Ashish Thakkar: Survivor, Achiever, Entrepreneur and a Believer in Africa’s Future

The story of Ashish Thakkar is one of building and rebuilding, earning and giving back. He was just 13 when he and his family had to leave everything they had in Africa to escape the Rwandan genocide. But just a year later, resettled in Dubai, Thakkar set himself on the path of entrepreneurship when he sold his own computer to a family friend. At 15, he took out a US$6000 loan and started his first company.

Thakkar would go on to found the Mara Group, an African conglomerate that includes one of the largest IT companies in Africa, and he’ll also be the first East African astronaut when he flies on a Virgin Galactic flight.

Nowadays, 31-year-old Thakkar focuses roughly 40% of his time on the Mara Foundation, which fosters African entrepreneurship with mentoring, incubation space and venture capital. Thakkar spoke with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton about his motivation and core beliefs, which includes a strong faith in maintaining business ethics and giving opportunities to the less fortunate. "It’s important to give back and genuinely; that’s how I believe wealth should be measured," he says.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows:

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You started making money at the age of 14 by selling your own computer at a profit to a family friend. After you sold it, you didn’t have a computer yourself. Why did you do it?

Ashish Thakkar: That’s how it all began. Basically my parents bought me a computer. My father’s friend came home for dinner that night. He saw it and he said, "How much did you get that for?" I told him the price but added on US$100 more than what we actually bought it for. And he said, "How many do you have?" I said, "I’ve got two." And he asked, "What are you doing with the second one?" I said, "I’m selling it."

He said, "OK great, could you deliver it tomorrow?" And I said, "I’ll do it after school." So while they’re having dinner, I’m cleaning up my computer, deleting all the files, emptying the trash can, packing it up so I can deliver it. Obviously I didn’t have a second one. I delivered it the next day and I made a hundred dollars. I said, "Wow, this is doable."

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What did your father say when you gave his friend a price that was a hundred dollars more than what he paid for it?

Thakkar: He was laughing. We didn’t discuss it much. We just kind of left it at that. I was a little scared that he would tell me off so I didn’t really discuss it. I just delivered it the next day and bought another computer. And I managed to sell my second one to the school.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So from then on, you got into the IT business?

Thakkar: What happened was then my summer holidays came. I had two months of holidays. I was 15 and I said to my dad I would like to set up a small shop during my summer holidays and then I’ll shut down my shop and then go back to school. I did that. I set up a tiny, little shop with a US$6,000 loan. At that time, floppy disks were the hot thing. I was selling those. And then my summer holidays finished and I didn’t tell my parents immediately. After a week, they figured it out. We sat down and I said, "Look, if you want me to study, I’ll study but I’m going to end up doing this anyway. Why not let me do this now?"

My father is a pretty unconventional person and he said, "OK, fine. Go ahead and do this for a year. Do it on your own. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll have to go back to a year below your class." I said, "Done." So I still have that option available.

I didn’t have enough working capital to do cargoes and shipments. I would travel to Dubai every weekend. Fill my suitcase with IT stuff. Pay my taxes on Monday. Sell Tuesday through Friday. Get my cash on Friday. Go back to Dubai on Saturday and Sunday. Pay my taxes on Monday. That was my cycle for six months. And then I was thinking, "There are so many people coming to Dubai to do exactly the same thing. Why don’t I set up a base to help them? We then set up an office in Dubai when I was 15 in 1996 to actually supply IT hardware into African countries. And the rest is history.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You had set up an office at 15?

Thakkar: In Dubai, you need a local sponsor. I found a local sponsor who was a senior guy in Dubai. We went to the court to register a company. They were speaking in Arabic and I didn’t understand what they were saying. And he goes to me, "There’s a mistake in the document." And I said, "Why?" He said, "They’ve written your age as 15." I said, "Well, I am 15." He said, "You’re kidding. You can’t just set up a company when you’re 15." And I said, "I am 15 and I want to set up a company." And he said, "Oh my God. Well, your dad is going to have to fly in and sign as a guardian so he knows what you’re doing." And I said, "That’s fine. He’ll fly in." So the company registration got delayed by a week. So that’s how it all began and then we diversified.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So now you’re in real estate, tourism, manufacturing, etc. Can you talk a bit more about the businesses you have?

Thakkar: Today, we’re in 24 countries, of which 19 are in African countries. We have about 7,000 employees in Africa. We’re in IT services. It’s the same IT company I started a few years ago and we merged it a few years ago. It’s been labeled as Africa’s largest IT company but I don’t know how true it is. We’ve got an IT company. We’ve got a call center business across Africa. We’ve got a telecom infrastructure company. We’ve got a corrugated packaging business in East and Central Africa. We’re building a paper mill in East Africa. We’ve got an agricultural project. We’re building an Intercontinental hotel, convention center, shopping mall and office park in Uganda. We’re building two hotels, shopping mall, office park and hospital in Tanzania. We’re pretty active on the real estate side. We’re building a glass manufacturing company in Nigeria. For agriculture, we’ve secured a large piece of land, about 26,000 acres in East Africa. We’re looking at potentially going into the power generation industry as well.

We’re a pretty diverse group. We advise some of the heads of state in Africa. We’re pretty active on the African front. I’m on the Global Agenda Council on the World Economic Forum for Africa and quite a few others. We speak and we’re very passionate on the African platform.

Our model is we partner with international companies who want to come to Africa and become their local partners. We typically do 50-50 partnerships. We both put in capital. We both bring different expertise to the table. That’s the idea.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What sorts of traits make a good entrepreneur?

Thakkar: You need to have that passion. You need to have that vision. And the most important thing is you need to have a very high moral ground. You need to be very ethical and transparent. I think as long as those three things fit together. Passion meaning loving what you do and really enjoying it, looking forward to waking up the next morning and getting back down to it is really important. That’s what’s going to keep you going. Vision is thinking big and starting small — that’s very important. Being very honest, transparent, open and ethical is very important. Never giving anybody the raw end of the deal is very important. Making US$100 on a margin on a computer is business. That’s fine. Everyone thinks profit in business or the world doesn’t go around. You don’t want to mess people around. It’s always better to under promise and over deliver and I think that’s how relationships should be held. My father always said, "Earn with your partners and not from your partners." What goes around comes around. It’s important to be very transparent and clean.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Africa doesn’t have a reputation as being very transparent. Is that quite hard to keep those ethics while doing business in Africa?

Thakkar: We’ve definitely lost business in the past because of that. We don’t entertain that kind of stuff. Genuinely speaking, a lot of our leaders have the right passion and vision. They’re really about transformation. In that respect, it’s just important to know how to go about it. So when you are put through that bureaucracy and people are trying to frustrate the process. We manage to reach out and scream. We make sure we get the right attention. We’re not just going to start entertaining other types of stuff because that’s just not something we agree with. Principally, it’s just not the right thing to do long term at all. We’re a case study in that sense because we’re absolutely transparent and we’ve succeeded in doing business. It is a generalization.

Forget North Africa but sub-Saharan Africa has 46 countries. Even if 10 or 15 are not great, the others are. Out of the 46, I’m only in 19. Not all 19 are clean either but we have more emphasis on the ones that are.

It is doable. Africa isn’t plug and play. It is a challenging environment but as long as you have the right intentions. We don’t do any sort of business that doesn’t have a social impact on people. We don’t want to go into mining and take out minerals from countries and export them to make a quick buck. We don’t do stuff like that. We want to do things that are sustainable for the continent that will benefit people and create some sort of local beneficiation that really help the communities we work in. In that respect, it’s important to have the right intentions. You’ve got to be a long-term player in Africa. You can’t come in with a short-term mentality.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You also have the Mara Foundation that includes an incubator in Uganda for entrepreneurs. What sort of atmosphere will help support entrepreneurs in modern Africa?

Thakkar: After starting off as refugees in Rwanda, we lost everything. That’s when we started off with very little. I started off at the age of 15 with US$6,000. You understand what young entrepreneurs go through.

We have a huge issue in Africa with unemployment. Unfortunately, a lot of our governments think the answer is foreign direct investment. It’s not. That’s when we started a mentoring program a few years ago. We were trying to mentor young entrepreneurs. The first year, we mentored around 120 entrepreneurs but it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. We wanted to make a much bigger impact and that’s when we set up an online mentoring platform that we launched in Silicon Valley about three months ago. Within three months, we’ve actually got 52,000 young entrepreneurs signed up. It’s been amazing. We’re relaunching the entire site to have more content and data and everything else.

At the same time, we’re realized it’s sexy to be working out of your bedroom in the West but in Africa, people just don’t respect you and trust you if you’re working from that kind of thing. In order to give credibility and visibility to businesses, we decided to set up business incubation centers. So now you’re guiding them, handholding them, teaching them, inspiring them and you’re giving them credibility and visibility.

Now the missing link was partners and capital. How do they get access to funding? Then we launched our own venture capital fund that basically invests in these companies. This entire project belongs to the Mara Foundation, which is a nonprofit social enterprise.

So far, we haven’t raised any external money. Everything has been 100 percent subsidized by the group. We’ve launched in Uganda. We’re launching in Tanzania by the end of the year. We’re signing partnership agreements in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. It’s quite an amazing thing and I spend about 30 to 40% of my time on the foundation.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You met with a whole bunch of business leaders like Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, on a recent trip to Silicon Valley. Was it difficult to find top business leaders to partner with budding African entrepreneurs?

Thakkar: Everybody loves the idea of it. But it was the method. How do they go about it? Where do they start? That was the big question mark, which is why hopefully the platform answers the question. There was a lot of positive feedback. At that time, we literally had zero entrepreneurs on our network and now have 52,000. We’re launching on mobile now since we’re online. Hopefully we’ll be launching on Nokia and Blackberry apps. That should create a massive scale. When it does, we’ll probably come back to Silicon Valley and relaunch it. Everybody does want to play a role. Everybody wants to help out. Everybody loves the idea of it but doing it in a credible way, hopefully we’ll be one of the conduits for that and support the entrepreneurs.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Any other future goals? You’ve accomplished so much at such a young age.

Thakkar: Frankly, I’m very passionate about Africa. I’m fourth-generation African in that sense. My parents and my grandparents were born in Africa. Helping entrepreneurs is one thing but helping entrepreneurs in Africa and slowly but surely, taking it to other emerging markets and other markets generally. We want to make a global platform because there’s nothing stopping them. The content’s the same.

Entrepreneurial advice is entrepreneurial advice. Once you have all that content online, it can be used anywhere. My aim is to impact a few million African entrepreneurs. We want to make the group global. At the same time, I’m very passionate about changing the image and perception of Africa.

Unfortunately right now, when people think about Africa, they think about a child with a bowl in his hands. That’s absolute rubbish because plenty in our continent has evolved. We’re really progressive. I think the right story needs to be told. We need to stop generalizing about a billion people in 54 different countries. It needs to stop.

I think changing the perception and hence my whole space trip is creating a positive buzz about the region, and making people realize that people in Africa have the vision and ability as well.

So I think focusing on young entrepreneurs, which is the immediate thing. Scaling it up in Africa and making it global one day. Also, next year, we’re launching something called Mara Women, which is focused on women entrepreneurs through the Mara Foundation. All our incubation centers and venture capital funds and mentoring will have an allocation fixed for women entrepreneurs. So young women entrepreneurs, going global and changing the perception of Africa are what we’re focused on.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You have an interesting family background since you said your grandparents were born in Africa but you’ve also lived in the U.K.

Thakkar: Sure, in the 1890s, my father’s family left from India and went to Uganda. In 1920, my mother’s family left from India to go to Tanzania. After they got married, they lived in Kenya and moved to Uganda. And then in 1972, the Idi Amin saga took place and everybody was expelled. My parents left, lost everything and went to England. My parents worked in factories, built some capital, started up a business, built more capital and bought a home. In 1993, they decided they wanted to go back to Africa so they sold off the home, sold their business and took everything they had to Rwanda in Central Africa.

Nine months later, unfortunately, my parents, my sister and I were taken from our home and we were refugees for three weeks. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda. I was in that hotel. We were evacuated. Fortunately, we came out alive but unfortunately everything they built from 1972 to 1993, they lost in 1994.

So we literally started from scratch. My father took a US$11,000 loan and set up a business. And I took a US$6,000 loan and set up a business in 1996. And here we are today.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: That must’ve been terrifying as a refugee because you were so young at the time?

Thakkar: I was 13. It was crazy because you remember everything. It was extremely terrifying. You think back to my father, having my sister, my mother and me with us. He was still playing games and acting all chirpy acting as if everything was fine. When you think back, you think, "Wow, he’s something else."

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You have been quoted as remembering U.N. convoys running over bodies to make sure everybody was dead.

Thakkar: What happened was we were in a truck being taken from the hotel and I was curious. I stuck my head out and saw that bodies were being loaded in trucks. I asked the U.N. guy. Basically, whichever army or rebels or whoever, are taking all the bodies and putting them in a truck and taking them to a place and blowing it up to make sure everybody was dead.

When you go through all that, it makes you think, "Wow." This is the reason it gives you a completely, completely different perspective on life.

I’m 31 and have so many people around me, saying "Why are you spending 40% of your time on the foundation? There’s so much more in business." Literally we have the ability to access anyone we want to, a whole specter. We can do some crazy stuff in the entrepreneurial space.

But I think God has been amazingly kind and given us so much. It’s given us a second or third chance. Why not give back and impact other people’s lives? We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to make things happen but so many others haven’t. Why not help them and give them a second or third chance. It’s important to give back and genuinely that’s how I believe wealth should be measured.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: It sounds like the Rwandan genocide has really impacted the career you’ve taken on?

Thakkar: It has. Another major factor that has played a key role in my life is my spiritual leader Morari Bapu at moraribapu.org. He really is an amazing, amazing individual. He has three core teachings, which are truth, love and compassion. He has these nine-day functions every so often. I try to attend at least one or two a year.

