In less than two decades, Ashish Thakkar turned a $5,000 loan from his parents into a continent-spanning empire. How did he do it?
For someone who dropped out of school aged 15, Ashish Thakkar is doing pretty well for himself. His conglomerate Mara Group is estimated by some to be worth over $1bn, which would make him Africa’s youngest billionaire. He spends most of his time jet setting around the world, striking new deals and meeting with world leaders and Hollywood celebs. And he has become the acceptable poster child of Africa’s soaring class of the mega-wealthy.
Now aged 33, his biggest regret, he tells me, is that he didn’t leave school earlier.
Despite meeting at the swanky Intercontinental Hotel in London’s Mayfair, Thakkar is known for being more of a ‘smart-casual’ kind of guy. Not one for stuffy suits and cold formalities, he is smiley and personable, and speaks eloquently about his life and his businesses − though a quiet PR man sits attentively by his side just in case.
Thakkar has no shortage of things to talk about. Founded with just $5,000 two decades ago, Mara Group is now estimated to have an annual turnover of over $100 million. It has created thousands of jobs across Africa and has fingers in countless pies, from real estate to e-commerce to agriculture. The conglomerate has joint ventures with some of the world’s leading multinationals. It has a hugely ambitious pan-African infrastructure project in the pipeline. And even all this, Thakkar says, is barely scratching the surface of what he wants to do.
“As cheesy as this sounds, I genuinely believe that everything that Mara has done − the brand it’s created, its presence, the track record it’s got − I think it’s now that we’re really beginning,” he says. “Next year we turn 20 as an organisation so this is our last year of teenage life, so I really do think we’re just getting started.”
Unlike many of Africa’s billionaires, who have made their money in the resource sector or been helped by inheritances and political contacts, Thakkar started from the most modest of beginnings.
He was born in Leicester, UK, in 1981, where his father once worked at Ford and his mother at a Walkers Crisps factory. His parents had grown up in Uganda, the children of Indian migrants, where they had set up a business in agriculture and textiles. But with the rise to power of the dictatorial Idi Amin in 1971, the family had lost everything. Acting on what he claimed was an order from God, Amin ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian minority in 1972, forcing the Thakkars, along with thousands of others, to uproot to the UK.
They rebuilt their lives there over the next two decades, but in 1993, they determined to return to Africa − this time to Rwanda. Ashish attended school in Kenya, and it was when he was back home during his Easter holidays in 1994 that the genocide began. As Hutu genocidaires attempted to wipe out the Tutsi minority and massacred Hutu moderates, the Thakkar family sought refuge in the Hôtel des Milles Colines, the subject of the film Hotel Rwanda.
“My parents are amazing. They kind of played down the entire Rwanda scenario even while we were living through it,” recalls Thakkar. “They were playing games with us, they were keeping us positive, they were keeping our minds off what was actually happening out there.”
The family was evacuated to Burundi before they eventually came full circle back to Uganda. Once again, they had to start from scratch and Thakkar remembers family friends avoiding them for fear that they would be asked for a loan. This hapless situation awoke in the teenager a go-getting, do-it-yourself drive.
“I didn’t want my family to go through this, we didn’t deserve it, so I think I got into that entrepreneurial mindset because I felt like I wanted and needed to do something about it,” he says.
Thakkar hardly began his career with some grand master plan in mind, however. Rather, his first transaction, aged 15, was selling a computer his parents had given him. He made a $100 profit. When his parents found out, they were a little upset but eventually laughed it off, reminded him to stay honest, and gave him another computer to see if he could repeat the trick.
He did and, with a $5,000 loan from the Bank of Mum and Dad, ended up launching a one-man operation over the summer holidays. He flew to and from Dubai, where he could source more computers and hardware. He bought as much IT equipment as he could fit in his suitcase and sold it back in Kampala.
When term recommenced, Thakkar, still buzzing with excitement, skipped school, hoping his parents wouldn’t realise. But when they inevitably did, he pleaded with them to let him drop out of school to pursue his burgeoning business.
“They could see that my heart was really into it, and they knew that I was trying to do it with this intent that would break me if they didn’t let me,” he says. “I think there were so many different factors going on in their minds, and that’s when they said to me that the conditions are that you do it alone, you try it out for a year, and if it doesn’t work out, you go back to school a year behind your friends.”
Thakkar never had to return to school but, he says demurely, “I still have that option open.”
Global meets local
Thakkar thus started his career with the most straightforward of business models − sell something for slightly more than you bought it − but he soon branched out into new modes of activity.
One significant turning point was when he came to know some other African businesspeople plying the Dubai-Africa trade route. Thakkar found that many of them had established workable businesses but were struggling to access credit to help them expand. Perhaps remembering his own parents’ difficulty in finding support, Thakkar decided to become the risk-taking lender these traders were looking for.
It was in this moment that Mara Group was born, midwifed by a spirit of collaboration that has continued through its almost two-decade history.
Indeed, the way in which Mara Group has mushroomed from its modest beginnings into the many-tentacled conglomerate it is today has largely been through cooperative ventures with foreign multinationals. Thakkar has reinvested Mara’s profits into new projects with additional capital from debt markets, but cooperation with partners has been the sine qua non of its business model.
With average growth rates of over 5% this past decade and an expanding population with disposable incomes, international investors have been eyeing up Africa with ever deepening lust. However, as many international investors have found out the hard way, operating in Africa can present a unique gamut of challenges. Often cumbersome regulations need to be navigated, suitable local partners need to be identified, and the subtleties of local markets need to be understood. Furthermore, succeeding in one African country far from guarantees success in the next.
“We are a continent of 54 countries so when operating in one market it’s important to know that that’s not going to be a copy and paste scenario that you can do in even a neighbouring market,” says Thakkar. “You’ve got to be very local in every market. But how do you plug into that and still have global standards? How do you do that on a practical level, in a scalable manner?”
The answer in short, according to Thakkar, has been to partner up with Mara Group. Foreign companies bring capital and specific technical expertise, while Mara provides that crucial local knowhow essential for succeeding on the ground.
A case in point is MJG Egi Glass, a 500-tonne/day glass manufacturing plant in Nigeria. In the hopes of profiting from a construction boom in Africa’s largest economy, the Pakistani multinational and leading international glass manufacturer Ghani Group had been keen to set up a local factory. It had been trying to do so for several years, but it was only in 2013 when it joined forces with Mara Group, as well as the local Egi Community and JS Group, that it managed to make headway in Nigeria’s often daunting business environment. The $210m project was finally on its way just six months later.
This has proven to be an effective recipe in other sectors too. One of Thakkar’s early business successes was of building a packaging business in Uganda, but through joint ventures, he has since added plenty more strings to his bow, and plenty more foreign partners to his roster, including in construction, hospitality, manufacturing, IT services, e-commerce and agriculture.
Mara has headhunted some of the world’s and the continent’s leading executives and experts to lead its projects. And through this model, the Group has, amongst other things, helped set up a network of calls centres, is developing a range of social media platforms, and is involved in the building of luxury properties, 5-star hotels and state-of-the-art office parks. Mara Group operates in 22 African countries and employs 11,000 people.
Furthermore, Mara will soon be launching an ambitious pan-African infrastructure project in conjunction with a leading international corporation, though the details have yet to be announced.
“It’s all finalised, it’s all happening, but it’s behind the scenes stuff,” says Thakkar. “The majority of the vehicle will be focused on power generation. It’s going to be the whole of Africa, including North Africa, and it’s going to be in partnership with a multinational organisation.”
Given that Thakkar regularly rubs shoulders with ministers from across Africa, he is ideally placed to negotiate such large-scale government deals. Meanwhile, the billionaire also believes that infrastructure fits perfectly into Mara’s ethos of doing business.
