a fertile land for entrepreneurship encourages Thakkar to believe that the city is a viable place for the GEC chairman’s office to be based.
“I am confident we as the UAE do possess that strength and ability to demonstrate and lead by example in terms of what that atmosphere should look like,” he says.
“As chair of the GEC, I see that the UAE will act as our hub base for the Arab world - it’s a global role and this is the global chair’s office, but I can see this being a functional office for the Arab world as well.”
Outside the GCC, Thakkar’s focus is firmly trained on Africa. Mara Group, Mara Foundation and Atlas Mara are all, of course, Africa-centric, and the founder is excited about how the continent is embracing entrepreneurship.
“Being a fourth generation African I’m hugely passionate and patriotic, and in the last few years particularly entrepreneurship has really become more central to everything that’s happening.
“Governments were very focused on FDI and large projects and not really paying attention to SMEs, but right now it is completely different.
“It’s inspiring to see presidents and heads of state and governments being so passionate about it. President Kagame of Rwanda is a great example of encouraging entrepreneurship. President Buhari [of Nigeria] is excited about the whole entrepreneurship space. President Zuma on National Youth Day in South Africa on 16 June launched Mara Mentor as the main initiative of the government. President Mahama in Ghana is very savvy when it comes to this kind of stuff.
“So with leaders like this it’s hugely encouraging. The continent is truly going to transform, and our time is now.”
One hurdle Thakkar does highlight, however, is that of perception; something he aims to address in his book, The Lion Awakes.
“We are 54 countries. We’re very diverse as a continent,” he says.
“It’s one of those cases where one country sneezes and all the others get pneumonia. And that’s why I wrote The Lion Awakes, which is all about the perception versus reality on the continent and demonstrating that what we live every day is very different to what is perceived.
“So it’s really exciting to see countries take entrepreneurship more seriously, SMEs more seriously, and they are really creating systems to ensure they can truly enable, empower and inspire.”
Returning to finance, Thakkar explains the reason behind launching Atlas Mara, developed in partnership with former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond.
“We’re creating access to capital with Atlas Mara, and hopefully others will follow suit, lend to SMEs [in Africa], and be real banks of business,” he says.
“I was on the receiving end of financial services for 17 years, and earlier as a true SME was never getting the access to capital that I required to grow as a business. It’s something I’ve been through, and hopefully Atlas Mara will play a small role towards solving that, and inspire other financial institutions to do the same.”
Something he believes isn’t too necessary, however, is for Africa to look to the West for inspiration.
“It’s very easy to follow the West’s footprints, or even other emerging markets’ footprints,” he says,“but I think it’s more exciting to learn what they did wrong than what they did right, and do it better.
“We’re over one billion people. We have 100 million smartphones today, we’re expected to have 700 million in the next five years. You can imaging the transformation that’s going to take place. We created mobile money as a continent, so we have the ability.
“The fact that we don’t have so many legacies means we have the ability to create so many leapfrogging opportunities. It’s real. It’s our time. And entrepreneurship is at the forefront of that.”
For information, tips and advice on setting up a new business or insights from those who have taken the leap into the world of entrepreneurship, click on the Arabian Business StartUp section.
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