By Thomas Shambler
Ashish J. Thakkar, the CEO of Mara Group, on building businesses in Africa and the UAE, using entrepreneurship to change the world and why it's time to redefine the notion of success
How would you introduce yourself to someone with zero knowledge about yourself of the Mara Group?
To do that, I have to explain a bit about where I'm from. My family has been in Africa for over 126 years. My mother was born in Tanzania, along with her parents and grandparents, and my father is Ugandan. When they got married they lived in Kenya and Rwanda, before moving to Uganda. In 1972, Idi Amin happened and my parents were kicked out of the country and lost everything. They moved to England with virtually nothing - my dad worked in a Ford factory and my mum worked for Walkers Crisps - but they slowly built up some capital and eventually set up a small business.
Growing up in the UK, all me and my sisters would hear about was what it was like back home in Africa. Even though none of us kids were born there, we were raised with a real sense of being African. It was always our home despite where we lived. In 1993, my parents took a bold decision to move back to Africa. They sold their small company and our house, and we moved to Rwanda as a family.
There were only French schools in Rwanda, so I actually studied in Kenya. For Easter holidays in 1994 I went back to Rwanda, and the next day the genocide broke out on April 6. One million people were killed in the first hundred days. We were in the country for 34 days, originally at home and then we were taken to The Hôtel des Mille Collines - which is famously named Hotel Rwanda. Luckily, we came out alive. But everything we had built up to that point was once again lost.
We ended up moving back to Uganda after that, and we hardly had a penny to our names. My dad was forced to take a small loan, and I immediately noticed a stigma around that: people began to avoid my parents, afraid they would be asked to do them a favor. As a teenager, this really lit a fire inside me to do something to help them.
I quit school when I was 15 and set up a small IT business. I used to buy goods in Dubai in 1996 - filling my suitcase with computer parts - and then fly back to Uganda and sell them. I did this every weekend, before realizing that I wasn't getting financial credit for being an African business. I set up a company here in the UAE in order to make that happen. Then I started asking other businesses if they wanted credit.
I couldn't afford to do business with people who wouldn’t pay me, and so before I provided credit I would fly to their home countries, meet them, and break bread with their family. This personal connection meant no one defaulted, which was excellent for the business. But as a result of me travelling around Africa, I got a unique understanding of how unique the continent truly is.
Every single one of its countries has its own culture, history, and politics. The Mara Group model grew out of this, to operate in a local manner but to hold ourselves to global standards. We have been doing it that way for the last 20 years, and today we have presence through our investments and subsidiaries in 25 countries, with around 13,000 people.
I think it's safe to say that you have succeeded in building your business. But does that entrepreneurial spirit, that passion you spoke of, continue to exist in the company today?
Starting at a very young age with such little capital that was what gave us the passion to help give back and make a difference in a meaningful manner. Not just in a 'feeling good' philanthropic way, but by actually helping others make a difference in their own lives. We also wanted these other companies to learn from our mistakes, which is why we set up the Mara Foundation to provide assistance to young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs in Africa.
How do you really empower and inspire young people in some very challenging circumstances? We believe that it comes down to three core pillars. First is informal education, most young entrepreneurs on the continent come from humble beginnings. Where does a farmer's son go to advice on starting a business, for example? They can't just walk up to someone on the street and tap them on the shoulder. As a result, we started a mentorship program called 'Mara Mentor' which is available for free on any app store.
The second pillar is access to capital, and that comes in two forms: debt and equity. It's about getting more banks lending to businesses, and on the equity angle it's about encouraging more angel investing and venture capital.
Third, we want to help influence public policy. The enabling framework must be there; labour laws, tax policy and intellectual property. We talk about innovation coming out of emerging markets and how quickly it can develop, but unless you have the right laws in place to protect those innovations taking place on the continent, it's going to be stolen.
As a result we launched the Ashish J. Thakkar Global Entrepreneurship Index - which is a bit cheesy when I say it myself - but it's a ranking of 85 countries around the world on how friendly they are towards SMEs and young entrepreneurs.
Were there any surprises?
The UK is ahead of the EU and the US - which is not what you'd expect. The US is only number 13. We've also given tangible recommendations to what can be done in those countries that don't rank very highly. Two countries have already reached out to us and asked if we could run a workshop with them, to help make amendments. So we're hoping this annual index will really nudge public policy in the right direction.
Over the past few years, the notion of entrepreneurship has become rather sexy. It's 'cool' to start-up your own business. But let's face facts, the 70th employee of a company like Facebook is going to make far more money than 99 percent of entrepreneurs. At what point do you tell someone, "perhaps building your own thing isn't right for you"?
You're absolutely right, the idea of entrepreneurship has gone mainstream over the last few years. I am worried about that, because people can get carried away with it. But the reality is that job creation is the most fundamental aspect of entrepreneurship - idle people need to do something. So let's look at someone like Instagram.
Even if they become worth the value of Apple, how many people will it employ? Tens of millions? The reality is far, far less. A company like that is not going so solve our global unemployment issue. Therefore, the question is how do you really nurture these smaller and medium enterprises to survive in their own way. Wealth creation is certainly important, but what I like to ask myself is how do you create the most employment.
To go back to your point, there should be absolutely no shame in joining the next big thing. But it's the entrepreneurs that we are trying to help create that I hope will one day employ tens of thousands of people. I'm thinking less about that one entrepreneur who has his name on the side of the building, and more for the indirect benefit an entrepreneur has on employees, the economy and society. That's what I believe is the most important element.
You're taking a very macro view on entrepreneurship.
I believe that success should be defined by the number of lives you are impacting and not by wealth. Because you can get people who have done dodgy deals and become incredibly wealth - which some would define as success. But you also find other people who have had huge impact on the lives of others, but at the same time done well for themselves and their shareholders. I would define that as true success.
Has that always been your view on success?
I think that I am incredibly lucky to have gone through what I did, as it gives you this different perspective. Why did I quit school to start a business? It wasn't because I wanted to make lots of money or was fascinated with technology, it was because I had to - I had to help support the family. It started out as a necessity, and then over time grew into a passion.
When I was 28 we started the Mara Foundation, and many people questioned why I was doing it at such a young age. I feel sorry for those sorts of people, who think that you only need to give back when you're about to kick the bucket. I think you can be successful in your business and be of value to the community. Unilever is a great example, which has made sustainable development a part of their ethos and company culture. If a large organisation can pivot that way, anyone can.