The first time I came across a picture of this 32-year old serial entrepreneur, my immediate thought was, “he fine…” After I researched the length and breadth of his ‘entrepreneurialism’ I heaved a sigh of relief; my admiration was not in vain.
Ashish is the founder of Mara Group a huge umbrella corporation which controls numerous subsidiaries. Touted as the largest IT Company in Africa, Mara Group has a hand in almost every pie. According to Ashish, the conglomerate includes a telecom infrastructure company, a corrugated packaging business in East and Central Africa and a paper mill in East Africa which is under construction. The Group is heavily into real estate as well, and is constructing an Intercontinental hotel, Convention centre, Shopping mall and an office park in Uganda, his home country. Two hotels, a Shopping mall, an office park and a hospital are under construction in Tanzania as well. West Africa is not bereft of Ashish’s golden touch as the Group is building a glass manufacturing company in Nigeria. Agriculture and the power generation industry are next on his to-conquer list.
The Mara Group is live in 24 countries; 19 of these are African countries, and employ over 7000 people in Africa. As time-consuming as it must be to run an empire of this magnitude, Ashish equally established a Foundation- the Mara Foundation- which is a non-profit social enterprise of the Mara Group which focuses on emerging African entrepreneurs. The Foundation works to create defensible economic and business development prospects for young business owners via its Mara Launchpad incubation centres and Mara Launch Fund. The mission is to provide comprehensive support services including mentorship, funding, incubation centre workspace and business training to African entrepreneurs. The Foundation currently operates in four African countries and recently launched an online web portal intended to reach millions of entrepreneurs globally.
His motivation for founding the Foundation is simple: “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.” How much you give back determines how much wealth you have…Politicians, take heed.
Wondering why he is practically waxing poetic? It’s because he remembers whence he came. In 1972, the Idi Amin saga took place in Uganda where Ashish’s parents lived and most people were expelled. His parents left Uganda, having lost all of their worldly possessions, and relocated to England-real easy to do that back in the days, ey? In 1993, the Thakkar’s decided to move back to Africa, and made their home in Rwanda; an unfortunate choice because nine months later, the infamous Rwandan genocide began and Ashish and his family lost everything yet again; worse still, they became refugees. Have you seen the movie, ‘Hotel Rwanda?’ they were in that hotel for weeks before being evacuated. So you see, near-death experiences have a way of crystallizing in one’s mind, the things that are truly important in life.
Haven’t told you the genesis of Mara group yet? Oh yes, our boy-wonder started this company when he was but a mere teenager at 15. What was I doing when I was 15? Erm…
So confident was he of his path that he chose to drop out of school and concentrate on his budding ‘empire’ which at that point, merely constituted of buying and selling computers and floppy disks; from Dubai to Uganda. In an interview with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, Ashish stated concerning those early days, “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.”
History indeed. With a start-up loan capital of $6,000, this man of multiple ancestries –African, Indian, British citizen- is intent on impacting Africa one entrepreneur at a time. What are the traits of a good entrepreneur he is asked; an entrepreneur, he says, needs to have passion, vision and most importantly, a very high moral ground. “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.” Hear, hear; all those businessmen giving Nigerians a bad name, what have you got to show for it?
The Mara Group and its subsidiaries has received global recognition for its achievements and contributions not only in Africa but also worldwide. The World Economic Forum named Ashish as a Young Global Leader in 2012. He is also a member of the advisory panel to the President of Uganda through the initiative of the Presidential Investors Roundtable.
Did I mention that he is soon to be Africa’s second astronaut and East Africa’s first astronaut? You can close your mouth now. The question that I am still pondering on though, is, “What was I doing at 15?”