Thakkar says that, as a rule, Mara avoids “sticky” sectors such as mining and focuses instead of industries that will make a tangible difference to people’s lives. “The sectors we’re involved in are things the continent really needs,” says Thakkar, explaining that he wants to create jobs, fill genuine requirements and be positively “game-changing” − though the bottom line of course remains making a healthy profit. The aim, he says, is to “do well and do good at the same time.”
Diamond is a guy’s best friend
In his 20 years experience, Thakkar has arguably managed to achieve these twin goals in many of his undertakings. But one of his projects − perhaps his most ambitious to date – seems to be on a less secure footing.
In late 2013, Atlas Mara Ltd was founded with the aim of becoming Africa’s leading financial holdings company. The continent suffers from a huge deficit of financial services and credit – as Thakkar found out as a young entrepreneur himself – and Atlas Mara was created to “positively disruptive” this status quo.
“Think about one thing: which new banking institutions on our continent are really making that wave? Which new organisations are actually investing in financial services the way we are in terms of trying to create a fresh platform? There’s not much activity in the space,” he says.
However, while welcomed by many, Atlas Mara has raised some eyebrows, beginning with its leadership. While Mara Group holds 20% of the company, 80% is held by Atlas Merchant Capital LLC, a vehicle led by former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond.
Diamond was described in 2010 as “the unacceptable face” of banking by the UK’s then Business Secretary, and he clashed repeatedly with UK regulators. He also endured heavy criticism for happily taking home salaries and bonuses in the tens of millions of dollars at Barclays, even as governments bailed out the banks in the wake of global financial crisis.
Furthermore, under his stewardship, Barclays faced a string of scandals. In early 2012, for example, the UK Treasury ordered Barclays to pay nearly $800m in taxes it had illegally attempted to avoid. And a few months later, the bank was fined $450m by US and UK regulators for rigging inter-bank Libor and Euribor lending rates. Diamond denied any knowledge of the huge-scale fraud, but external pressure eventually forced him to resign in July 2012.
It was with surprise then that many greeted the news in 2013 that Thakkar, whose reputation is of being a relatively humble businessman, was joining forces with the far more polarising figure of Diamond. However, Thakkar bristles at the suggestion that his partner is anything but a gem.
“That’s such a ridiculous thing because Bob is actually one of my favourite partners and one of my favourite individuals,” he says. “He’s a very, very close friend of mine and the perception that existed out there was so ridiculous and wrong compared to the reality.”
Regardless of Thakkar’s trust, however, it has not been plain sailing for Atlas Mara either. On the one hand, the company has managed to raise $625m through fundraisings, and has assets worth $2.6bn, having made deals in Botswana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
But as a Wall Street Journal article reported this April, its share price has tumbled; the company made a $63m net loss last year; doubts have been raised around executives’ bumper paychecks; and questions have been asked about Diamond’s personal shareholding in one of Atlas Mara’s acquisitions.
Echoing the company’s own line though, Thakkar insists all rules have been complied with, and he puts the bumpy start down to normal growing pains.
“When you acquire something and then put your systems into it, put your mindset into it, put your vision into it, there’s always going to be that change,” he says. “Atlas Mara isn’t a short-term win. We’re a bank and we’re building a solid institution… We’re super confident.”
Thakkar also shrugs off criticisms of the fact that although Atlas Mara hopes to be Africa’s leading financial services company, it is incorporated 6,000km away in the British Virgin Islands, a well-known tax haven and secrecy jurisdiction.
“We’re listed on the main board of the London Stock Exchange and there’s full disclosures and transparency on that. It made sense as a jurisdiction… It’s the same thing as whether you do a Cayman or a Mauritius or whatever’s most efficient and practical for you,” he says.
Helping the little guys?
Thakkar talks passionately about his business interests, but he is most at ease when talking about the Mara Foundation. Launched in 2009, the Foundation takes Thakkar back to his roots as a plucky young entrepreneur and allows him to engage those in a similar position now.
“The Foundation is focused on enabling, empowering and inspiring young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs,” he says. “The way we do that is mentorship, guidance, advice, handholding support, training, competitions and then access to capital, liquidity and funding through methods of venture capital.”
Mara Mentor, for example, links upcoming entrepreneurs with experienced businesspeople whom they can ask for personalised advice and share knowledge; while the Mara Ad-Venture Fund provides start-ups with access to capital in return for equity in the company.
This form of collaboration fits in with Thakkar’s cooperative philosophy of doing business, but he also believes that helping small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is the key to addressing unemployment and fostering Africa’s economic progress. Thakkar has the ear of several African governments and is an advisor to the World Economic Forum and African Development Bank, and it is the importance of nurturing small businesses that he says he most frequently urges upon them.
“Mara Mentor provides guidance free on any mobile device…Mara Ad-venture provides access to capital…But the government’s role is to create that enabling environment,” he says. “We need to attract the informal sector to become a part of the formal sector. We need governments to really realise that the answer to unemployment is nurturing small and medium enterprises; it is not attracting foreign direct investment, it is not putting up these large projects. That’s important, but it’s not the answer to unemployment.
“A case in point is South Africa, where 65% of private sector employment is created by SMEs yet four out of five SMEs fail. You fix that failure rate and you’re fixing the unemployment issue.”
With his host of ambitious ventures and philanthropic initiatives, it is not surprising that Thakkar has become a symbol of Africa’s potential and rapid development. Not only has he cultivated a reputation for getting things done, but his personal story of building an empire from virtually nothing serves as inspiration to many. His family history of dodging disaster makes for a great narrative, and his Foundation allows him to present himself as the billionaire that cares about the little guy.
His well-cultivated likeable public persona also helps. When asked what he does to unwind and have fun, for example, Thakkar immediately refers to his spiritual guide Morari Bapu, a jet-setting preacher whom he tries to see every couple of months. According to the businessman, Bapu teaches “truth, love and compassion” and urges his followers to give away at least 10% of their earnings to charity.
“[Seeing Bapu] does two things for me,” he says. “On one hand, it just completely empties me, it just totally de-stresses me and makes me feel a lot more chilled. And on the other hand, it really charges me and fills me with that energy and that compassion and that urge to make a difference.”
Similarly to the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Thakkar always insists that he would much rather be seen as a philanthropist, innovator or even just a decent guy than a super-wealthy mogul.
“I don’t think wealth should be a measurement of success at all, so [being labelled Africa’s youngest billionaire] irritates me,” he says. “When you think about all of our young people across the continent, they’re going to be looking for inspiration, they’re going to be looking for that hope giving them the light at the end of the tunnel that they can do it as well, and the last thing you want them to be driven by is the wealth factor.”
It is not enhancing his bank account, Thakkar says, that gets him up in the mornings, and his leisure pursuits of tennis and five-aside football are not necessarily what you might expect of a man for whom money is no object.
However, Thakkar isn’t totally immune to the trappings of what billionairedom can buy, and he famously signed up to go into space as part of Virgin Galactic. The space tourism venture has been heavily criticised for its astronomical costs and damaging environmental impact, but Thakkar rejects these claims. He also adds that the potential innovations that will stem from the venture will make it more than worth it.
“To plant a satellite in space today costs a lot of money, and this is going to bring down the cost to probably less than 10% of its costs today. The amount of R&D that’s going to create is going to be huge,” he says.
If all goes according to plan then, Thakkar will be in space sometime next year, and he will be able to gaze down on the continent that is the home to his ever sprawling host of projects.
Having gone from ground zero to atmospheric orbit in the business world in under two decades, Thakkar is shooting for the stars in a more literal sense. And as has been the case with his business ventures with Mara Group, it seems that even the sky is not the limit when it comes to the young man’s ambitions.