Changing Africa – one conglomerate at a time

Serial entrepreneur and founder of the Mara Group Ashish Thakkar (image: Charlie Fripp)

At the tender age of 15, he started his first company. Fast-forward 16 years and self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar has secured a position at the top of the pan-African multi-sector business conglomerate Mara Group.

Serial entrepreneur and founder of the Mara Group Ashish Thakkar (image: Charlie Fripp)
Serial entrepreneur and founder of the Mara Group Ashish Thakkar (image: Charlie Fripp)

He considers himself a native son of Africa, as he moved back to the Continent with his parents after surviving the historic Rwandan genocide. He always knew that he wanted to be an entrepreneur and it was sheer will and determination that helped him negotiate the challenges.

“Being determined and practical is what gets you there. When you get knocked down, you just have to dust yourself off and get back up, and remember to never give up,” he told ITNewsAfrica at Intel Capital’s CEO summit.

The Mara Group has operations covering IT, BPO, real estate, asset management, infrastructure, hospitality, packaging, and media, and operates across 19 African countries.

Thakkar urges any start-up to remain focused on their dream – and think big.

“They need to think big, but start small. If you one day want to have a thousand employees, you have to start your company with just one. I have always had a dream to start my own company, and I started extremely small,” he explained.

Another piece of advice Thakkar offers, with respect to forging ahead with a new start-up, is that ego should not get in the way of a good business deal. He explains that even though the Mara Group employs over 8 000 workers across the globe, he has no problem with waiting outside an office for three hours to get a deal with a potential client, innovator or investor.

“You need to drop your ego. You should never get into an ego war with friends and compare what they have been doing or planning to do. That is an important factor to get and stay focussed. Through that, I’m continually being inspired,” he adds.

Irrespective of how large a start-up becomes, Thakkar says it is important for businesses to never get ahead of themselves. “Knowing that you are still just a drop in the ocean is very important. Always know that no matter how big you become, you are still just a drop in the vast ocean of business. Even in the grand scheme of things, a company such as Google isn’t that big.”

Asked whether individuals should follow their dreams and start their own companies, or just go to work for a large corporation, Thakkar said that people should do what they are most passionate about.

“You can be an entrepreneur in a large company, but it’s neither here nor there. You just have to do what you are passionate about. It’s that one thing that drives you in the morning when you waket – that is what you should do.”

In terms of technology in Africa, Thakkar feels that whilst the continent will not really catch-up to the rest of the world, it can- and will lead in certain instances.

“I don’t think we will catch up, but we might overtake some of them. We will leapfrog the technology, just as like Mobile Money became the normal for villages. Its things like that, which will set the pace for the rest of the world.”

To fellow start-ups, Mara Group’s leader advises that there is no easy way to do business.

“They have to follow their gut, and there is no easy ride. Aim for the best and know that they will be treated badly. I have been knocked down so many times, but you just get back up,” he said.

Of all the countries that the Mara Group has operations in, Nigeria is Thakkar’s favourite. “Apart from the basic facts, the energy there on the ground is very good, there is a buzz. The first time I went there, as soon as I got out the car I received two pitches from individuals. The government is also looking at transforming things there”.

He added that South Africa is behind Nigeria in many aspects, but mainly because South Africa does not have an enabling environment. “South Africa is behind Nigeria in terms of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs because as money for schemes is not visible within the ecosystem.”

The next step for Thakkar and the Mara Group is to expand the Mara Foundation, which is currently in its fourth year. The Foundation is the Group’s social enterprise that focuses on emerging African entrepreneurs via mentorship and business incubation. Established in 2009, the Foundation is currently active in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

“We have three core themes for the Foundation: enable, inspire, empower. We focus on mentorships, venture capitals and Mara Women. The mentorship aspect currently has over 180 000 participants and we will be going mobile in the next two months,” he concluded.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor