By Courtney Trenwith
Twenty years ago the Dubai-based business tycoon watched his parents flee the Rwanda genocide having lost everything — again. Today, the company he started to help get his family back on their feet is a monstrous conglomerate in 22 African countries.
One hundred dollars is a reasonable amount of money to most 15-year-olds, but for one emerging from months as a refugee it is enough to spark a light in their eyes. That decent yet simply made profit (by reselling a computer) was so alluring in 1996, it motivated Ashish J Thakkar to quit school and chase more of the same returns.
Eighteen years later and still only 33, Thakkar’s Mara Group has spun into a diverse group of companies estimated to be worth more than $1bn in total, with operations in 22 African countries, hiring 11,000 staff.
And, he says, this is “only the beginning”, as international investors, including the $16 trillion US pension fund industry, ramp up their interest in what was once the “helpless” continent.
But it was not just money that motivated this entrepreneurial teenager, who was born in England but moved to Rwanda just months before the 1994 genocide with his family and settled in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He had seen his parents stripped of everything they owned for the second time, having also fled from Uganda during the Asian expulsion in the early 1970s, and was determined to make it up to them.
“Going through that entire episode, seeing my family start from scratch again — when they went through the Uganda episode I wasn’t alive at the time… but then seeing what they went through in Rwanda and understanding what they’d been through prior and now again… makes you feel like you really want to do something about it, like you need to do something about it,” Thakkar explains during our interview in Dubai, where Mara Group is headquartered.
“We lost everything as a family. The only things we had in the world were the clothes we were wearing.
“Seeing people who were close to my family keep a distance from my parents, scared that if my parents came too close they may ask for a favour, at an age where you understand it, you really want to do something, and that’s where that passion came from. And that’s why early on in the years it was all about the bottom line of the company more than anything else, then that evolved into ‘what difference are we making in the world?’”
Under his direction, Mara Group now has a strong real estate portfolio, including several multi-purpose developments, call centres across Sub-Saharan Africa, various e-commerce and social media platforms and businesses from corrugated packaging and paper manufacturing to agriculture.
Last year, Thakkar partnered with former chief executive of UK bank Barclays Bob Diamond to set up Atlas Mara, which raised $325m when it launched on the London Stock Exchange a year ago. Atlas Mara has bought BancABC, a medium-sized lender with operations in five African countries, and a second institution in Rwanda. It solely offers loans to small and medium enterprises in a bid to help other entrepreneurs gain traction in Africa and internationally, while Mara’s foundation also supports young and female entrepreneurs.
Thakkar’s success as one of the few African entrepreneurs to have penetrated a significant proportion of the continent has seen him advise the Obama administration and be appointed a World Economic Forum Global Young Leader, after the forum recognised Mara Group as having the potential to drive economic and social change in Africa, a region where local entrepreneurs have had only minor successes.
After reselling his first computer, Thakkar convinced his parents to lend him $5,000 and he dropped out of school — on the condition he return if the business was not doing well 12 months later — and began regular trips to Dubai, where he picked up computers, motherboards and the like to resell in Uganda.
By then President Yoweri Museveni had been in power for a decade and made significant economic and social progress compared to the economic disaster that followed Idi Amin’s Asian expulsion 20 years earlier.
Thakkar’s great-grandparents had moved to Africa from India in the 1890s during British colonisation. His father was born there and his mother was born in neighbouring Tanzania. They were among the 50,000 or so Asians expelled from the country in 1972. Thanks to their colonial roots, they were accepted as refugees in the UK.
While Thakkar was born in London, hails from India and is based in Dubai, he insists he is “African at heart”. It is where he spends about three quarters of his life each year.
He moved to Dubai early on in his business life in what turned out to be a key strategic decision.
“I shifted to Dubai purely because I wasn’t getting credit in Dubai as an African business and therefore I had to become a UAE company,” Thakkar says.
“We were here in the beginning because we didn’t have a choice but then all of a sudden it became evident that it was a strategic hub for the continent; it became more relevant to be here,” he adds, referring to the emirate’s ability to connect Africa to Europe, Asia and the US, as well as African countries to each other.
But Thakkar says Mara — which means lion in the local dialect of his mother’s home village — would have struggled to grow unless he spent most of his time on the continent, “getting to know other players” and gaining insight to how each of his markets functioned.
