At 31, Ashish J Thakkar is being touted as Africa‘s youngest billionaire. His business empire spans the continent. Ironically, his family was expelled without a penny from their home in Uganda by the infamous Idi Amin. But love for the African soil ran deep. Despite a series of mishaps, the Thakkars kept faith in the continent and have now returned, determined to help transform the fortunes of the continent. African Business met Ashish J Thakkar and here are our impressions of the young man who wants to shake Africa’s business universe.
It’s been a busy few months for Ashish J Thakkar. But this is nothing new. Since he started his business at the age of 15, some 16 years ago, he hasn’t really stopped.
He has been called Africa’s youngest billionaire (a reference he does not particularly like). The Economist recently dubbed him a ‘fixer’, which doesn’t really do him or his business justice. Especially when you think that the company he founded, the Mara Group, will soon have a footprint in more African countries than any other conglomerate or diversified group. And all this from humble beginnings and against all odds. African Business has followed Thakkar for a number of years where he has been a regular speaker and attendee at events organised by IC Publications, publishers of the magazine. We sat down with him at the World Economic Forum in Davos and during a trip to London to find out what were the latest ventures simmering under this serial deal maker and entrepreneur. We first met Thakkar in 2011. He was already a successful businessman in his own right and was also widely known for being the first African to sign up to Virgin Galactic’s space programme, which would make him, after internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, the second African into space. ‘It’s as much about the experience as it is about putting Africa in the news for other than war and famine,” he said back. And indeed, that seemed his vocation.
When we first met him, he was working hard – on his own initiative – producing a promotional video for the government of Uganda that airline companies would be required to play on arrival into Uganda. The aim was to enhance the cultural and physical wealth of the country and its people as well as the economic opportunities. “It’s a no-brainer. Other countries do it. When you arrive in Dubai, they play this magical film that whets your appetite and portrays this amazing city. Why can’t visitors be treated to something similar when they land in Uganda? I am always on a plane and spend 24 to 48 hours in a country. I went to Ghana for a day and literally flew in one morning and flew out the next early morning. But if I saw what else was there, it kind of gets your mind ticking – right? – so I think it’s important and every country should do it.”
Since then, he has been selected in the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (leaders under 40 who are seen as drivers of change in the regions they live and work in) and has a seat on the very select WEF’s Global Council on Africa, which is chaired by Donald Kaberuka of the African Development Bank and has the likes of Nkosana Moyo, the executive Chairman of the South African-based think-tank MINDS, on board. Both can be described as intellectuals and doyens of African development thinking.
Thakkar is not necessarily what you would expect from someone who has made it so young. He is approachable and unpretentious, with a deep sense of humility. He attributed these values to his upbringing and also to his spiritual leader, Indian guru Morari Bapu. Thakkar knows he’s one of Africa’s most successful young business leaders, but in many ways he is shy talking about it. He is aware of the importance of communication and being in the public eye but it doesn’t appear something he’s fully at ease with. He doesn’t like the billionaire name tag and wants rather to be known for doing good.
Most successful individuals take a certain pleasure to name drop, but he politely asks me whether he’s allowed to say that he was invited to a private dinner with business leader and philanthropist Bill Gates on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (“the man is incredible, undoubtedly the highlight of my
Davos experience”). Bill Gates is far more comfortable talking about his business and his foundation than about himself.
Never say die
When Thakkar relates his story, you wonder why on earth his family and group are still so focused on Africa. His family is originally from Uganda but when Idi Amin came to power and expelled the Asian community in the 1970s, his family effectively lost everything. They emigrated to the UK, where Ashish was born: “My father worked at Ford and my mother in a factory at Walkers Crisps”.
Having saved a little money, they sold their house and with their savings decided to return to East Africa, moving to Rwanda in 1993. A year later, the infamous genocide took place and his family again had to leave everything behind and start from scratch. He even says that people close to his family were avoiding them because they feared his parents would ask them for a favour. His father took a loan and started over again in Uganda. The sheer willpower, work ethic and never-say-die attitude of his parents rubbed off and at the age of 15, he decided to emulate them.
With a loan of $6,000, he went to Dubai to buy hardware to bring back to Uganda. It was as basic commerce as it could be. Every weekend, he’d go to Dubai, fill his suitcase with goods, bring it back to Uganda, pay his taxes on Monday, sell the goods between Tuesday and Friday and then take the plane to Dubai, gradually increasing his inventory. With IT demand growing and seeing other Africans do the same thing, he decided to set up shop in Dubai and become a major supplier to the African continent. He supplied to African traders and kept up their incentives by offering credit.
The group today employs over y,000 people and although no financial accounts are public, from figures touted, the group turns over in excess of $200m a year. It still has its IT business which has expanded to offer the full suite of IT services to companies and governments, but it also has diversified. It is now into business process outsourcing, it runs the largest corrugated packaging manufacturing plant in East Africa (Riley Packaging), large-scale agriculture in East Africa and a glass manufacturing plant in Nigeria. The group has other operations outside Africa, but that is by default through other acquisitions and today 90% of the group’s revenues are from in Africa.
By the end of this year, Mara, which means ‘lion’ in a dialect from Tanzania where his mother is from, will be in 22 African countries operating across a diverse number of businesses. This include a real estate project in Tanzania, glass manufacturer in Nigeria and a call centre and IT company in Chad.
