Entrepreneur, Do-Gooder, Future Spaceman, Billionaire

Ashish Thakkar is the Founder and Managing Director of the Mara Group of companies. In 15 years, he has taken the group from the humble beginnings of selling computers to friends, to the global firm that exists today employing over 4,500 people. Thakkar is also a philanthropist to his core and has made it his mission to help millions of fellow entrepreneurs across Africa turn their startup dreams into a reality. We had an opportunity to chat with Thakkar in an exclusive one-on-one. The following is an edited down version of the conversation for ease of reading, but we have tried to maintain the tone of the conversation.

TABJ: I’ve read about how Mara began as a young Ashish Thakkar selling computers at the age of 15 and it being built out into the multi-sector conglomerate it is today. But can you elaborate a bit more about how it actually evolved?

Ashish Thakkar: Just to give you a bit of flavour, I’ll give you a quick background on the family My family’s been in Africa for about 120 years. My father’s family came to Uganda in 1819 and my mother’s family to Tanzania in 1920, they lived in Kenya after they got married. And then in 1972 they got kicked out of Uganda  [with the expulsion of Indians] and moved to England and my father and mother worked in factories, built some capital, set up a small business, built some more capital, bought a home and in ’93 they decided they wanted to go back to Africa. They sold off the home and the business and moved to Rwanda. In 1994, nine months later the genocide started in Rwanda and my sister and parents and I were refugees for a few weeks in Kigali. And then we moved to Nairobi and then back to Uganda to start from scratch. Luckily we came out alive, but everything we had built from ’72 to’93 we lost in ’94.

Here I am, a 13-year-old kid, I can see everything and understand what’s going on and see what my parents had been through in England and losing everything again and still remaining positive, so that was a real drive for me.

From the age of 14, my parents bought me a computer and my father’s friend came home for dinner. He asked me how much I bought the computer for, and I told him the price, which was actually $100 more than I bought the computer for. And he was like “that’s awesome,” and I was like “you know, I have two if you want one,” and he goes “ya that would be great.”

So rather than having dinner, I’m cleaning my computer and deleting all my files and emptying my recycle bin and packing the computer to make sure I can deliver it the next day. Straight after school, I took the computer, delivered it to his office and I made $100 and thought “Wow, this is awesome. I can do this.” So every day after school, I’d be going around and literally be trying to sell my computer. I sold my second one to my school.

Then my summer holidays came, and I told my parents “I’ve got two months and want to set up a small shop and run it and see what happens, and then shut it down and go back to school.”

So I set up my shop, and the two months finished and I conveniently didn’t tell my parents that my two months had finished and they obviously found out about it a week later [chuckling]. We sat down as a family and we had a discussion and I said to them “I’ll finish off the education route like you want me to, but I’m going to end up doing this, ‘cause it’s what I love.”

They were really cool. They said “try it out for a year and if it doesn’t work out, you go back a year below your friends.” I was like “done!” And I still have that option open. So that’s how that began.

What I was doing, every weekend I was flying to Dubai with my suitcase, filling it up with IT equipment on a Monday, Tuesday to Friday selling the goods, Friday night flying back to Dubai with that cash, filling my suitcase and coming back. Literally I was trying to build it up from $3,500 to $4,500 to $10,000 slowly building up my working capital. It took a few months. I began to realize there were so many people from different parts of Africa coming to Dubai to do exactly the same thing and I thought that’s a huge opportunity. I set up an office and I was basically trying to export to other African countries. That’s how the IT business started.

Then I slowly realized I wanted to become an Industrialist. I always wanted to do something that was manufacturing-related; creating something from scratch just gives you a different type of buzz. So we set up a packaging plant. And then I wanted to get into real estate because I thought “that’s a consistent sector,” so we got into that. And then the rest is history.

We realized very quickly that our strength isn’t a particular sector, it’s more than we understand how to operate in Africa and a lot of people don’t. People misunderstand it. People look at it as one country and not one continent. People forget that we’re 46 jurisdictions in Sub-Saharan Africa. 46 different laws. 46 different cultures. 46 different nationalities. People look at Africa as a block, the way you look at India and China, but you can’t.