“Africa as a region is 54 countries — Sub-Saharan Africa is 46 countries. We all have our histories, cultures, politics, parliaments, opposition parties, the whole shebang, and even though we have a lot of regional integration among them, every single one of those countries is still unique due to its respective history, so how do you truly operate in a local manner but with global standards?” he says.
“Very early on, in the late ‘90s, we started learning that and understanding that very deeply, when frankly the whole concept of pan-Africanism and being pan-African as a group became sexy only in the last five years. Prior to that, everyone was only very country specific, at maximum some of them were broadening to regional, so Nigerian companies became West African, Kenyan companies becoming East African [and] South African companies became Southern African.
“Now… everybody’s looking at becoming Sub-Saharan and African overall. But Mara had that huge advantage that we did that very early on. I would love to say it was vision and it was design and all of that, but it was more default than design.
“I think that’s where [Mara] became unique and we had a huge head start in that respect.”
Thakkar’s head start could turn out to be very lucrative. In recent years, even months, Africa has become a hot target for international investment. It began with Indian and Chinese firms ploughing billions of dollars into infrastructure and mining, but is now also beginning to see private institutional investors have more confidence in the continent.
Of the 22 countries that the International Monetary Fund expects to expand by at least 7 percent annually between 2014-19 — a rate that enables an economy to double its size in a decade — 14 are in Africa.
In August, an historical US-Africa Leaders Summit saw President Barack Obama host 50 African heads of state at the White House for the first time. Obama’s announcement of a major policy shift from an aid-centred vision to a private investment strategy was backed up with $14bn worth of investment by US companies in Africa and another $3bn to be provided by the Export-Import Bank.
“In the 18 years that I’ve been active, I’ve never seen so much global excitement around Africa that I’ve seen today,” Thakkar, who was a keynote speaker at the summit, says. “It was unbelievable to see that receptiveness.
“Let’s be honest, those announcements were probably going to happen [anyway] but the fact that they happened at once and the excitement this created [was significant]. And our heads of state weren’t lectured by the US, they were actually having real dialogue, real discussions. The energy was unbelievable.
“It makes all of a sudden the $16 trillion in pension funds in the US start opening up to Africa, start making them take us more seriously.”
Thakkar is confident the new momentum in Africa will see Mara soar at an even faster pace than the past 18 years.
“I really feel this is the beginning for Mara, this is just the start,” he says with his almost-permanent enthusiasm
“The US has been very excited about Africa from early this year, but not many of them know how to move in, who to partner with and how to go about it. It’s a very different approach to how China and India are coming into Africa, it’s very different to how the Middle East is coming into Africa; it’s more institutional capital coming in [from the US] but they need structures to come into that are reliable so they’ve been a little slower. But now is the time when they’re going to really start coming in.
“This is genuinely the beginning [for Mara] because I think now with this global hype, with our presence, with our understanding, with the brand value that we’ve created, it’s what we do now that matters.”
Having that local knowledge is “crucial, crucial, crucial,” Thakkar says.
“As a continent our facts and figures are unbelievable and staggering and seriously appealing. We have 1 billion people but we’re still split into 46 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s 46 different cultures and personalities you’re dealing with.
“If a Middle Eastern group based out of the UAE all of a sudden went into Saudi, Kuwait, Oman [or] Qatar, they’d have to tweak their styles in the way they go into these markets. That’s six, seven, eight countries; [Africa] is 46 different countries. We’re only in 22 of those 46 but all of those countries are so unique and we have to respect that, we have to be very sensitive to the local culture, and how you execute and make things happen on the ground is very unique as well.”
Ironically, during the last century, foreign companies were typically preferred over local businesses, which struggled to make any headway. African governments saw Western firms in particular as having greater credentials and ability, at the detriment to their own industries, and thus economies.
Now, almost half a million new SMEs are registered in Sub-Saharan Africa each year, according to the World Bank, although that number is equal to the UK alone (US figures are not recorded by the bank) and includes more than 200,000 just in South Africa.
Thakkar says he noticed a change in attitude after the global financial crisis.
“Prior to the downturn, foreign companies always got a red carpet in Africa and as African businesses we were very frustrated at that, the fact that we were willing to put up the same project as Mr X coming from outside, yet they get the red carpet and I get a dusty grey carpet,” he says.
