Powerful partnerships

Ashish J. Thakkar, 32, is the founder of Mara Group, a Pan-African conglomerate with annual revenues of US$120 million

BusinessPeopleAshish J. Thakkar always had an eye for opportunity. When he was 14 and a high school student in Kampala, his parents bought him his first computer. Later that night, when his father’s friend visited their home for dinner he asked Ashish about the cost of the computer.

“I told him the price but added on US$100,” Thakkar says with a chuckle. “He asked me how many I had, and I told him two. Then he asked me to sell the other one to him, and I promised to deliver it to his home after school the next day.”

Of course, there was no second computer. While his family was having dinner, Ashish rushed to his bedroom to repackage his computer – polishing it, deleting all the files and preparing it for delivery. Sure enough, the next day he delivered the computer to the family friend. He made a US$100 profit and went to purchase a new computer. Within days, he was able to sell the second computer for a profit.

“I realised I could keep on doing this and I was hooked,” he says during a recent interview in Lagos. He continued buying and selling computers to anyone who was interested and judiciously saved his earnings, building up capital for his business.

During his summer holidays, he set up a small shop in Kampala armed with a US$6000 loan from his father and his own savings. In the shop, he sold computer spare parts and floppy disks which were the trend at the time. His business flourished so much that by the time his holidays were over, he was able to convince his parents to allow him to continue with his business on a full-time basis.

Ashish did not have sufficient capital to import his goods in large cargoes and shipments, so he travelled to Dubai every weekend, filling up his suitcase with as many items as he could. He would head back to Kampala, sell them all within a week and return to Dubai to buy some more. During his trips, Ashish noticed that there were many other African business people who were travelling to Dubai to buy computer hardware. He decided to set up a shop in Dubai to help procure and supply hardware for these Africans.

With his earnings from his computer sales business, Thakkar diversified into other ventures including packaging, property development, outsourcing, infrastructure, asset management and agriculture, leveraging on a simple business model: Mara simply develops partnerships with international companies that have technical expertise but lack the local knowledge to successfully operate in Africa. Both Mara and its partners provide financial capital. It’s a model that has been incredibly successful for the group. Some of the companies Mara has partnered with include Ison, an Indian offshoring company, Pakistani Glass manufacturer Ghani Group and Saudi investment company Kingdom Holdings. In November last year he partnered with Bob Diamond, Barclays Bank’s former CEO, to launch Atlas Mara, a cash shell that aims to take controlling stakes in financial institutions across Africa. The company raised US$325 million in an initial public offering in the London Stock Exchange and has so far acquired controlling stakes in two banks – ABC Holdings and the commercial banking subsidiary of the Development Bank of Rwanda. Mara Group has operations in 19 African countries and 7000 employees. Its revenues for 2013 were in excess of US$120 million.

But Ashish J. Thakkar is not all about making money. He’s also keen on giving back. Mara Foundation, the non-profit arm of the conglomerate, focuses on supporting early stage African entrepreneurs as well as running the Mara Launch Uganda Fund, which provides venture capital to start-ups and growth-stage Ugandan companies.

Ashish’s passion for Africa is heartfelt: “Sure, our continent has its unique challenges, but the opportunities are endless. We’ve got a billion people. There’s no other place I’d rather do business than here in Africa.”