Thereafter we started partnering with international companies. We are the local partner and they are the international, strategy partner. That’s how we’ve been able to become very diversified yet very focused and very African with physical presence in almost 20 countries now.

TABJ: A couple of questions based on what you just said. The first being, do you think a traditional education is necessary to be successful?

AT: In my opinion, absolutely not. I completely value it. I get it. But it’s not necessary to be successful, no. What’s necessary to be successful, is not education but it’s the right mindset. The passion, the drive, the positive aggression you have.

TABJ: To be an entrepreneur, do you think it’s something that anyone can do, or something that certain people, based on their life experiences and personalities, are more suited to it?

AT: No, I think anyone can do it, as long as that mindset is right. They’re not just doing it for the sake of it, but they’re doing it because they really want to do it. And that mindset can come later on, it doesn’t have to come at the beginning of your career or when you’re 14-years-old. It can come anytime. More importantly though, I think it’s passion if you really want to become an entrepreneur. There are people that I know, who have been professionals, they’ve taken the plunge and actually resigned and started up their own business. It’s a huge risk for professionals, but they were passionate about becoming entrepreneurs. If they don’t do it now, they’ll never be able to do it.

TABJ: Can you share some of the standout milestones for you when you think of how Mara began to where it is today?

AT: One of my big personal milestones was being able to export to a different country. I flew into Tanzania and started literally knocking on every IT door saying “I’m from Dubai and I want to supply you.” And they’re looking at me, a 15-year-old kid thinking “what the heck are you talking about?” I actually got into an office and the guy sat me down and asked “what’s going to be different about you?” and I said “look you’re dealing with huge companies, and I’m not denying that. But I can do it better, I’ll actually give you personal service. I’ll take care of you, I’ll treat you like you’re my own company.” I was being really passionate, I really meant it. He put his trust in me and we started doing business. He was my first export client and that boosts your confidence. If you go to a country and get a deal and you fail, it kinda knocks you back and I would’ve probably focused on just Uganda. But that opened me up and we started going into other countries after that like Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, DRC.

The Manufacturing plant had a lot of challenges as well. I remember this one time we had to do the order the next day for Unilever so we were excited. At 10:30 that night I was leaving the office and took a walk around the factory and one of the main machines had switched off. I was told the machine operator didn’t come in because he was ill. And I was like “that’s impossible. We’ve got to deliver tomorrow morning” and was told no one else could operate that machine. It took me two to three months to get that order and now you’re telling me we can’t deliver? I read the instruction manual for two hours and ran the machine for seven hours and we delivered that morning.

TABJ: You often mention how helping young entrepreneurs and giving back is a huge passion for you, hence your work with the Mara Foundation. Why is it important to focus on nurturing and encouraging innovation within Africa, in your opinion?

AT: I spend 40 per cent of my time on the Mara foundation. A lot of people question me, asking why I’m doing this right now and I should be doing this when I’m 50. I actually feel sorry when people say that. It’s such a sad notion that you can only help people once you’re reaching the end of your life cycle. It’s so useless to think like that.

I hate the word CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). CSR means you’re being good because you have to. Seriously, you’re being good to check off a box?

Then don’t bother doing it.

The thing that excites me the most is giving back in a self-sustainable matter. I don’t believe in giving these people free hand outs. Don’t give a man a fish, teach a man how to fish. This is exactly what we’re doing with entrepreneurs at Mara Foundation.

There are huge unemployment issues, and unfortunately a lot of our governments feel the answer to this is foreign direct investment. That’s absolute rubbish. The answer to unemployment is actually nurturing small and medium enterprises, that’s the answer.

Also working from home, it’s different in the West, but in our part of the world they don’t take you seriously at all, you lose credibility. In order to give them that credibility and visibility, we set up the incubation centres and then we realized they’re lacking funding. So we set up a venture capital to invest in them.

My real dream and my passion is to impact millions of these entrepreneurs across Africa and I think with the platform we’ve set up and the network, the brand recognition we’ve been able to create, we want to leverage this all across Africa to make sure this does really happen.