Listening to him keeps me really grounded. Just listening to him makes you really realize there’s so much more to this world than just earning money. Since I was a child, I’ve been following him. That’s my one little secret. It freaks me out even thinking what I would do without him. He has been an amazing inspiration. He really teaches you truth, how to be honest, how to be a better person. Love – how to love everyone around you, regardless of religion and color and race, this, that and another, regardless of their position in society and all that rubbish. He teaches compassion, like how to give back, with no hidden agenda and no particular intention.

That’s why I hate the word "CSR." [Corporate Social Responsibility] It’s such a useless word. Someone doing it for the sake of doing it so they’ll look good in society.

You have to go about creating social enterprises. That’s the way forward. You have to make sustainable wealth in a straightforward and simple manner. I set up my manufacturing plant ten years ago. At that time, I was producing 30 tons a month. Today I’m producing 30,000 tons a month. Why? Because there was a demand so I created this plant.

My foundation helped 120 entrepreneurs three years ago. Why can it not help a million entrepreneurs? There’s a demand. Why not create the platform?

I did it in packaging. I did it in all my other businesses. Why not do it in this? I looked at it as a real business. That’s where I think we need to switch our mindset. I’m hoping this will create a huge impact, and I’m hoping this will inspire the public sector to do more to support these young entrepreneurs. And also the private sector to do more. It’s not about the size of the check. It’s about the impact that you create.

When you’re putting up a business, your simple bottom line is what’s your IRR? How much are you making at the end of the day? It’s not a matter of what kind of investment you make, it’s the return you’re focused on. People need to look at this very differently. It’s time we changed that mindset.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: I want to talk about you being an astronaut. You talked about changing the image of East Africans and you’re the first East African to become an astronaut. You’ve signed up to be an astronaut on Virgin’s private space flight. What made you decide to sign up?

Thakkar: A few years ago, I was in China watching the news. And I saw the news and I thought, "Wow, that looks pretty funky, a bit crazy." It pumped up my adrenaline and I was at the airport lounge. And I just logged onto their site and I just signed up. I didn’t take it that seriously. I hadn’t even watched Star Wars so it wasn’t like I was jumping up and down. I just kind of did this. When I was a child, I always thought about being an astronaut or a pilot. I didn’t take it that seriously and I didn’t take it that seriously when I signed up.

But then I got a phone call from Virgin. I was offered a Founder’s Position from Africa to represent the continent to become Africa’s second astronaut and East Africa’s first astronaut.

I just thought it can create an amazing political impact. So the heads of state officially handed over their flags to me and I officially represent the region. So it’s feeding that buzz that we have the vision in East Africa.

I did training in Philadelphia’s NASTAR Center when they put us through the centrifuge. They’re pushing you down 3.5-Gs [as in G-force] so it’s really intensive. You walk in thinking, "Oh yeah, I’m going into space" and then you walk out, thinking, "Oh no, I’m going into space." It’s really cool though and very exciting. Virgin Galactic has been an awesome company to be associated with. The whole journey has been really fun. I met some amazing individuals.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You’re based in Dubai now.

Thakkar: Our home office is in Dubai. It’s the perfect hub for Africa. It’s more centrally located than London or South Africa. We feel passionately about Dubai as a hub for Africa.

There have been a lot of historical routes between this region and Africa. I think more and more, there’s an active role being played and it’s increasing further and further. Obviously, India and China have invested in Africa pretty aggressively. Europe has inroads from the colonial times. I think the Middle East is getting to grips with it now. They’ve done so much in Africa. But I can see the momentum is increasing. I don’t think the U.S. understands its story as well but I think that will slowly change. You can see the transformation taking place in people’s mindset. Still, there’s a huge lack of understanding.

People still need to understand sub-Saharan Africa or take even East Africa. Each of these countries is an independent case study. You can’t copy and paste anything. You have to localize it. The culture is different. The vision is different. The leadership is different. The jurisdiction and laws are different. Policy is different. The mindset is different. You have to plug into each country being very local. And that’s very important. Unfortunately right now, we really generalize the continent and that’s very wrong.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So because of these generalizations, people in the U.S. and the Middle East have been hesitant about investing in Africa?

Thakkar: I think it’s more than hesitancy. It’s a lack of understanding. You can see the eagerness and there are historical ties. There’s a lot of warmth here for Africa but translating into more trade between the two regions. It’s been happening but I think it’s been increasing. But with the U.S., I’m not sure. I still haven’t seen any huge movements in that respect. In the past, the U.S. has been a little bit more conservative and moved a little slower but I’m sure in time, the U.S. will come into play quite a bit more, which is a good thing.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So where in the Middle East have people been more interested in investing in Africa?

Thakkar: The United Arab Emirates [UAE] has been more active. The UAE is the one I understand the most. I haven’t seen too many Qatari groups come in. I haven’t seen any Bahraini groups come in. I haven’t seen too many Saudi groups come in. The UAE seems the most active in that respect. But you can see everyone else bubbling up as well. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more now.

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