“But when the downturn took place a lot of foreign companies took flight, went back to their home countries to manage their home bases, whereas us African businesses remained on the ground and remained very patriotic because we had nowhere else to go, we belonged there, so we still executed our promises and we still delivered.
“It’s been unbelievable; over the last few years we’ve seen a huge shift in African governments, where all of a sudden, African companies have the red carpet now, not that foreign companies have the dusty grey one; they have something in between — ours is still shinier than theirs.”
Thakkar says Nigeria’s recent handling of the Ebola crisis, which led the country to be declared free of the fatal disease within months of the first case being recorded in Africa’s most populous country, shows “the ability to make things happen” exists on the continent.
The population also is becoming more discerning. They want access to technology, better housing and developments and finance.
In response, Mara’s real estate division is building several multi-purpose developments, including hotels, convention centres, shopping malls and apartments in urban cities. Thakkar describes a $430m development in Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, as “very modern and funky”.
“Our people travel around the world now, they appreciate and understand quality,” he says. “Even though we don’t have a proper shopping mall in some of our cities that doesn’t mean they don’t know what a proper shopping mall is, so if we build something state-of-the-art, really awesome, that you’d see in Dubai or London, and we give that to them on their home territory, people are going to massively appreciate it and you will be sustainable even in 15 years. If you build something shoddy just because you know you’re going to get away with it today, doesn’t mean you’re going to get away with it in five years.”
Mara’s e-commerce ventures also are helping to fill the gap where bricks-and-mortar shopping centres do not yet exist, and may never.
“We’re taking the shopping experience to people in villages and giving them the ability to buy… the same product [as in a shopping centre] when they’ve never seen a shopping mall in their life... in some cases,” Thakkar says. “If you think the only way they’re going to get that retail experience is by building bricks- and-mortar shopping malls, that’s not the way. My real estate company does that and it will continue to, but by the time you reach that last person it’s not going to happen.”
Thakkar also is using his success to “enable, empower and inspire” other entrepreneurs through Mara Foundation, which provides mentoring and venture funding. It already has assisted more than 380,000 businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa and last month it signed an agreement with Emirates Foundation to launch the programme in the UAE. It also has recently partnered with the Obama administration’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
Thakkar says he has plans to take Mara Foundation global, although that may come down to funding.
“I made a very arrogant statement five years ago, which has cost me dearly,” he concedes. “My dream is to see a self-sustainable Africa, therefore I want to run a self-sustainable foundation, therefore we don’t take any other third party capital, so in a sense the Mara Group fully funds the foundation. It sounded great at the time but obviously worked out very expensive to do. But the beautiful thing is that nobody’s agenda apart from ours — which is impact — can lean into this.”
Mara is growing so rapidly, Thakkar says he will likely launch initial public offers (IPOs) for the individual divisions of the group in the near future, starting with the real estate company going public on stock exchanges in either Johannesburg or Mauritius early next year.
The year 2015 also could be momentous for Thakkar personally, if British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson gets his Virgin Galactic space venture off the ground as planned. The space tourism company has been marred by the death of a pilot during a crash in October.
But Thakkar, who is due to represent Africa as one of the first paying customers to enter space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, remains confident the mission is close to being achieved.
“I’ve been a part of it for seven or eight years, but it’s happening and it’s getting closer,” he says, dismissing criticism of Branson’s reportedly ruthless push for the spacecraft to launch.
“[Space tourism] is going to become so easy in the next few years, [the cost] is going to come down so drastically. It’s crazy to think this but in five to ten years it’s going to become such a common thing.”
Space tourism may even become the next division for Mara.
There is no doubt entrepreneurship runs in Thakkar’s veins, but it is hard not to wonder whether this $1bn-plus empire (and growing) would have happened had his family not been repeatedly thrown into peril.
Thakkar, who is a vegetarian and abstains from alcohol, says his spirituality — a family trait from their Indian heritage — helps his family to remain positive.
“Our spiritual leader is Morari Bapu, whose teaching is truth, love and compassion — simple words but they mean so much. He’s been a huge part of our lives and even when we went through the genocide he was our spiritual leader and he gave us that strength, that willingness to keep at it and [believe that] everything happens for a reason, and we think it genuinely does happen for a reason,” Thakkar says.