Another exciting initiative we’re starting by Q2 next year is something called Mara Women, which has  a women entrepreneur focus.

It’s something I really want to personally drive and be hands on with and I’ve always promised myself that, when we set up the Mara Foundation a few years ago, we’re not a charity, we’re not a CSR. We’re not the charitable arm of the group. We’re a non-profit social enterprise. We want to run it like a business, like we run the rest of our group.

What’s changed, and this has always been part of the ethos, but it’s even moreso now – we only invest in things that actually have a positive social impact.

Even as a for-profit, we only do things that have a huge social impact and are game changers in their own respects, otherwise there’s no point in doing it.

TABJ: Working with the Mara Foundation and many different entrepreneurs, I’d be curious to know what is unique about the ideas emerging out of Africa as compared to the startup scene in the rest of the world? From everything we’ve seen in the African News Innovation Challenge to Demo Africa, the ideas always seem to have a unique African flavour. What do you think?

AT: The one word that sums it up is leap-frogging. We’re literally leap-frogging.

They’ve seen what’s worked in the West and they’re not following that trend, but doing it in a better way. We’re leap-frogging in terms of technology and innovation, in my opinion, because we don’t have to follow the footsteps of the West or the developed world, we can actually do better. We can learn from their mistakes. We’ve seen steps 1 to 5 and we can get started on 6 and 7. In that sense, there’s some serious innovation coming out, the only thing is they need the right platform to work off and to be highlighted. And not just the elite few, but the mass. And hence we’ve said we want to create a partnership with Silicon Valley by the end of next year, we want to set up an incubation centre there to focus on African businesses and giving African business the opportunity to have a global platform to work off. That’s our idea, we’ll hopefully launch in 12 months.

There’s some amazing African entrepreneurs, but how do they scale up and get noticed? Creating an enabling environment for them is pretty crucial.

TABJ: Africa is often described as latest frontier market. What advantages do you think Africa offers when it comes to doing business compared to other parts of the world?

AT: Look, we’re a billion people but we have so many different geographies. It’s not like one person’s going to sweep the entire market. Each country is an independent case study. In that sense, it’s more challenging, but it’s a massive opportunity because each country is very different. The middle class sector is really growing now, our governance is really improving, our leaders are real visionaries and want to leave behind legacies. You see a huge mindshift in every element. It’s definitely the next big thing. You just have to go about it properly. You can’t generalise the continent, you can’t do a copy and paste strategy.

You need you become local in the true sense, in every element.

TABJ: We’ve read you will be representing East Africa on Virgin Galactic’s first mission into space [both interviewer and interviewee are chuckling], making you Africa’s second astronaut. That’s impressive and a large honour. Do you have any thoughts on how you might customize your experience to give it a unique African flavour? Or is that something you’ve even thought about?

AT: Oh absolutely, the whole point of doing this was just that, frankly. I have a bit of a confession, I haven’t watched any of the Star Wars and I’m not into Sci-Fi. My whole thing about this was, the adrenaline’s going to be amazing, it’s going to be a fantastic buzz and it’s a great honour to be representing the region, so I’ve officially received all the flags from the heads of state and the idea is to make it a real national event and really promote it in the right way.

TABJ: I’m sorry, you’ve never watched Star Wars, really?

AT: [chuckling] Seriously I know, so bad, right?

TABJ:  I think you’re one of a handful people I know who hasn’t seen Star Wars! [both chuckling] Ok, going back to business. Words of wisdom. Could you share two to threee tips for what entrepreneurs should keep in mind to find success with their businesses in an African landscape?

AT: It’s important to think big but start small. It’s important to have that big vision and dream, but take tiny steps to get there. Be practical and be efficient but have that big dream.

Don’t blend in, but blend out. Be different, think different, do things in a slightly different matter.

And just be very grounded. My spiritual leader, Morari Bapus, his core teaching is truth, love and compassion. Very simple and yet very, very powerful. It’s something that’s helped me remain very grounded and keeps me really focused and energised in the right way. Having the truth, love and compassion elements in your life is very important.