How Ashish Thakkar Built an African Business Empire
Ashish Thakkar is one of Africa’s most prominent and successful young entrepreneurs.
At 32, he’s the founder and CEO of Mara Group, a holding company for a diversified roster of companies in IT services, agriculture, manufacturing, real estate, and hospitality. He also founded Mara Foundation, which provides mentorship and funding to young entrepreneurs, and Thakkar recently partnered with the United Nations-backed UN Women initiative to support women entrepreneurs. Thakkar, who is a native of the United Kingdom and grew up in Uganda, now has operations in 19 African countries and just fewer than 9,000 employees. But the beginning of his entrepreneurial story is similar to those we tell every day at Inc.
At 15, he dropped out of school, borrowed $5,000, and started selling computers, traveling to Dubai on weekends to replenish his stock. His motivation: He saw a market need that wasn’t being filled. He continues to see opportunities just about everywhere, and is bullish on the entrepreneurial climate in sub-Saharan Africa, where the International Monetary Fund estimates economic growth of 6 percent this year.
On a recent trip to Uganda with the United Nations Foundation and its Global Entrepreneurs Council, I had the opportunity to chat with Thakkar about Mara and entrepreneurship in Africa. Here is an edited version of that conversation:
Entrepreneurs have long avoided Africa for a variety of reasons, including geopolitical conflict and other perceived trade barriers. How have you managed to crack the continent?
I think it's an amazing emerging market. We have more than one billion residents, so we've got so many opportunities, from basic stuff to technology. How we identify opportunities is by looking at the basics and realizing that there are so many things to be done. In agriculture, real estate, and hospitality, we just saw so many gaps in so many areas. We thought, How do we solve this? How would we as consumers have wanted this service? But the only way you can measure opportunity is by really feeling it in a literal sense. I’m based in Dubai, but I spend 20 days a month on the continent.
What are the barriers to starting and scaling a new venture in Africa?
I don't think there are barriers. The key thing to understand is that we're not India or China; we’re not one country of a billion people. We’re 54 different countries as a continent and as sub-Saharan Africa, we're 46 countries. So how do you truly plug into the local state and then replicate it to make it multicountry? I think that’s where the opportunity lies. Everything is doable. The skill sets and the infrastructure in Africa are better than what people envision. The opportunity is more appealing because the barriers are perceived to be higher than they actually are.
How important are global partners to your business model?
That's how we're operating every single one of our companies. We combine global partners with subject-matter expertise and local expertise, along with capital. It's a winning combination. In the banking space I’ve got [former Barclays CEO] Bob Diamond. He was a leader in a global financial services institution and he understands banking extremely well. We have the African experience. Together, we're going to be buying controlling stakes in financial services institutions across the continent. It’s the same with my glass manufacturing partner, JS Group, which has six glass plants in Asia. In every sector, bringing in partners is the way to do it.
In what sectors do you see the greatest opportunity in Africa?
We’re seeing a lot of online and mobile-technology-related innovation. We have more mobile phone users than North America and Western Europe combined. So we truly have the ability to leapfrog. Having your bank account on your mobile phone in Kenya is normal, where the rest of the world still has credit cards or whatever else. I think that's where the opportunity is.
Also, organic food processing will be another huge industry. People are complaining about food shortages in parts of the world. We have I think 60 percent of the world's rainfed arable land.
Are there any sectors that entrepreneurs should stay away from?
I wouldn't say people should stay away from any particular industry, but there are sectors to be more sensitive about, like natural resources. I think foreign companies coming in and tapping into natural resources must be very cognizant of the fact that these resources belong to our country and the people of our countries. Extracting our raw materials and taking them elsewhere is not the way to do it. The way to do it is to look at adding value locally and then taking it to the next level.
DONNA FENN | Inc.com Contributing Editor
Donna Fenn is the author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.