Right partnership is the key
This is a phenomenal achievement over a very short span of time. What is his key to success? He boils it down to strategic partnership agreements. The group partners with technical experts who provide the operational know-how whilst his firm provides the local expertise and knowledge and part of the financing as well as the Mara brand.
The group is led by Thakkar himself and his partner Prashant Manek. What is his area of responsibility? He says that he is in charge of business development and is the strategy investment officer. Prashant’s strengths are more on the operational side, investor relations and everything else.
“We’re very hands-on, we have an excellent team around us, really smart professionals, they’ve got brilliant backgrounds and expertise in investing in multiple African countries and multiple sectors, so we’ve got a great team around us.”
The Mara Group has evolved considerably since its early days. In addition to its own wholly-owned businesses, such as its call centres and IT dealerships, it is increasingly entering into joint ventures (JVs) across a number of different sectors providing financing through an investment vehicle and local expertise.
The latter is the real growth vehicle, which should see the group increase its African footprint and its lines of business. Asked whether they were spreading themselves too thinly, Thakkar did not appear worried: “Every business is very well structured and independently managed – so having the right strategy JV partners enables us to make sure that we’re not spread thin. They bring in their expertise and we’re all putting in money together. We’re all bringing our different values to the table and since the JV partners have the operational expertise, they know how to run their businesses better than we do.”
One of Thakkar’s strengths is that he seems aware of his own limitations. “Take my IT business. It was 16 years ago when I started it and I was great at running it, but if I look at where the business is today, there’s no way I would have been able to get here without our partners. They’re experienced in running large operations and understand IT like nobody else so we leave it to them to run the operation, they’re the guys driving. We sit on the board, we help out where there are issues, we add a lot of strategic value but we don’t get involved and start getting in the way of operations.”
The Mara group and its investment vehicle now have the backing of the Abu Dhabi royal family, which can only mean we will see more of the Mara brand.
For example, the group is involved in a $300m real estate project, Mara World Tanzania, and also another of similar size in Uganda called Kingdom Kampala. Both comprise hotels, shopping mall, convention centre, office space and serviced apartments. But Thakkar is not interested in growth for growth’s sake, nor does he run his fund like a private equity group with a five-year exit strategy. “We’re very picky and very selective about our investors because we’re not a fund as such … if people are looking at a three- to five-year window, we’re not the right partners for that, we’re long term, this is co-investing with our families, it’s something that’s more aligned.”
Thakkar spends most of his time on the business although it is the foundation – to which he dedicates some 20% of his time –which he is most at ease discussing. “I hope to spend half my time on the foundation although I’m not sure the board of the group will let me,” he says half jokingly.
For now though, he has his hands full. “I spend the bulk of my time on strategy, the business development, the actual businesses, so I travel around quite a bit because I’m a firm believer that to really run these businesses it is important you go and visit them and be hands-on with them. You need to get your hands dirty and that’s how we’ve done it in the last 16 years. That’s the model that works.”
He attributes part of his success to transparency in the way their business is conducted. “We tell people that we’re nothing out of the ordinary, we are a normal group that has a great ambition. But we’re African so we want to do things in the right manner. We’re not that desperate that we want to make a quick buck here or there.
“We’re not into government supplies, we’re not into mining and minerals and oil and gases. I’m not saying that we won’t get into these sectors if we find the right partner. If it’s a venture that makes sense, where the countries will benefit, if we’re going to do value addition on the ground, if we’re going to create employment on the ground then we may look at it, but as it stands today, no.
“So I think our strength has been obviously sniffing out the right opportunities, leveraging off what we understand and just being very honest about it.”
‘We do things that excite us’
What does he want the group to be seen as? “We want to become the most exciting African brand, that’s the ambition but doing it in the right way, in a sustainable manner. We do things that excite us. The simple policy that whatever we do must have a positive social impact and the second thing is, whatever we do must have a pan-African scope. Number three, whatever we do must be Mara branded and number four, it must be different. “We don’t want to just go into a market and copy and paste what somebody else is doing just because they’re making money. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t excite me.”
And what exactly does he consider exciting? “Glass isn’t being manufactured, that’s exciting. Sugar, 98% is being imported into the country, that’s exciting. So it’s all opportunity. If it’s something that’s never been done before, that’s exciting.” Thakkar is not boisterous like many bigger-than-life business leaders yet he is enthused by the entrepreneur’s bug of wanting to disrupt the business norm.
“Offshoring is the big thing in IT outsourcing, right? We said forget offshoring let’s go onshore, let’s actually create the skills on the ground, let’s execute from on the ground up. Now, does that work? Is that more efficient, more cost effective? Maybe not, even if in time I am sure it will become so, but all the countries we do this in love it and the corporates who are giving you work love it as well. So it’s about doing things differently and adapting it to the market. And it has worked amazingly well for us.”
What of Thakkar’s passion, his foundation? Right now the foundation focuses on mentorship. He aims to make it self-funding (he says running it costs the group approximately $120,000 a month). It’s an online platform that offers mentorship programmes to young entrepreneurs, and so far they have received applications from over 30 countries. One senses he feels the continent does not have enough entrepreneurs and ‘disrupters’. He is confident that the continent is there for the taking and that it’s the entrepreneurs and the SMEs that can transform it. And Thakkar is taking this challenge especially personally. With a past like his, it is not a challenge he will give up on either. Watch this space.