Ashish J. Thakkar’s ‘New Final Frontier.’
To boldly go! Just about sums up this young, principally Asian extract, yet African intercontinental entrepreneur. And without the advantages the western economy has; and the more developed emerging nations are gaining; few people match up to this guy’s GigaMarket mettle.
Apart from being Africa’s second prospective astronaut (thanks to Virgin Galaxy), Ashish J. Thakkar’s is also Africa’s youngest billionaire. At 35 years old, Thakkar’s legacy began in Uganda before he was born! Triggered by the much troubled 1970s, when Idi Amin came to power. Amin gave an ultimatum to the Asian community, expelling them at their peril. Thakkar’s family effectively lost everything and emigrated to the UK. After a none-so-easy period adjustment, his father found shift work at Ford Motors; his mother at a Walkers Crisps factory.
Then in 1993, in a courageous move, his family moved to Rwanda, a neighbouring country to Uganda. Where, Thakkar’s father took a loan and started over again in Uganda.
This diehard willpower, super-work ethic and never-say-die attitude rubbed off and at the age of 15, Thakkar put into action his families traits. In the mid 1990s, Thakkar borrowed a tiny amount of seed capital, starting his first business buying and selling computers systems. Thakkar GigaMarket strategy began when he would go to Dubai every weekend and load up his suitcase with IT goods, the bring it back to Uganda, then sell his goods during the week; and then in a never ending recursive cycle, take the plane to Dubai, gradually increasing his inventory. The normal rituals of a teenager, like boozy holidays, weekend partying and pimped-up rides, where out. This young man was driven by a different beat.
20 years on Thakkar has built an IT, real-estate and manufacturing conglomerate. The Mara Group, a pan-African multi-sector business conglomerate, including business outsourcing, mobile-enabled online platforms, agriculture, real estate, hospitality, packaging and asset management; operating in 26 countries, employing ~7,000 people.
But way had he become a billionaire in as little 18 years? Again GigaMarket mindset. He could senses in his water that Africa was about to get moving, even in the face of widespeard poverty, sectarian a and tribal wars, it was nearing a tipping point. Sell some IT gadgets (drives, graphics cards, RAM cards, cables, app-software, etc) out of suit case on a height street in say the England back in 1997, and people would have just walked past. Do that in Uganda, and people began to come in flocks. GigaMarket mindset!
That small trading outpost has quickly snowballed into the Mara Group (meaning Lion), a diversified corporation bringing in $100 million in revenues. Mara operate in business outsourcing, corrugated packaging manufacturing plants, large-scale agriculture in East Africa; glass manufacturing plant in Nigeria; real estate project, Mara World Tanzania, and also another of similar size in Uganda called Kingdom Kampala. Both comprise of hotels, shopping mall, convention centre, office space and serviced apartments.
Mara Group ethos hinges on Honesty, Integrity and Truth being the bedrock of company values, work ethic and operational execution. Establishing a prosperous business in Africa even when it is difficult. Media’s attention is often on bureaucracy, tardiness and duplicity, and corruption. But all human-beings have an innate longing for transparency and truth. Honesty is the best policy; for a long term customer loyalty, and partnership loyalty and profitability.
I have been saying this for years now, ‘African entrepreneurs are now your competition.’ Part of the group, is the Mara Foundation, a non-profit social enterprise which focuses on African entrepreneurs. The Foundation works to create sustainable economic and business development opportunities for young business owners via its Mara ‘Launchpad Incubation Centres and Mara Launch Fund’ which focuses on emerging African entrepreneurs. The Foundation works to create sustainable economic and business development opportunities for young business owners via its Mara Launchpad incubation centres and Mara Launch Fund.
Thakkar says, ‘Embrace the Unconventional’ – I like it! All of his business success in Africa is because he has taken traditional perception and turned it on its head. Not business as usual. Instead, innovative, intuitive and inconceivable ways to gain an edge while also ensuring that our competitive advantage is sustainable. Even in the face of controversy, he leverages counter-intuition and uncommon-sense way and means. ‘When you see everyone going east…find out what’s going on in the west…that may be your door to success!’ He says.
Grandiose plans and big dreams are often answered with the ‘snooze button.’ Dreams are only as good as the strategy and resources behind it. Business success is the culmination of dreaming big dreams, daily strategic execution, hardcore teamwork and a pragmatic ‘hands on’ approach.
Thakkar, ‘I remember in the early days, when one of my corrugated box plants in East Africa was 24 hours away from delivering one of our largest orders to date. The machine operator was out ill and no one else who knew how to operate this piece of equipment, yet the order of corrugated boxes still needed to be fulfilled. So as the CEO, I sat and read the manual and taught myself how to use the machine. And needless to say, within 24 hours I was able to help my team fulfil this order in time to deliver to our client on time.’
In Africa, you must be willing to take the bull by its horns and make things happen…even when it is not in your traditional job description. Just get it done…on time…no excuses!
There is an African proverb that says ‘If you want to go fast…go alone. If you want to go far…go together.’
Mara Foundation is the Mara Group’s social enterprise that focuses on emerging African entrepreneurs. It works to create sustainable economic and business development opportunities for young business owners via our Mara Launchpad incubation centres and Mara Launch Fund. Our mission is to provide comprehensive support services, including mentor-ship, funding, incubation centre workspace and, business training to African entrepreneurs. We believe that these support services will transform entrepreneurs’ business ideas into profitable and thriving business entities that will employ other Africans and contribute to the local and national economies.
Every day, I forget my journey with great mentors who continue to walk this uphill windy road with me. It is my hope to walk along with other African entrepreneurs as their mentor because I believe passionately that Africa has a bright future of innovation, prosperity and global relevance.
He says he focuses 40% of his time on his non-profit venture – the Mara Foundation, which is devoted to helping young African entrepreneurs. It comprises of the 3 key things emerging businesses need to succeed. An Entrepreneur Launchpad, a business mentor-ship program for emerging entrepreneurs, the Mara Launchpad, an incubation center for young businesses and the Mara Launch Uganda Fund, which offers venture capital for startups & growing businesses in Uganda. ‘You're guiding them, handholding them, teaching them, inspiring them and you're giving them credibility and visibility.’ Says Ashish.
He is passionate about giving back and seeing Africa prosper. ‘The Indian Tiger and Chinese Dragon have had their days.’ He says ‘It is now time for the African Lion!’
Global unemployment trends have headlined news coverage as of late. In particular, I follow youth unemployment trends, because they forecast the career trajectory of our future generations and the overall health and stability of the global economy.
The UN’s International Labour Organisation reports that approximately 74.5 million or 12.6 percent of young people around the world are unemployed. For Africa, that translates into about 14.2 million youths.
Launchpad provide infrastructure for SMEs and ‘Solopreneurs’, who otherwise would not be able to afford professional office space. Launchpad is the epi-center of the Mara Foundation’s business training and networking events. Currently, we have Launchpad in Kampala and Dar es Salaam.
In 2013, he launched Mara Women, which will solely focus on supporting women entrepreneurs. We also just expanded our mentor-ship programme to include an on-line portal. In the past year, we can attest that we have made an impact to at least 100,000 African and global entrepreneurs who are interested in on-demand mentor-ship and business advice. We do, however, recognise that our impact needs to be greater to reach the millions of young people who are without guidance and hope because of unemployment. We believe that just as other continents, like Asia, have reinvented themselves through an industrial revolution, Africa is primed and ready for its own innovative revolution partly driven by young and women entrepreneurs.
After all, he's revolutionising the mobile and social communication landscape in Africa. Though he's a devout follower of ‘Bapu’ (Gandhi) and his teachings of truth, love and compassion, you would be foolish to think Thakkar became Africa's Youngest Billionaire by following the path of least resistance, for he is an irresistible tale of passionate perseverance and indefatigable drive.
‘Africa is such an amazing place, the people are so beautiful, the atmosphere is amazing, we've got a billion people. You've seen what India and China have been through the last 10 to 15 years, but what Africa's going through is a completely different transformation. Unlike India and China, we're 54 different jurisdictions, 46 for Sub-Saharan Africa; 46 different laws, parliaments, opposition parties, backgrounds, traditions -- the whole shebang. So we're really unique in that respect and unfortunately we're really generalised in a lot of different ways. We are a continent, not a country.’
‘Look at the number of natural resources we have, the amount of naturally rain-fed arable land, the population, the consumer base we have, which is growing; the lack of penetration of anything in that respect. There are no shopping malls in a lot of these places. Fifteen years ago, India didn't have shopping malls, now it's nothing but shopping malls. There's a whole new shift, that's the next big thing.’
‘20 years ago, India and China were misunderstood, completely misread, and underestimated. Africa's in exactly that position today. Hence, my saying and why the Mara logo is the African lion. The U.S. is still investing in India and China, yet India and China are investing in Africa! We are the final destination, the last frontier!’
Ashish’s family were flat broke and destitute 20 years ago. Now he is one of the wealthiest men in the word and goes to work on his private jet! The Lions are coming!