Sharing success

The Mara Mentorship scheme has been successful in pairing young aspiring African entrepreneurs with leading business people. Msafiri finds out the story behind this innovative programme

HR-ashishTThe story of the Mara Foundation is one that demonstrates the true meaning of giving back to society. Launched in 2009 by Ashish J. Thakkar, the Foundation is a social enterprise of the Mara Group. Let’s take a trip down memory lane to the year 1996 when the Mara Group was established by a young Ashish – then barely a teenager at only 15 years old. Back then, Mara Group started off as a computer parts and accessories import company dealing in computer hardware sourced from Dubai. With his family settled in Uganda, Ashish then opened a small IT shop in a Kampala shopping mall. Over the next decade the Mara Group grew in leaps and bounds, expanding into other sectors including but not limited to IT, real estate, agriculture and manufacturing, with its main headquarters still in Dubai. The businesses still operate in Africa.

Having achieved great success at such a young age, Ashish then decided to establish the Mara Foundation in 2009 as a non-profit organisation that gives something back to young and aspiring Africans. The Foundation’s main focus is mentorship, funding and business training.

The Mara Foundation is keen on helping young entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into business entities that are sustainable and, most importantly, profit-making. The hope is that these businesses will eventually contribute to the world’s economies and create jobs for other young Africans. In essence, the Foundation is helping build the SME sector in African countries. So far, its operations are in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa. In addition to the support given by the Mara Group, the Foundation also receives funds through seed funding.

Mara Foundation and Mentorship
It is said that mentorship is one of the most effective forms of teaching. In fact Richard Branson once said that the missing link between a successful entrepreneur and a promising one is mentorship. We therefore cannot overlook the crucial role that comes with offering advice and guidance to aspiring entrepreneurs. With the African youth now keener than ever to start businesses, it comes as no surprise that Mara Foundation’s flagship programme is a mentorship initiative dubbed Mara Mentor.

Mara Mentor is an online mentorship platform that connects aspiring entrepreneurs with already established business leaders. It is the first and perhaps the only online mentorship programme on the continent.

Why Mentorship?
If you take a close look at many of the influential business leaders we have today, you will notice that, at some point during their entrepreneurial journey, they had a mentor. Success is not just about hard work and talent, we all need a little help along the way and it helps to be connected with the right people. Think about it – is it easy to access, let alone get advice from, business leaders? No, it’s not. At Mara Mentor you have access to a diverse portfolio of business leaders and, they are ready to give back to society.

The fact that this mentorship programme is a social platform makes it quite appealing and comfortable for young people to use. It also creates a less intimidating environment for mentees to reach out and connect with their role models. So how is interaction facilitated on Mara Mentor? There are different sections within the platform and these include:

• Dashboard The Dashboard works like your average social media timeline. This is where you can update and share your status with your followers and friends.

• Forum The forums platform is one of the most thriving sections on Mara Mentor as this is where debates and discussions are kick-started. Ideas, skills, news and much more are discussed by mentors and mentees in the forums section.

• Groups This mentorship platform also allows members to form groups. These are congregations of like-minded individuals who discuss various topics based on industries or common interests. Groups can be formed by mentors or mentees and there are no limits on the number of people who can join a particular group. Groups include the popular African Youth Think Tank and Online Business and Importers. So far, there are 71 groups within Mara Mentor.

• Blog Also included in the platform is a vibrant blog that is updated by the individual member countries as well as the mentors.

• Inspiration The platform has an inspirational section – much of this content is provided by the mentors.

• Training – Members also have access to training materials including free guides and tools which are great resources for budding entrepreneurs.

How do mentees use the platform?
Mentees can use Mara Mentor to showcase their skills and business ideas and identify new opportunities as they interact with equally driven individuals. The interesting thing about Mara Mentor is that it’s not only beneficial to the mentees. Mentorship, as they say, is a two-way street and as such, mentors also get to learn from these young innovative minds. They are, after all, the future.

Who are the mentors? These mentors are already successful individuals. As a general rule, the mentors will be required to have five years’ experience in their field of expertise. That said, mentors need to apply to join the programme and this is to ensure that the platform is working with genuine leaders. The application process is quite simple and approval is often authorised in less than 24 hours. It is suggested that mentors offer just nine minutes of their time per week to give guidance to the mentees. However, this is not cast in stone and you will find mentors who log in on a daily basis while others choose to dedicate an hour per week or more. It all depends on the mentor’s schedule.

Why Online Mentorship?
The Mara Foundation came to the realisation that we not only look up to role models locally but globally. Since we now live in a global village it makes sense that the platform provides mentors from all corners of the world. While this mentorship programme is primarily targeted towards the African youth, the platform cuts across geographic barriers living up to the true meaning of a global village.

Mara Mentor is not just about providing online mentorship. The platform is supported by offline activities and these are mainly facilitated by the Mara Foundation and Mara Mentor’s partners.

Some of the global partners include: Ernst & Young, UN Women, Africa 2.0, Invest Africa, Young Business International (YBI) and Blue Rose Compass. Individual countries have their local partners who help facilitate the ground activities. In Kenya, Mara Mentor’s partners include Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), African Foundation for Governance, Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) and Safaricom. The programme is currently present in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana. However as an online platform it is not restricted to these countries. It can be accessed by mentors and mentees from any country.

Offline Activities
A good mentorship programme is supported by offline activities. In the past, Mara Foundation facilitated One-on-One mentorship workshops which were held in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Most recently through Mara Mentor, Nigeria has had two successful One-on-One mentorship sessions. Mentees were required to apply for the One-on-One mentorship. Shortlisted candidates were selected to attend what resembled an entrepreneur’s speed dating event mixed with ‘Shark Tank’.

During the One-on-One sessions, mentees had a specified duration of time to pitch their ideas to individual mentors. The mentors then pick one or several mentees whom they would personally work with for a period of six months to help jump-start and develop their enterprises. Mentorship is a personal decision and while Mara Mentor facilitates the mentor-mentee one-on-one relationship for six months, these relationships often continue for a much longer time. This is obviously based on the relationship that has been developed by the individuals.

Join Mara Mentor
Mara Mentor is giving you an opportunity to gain mentorship free of charge. For established business leaders, this is your chance to give back to the next crop of leaders in the African continent. You can access the platform via the web on For easier access, there is a mobile app available. The app can be accessed through various mobile operating systems. There are versions for BlackBerry, iPhones, Nokia smart phones and Android users. The app can be downloaded from iTunes, Samsung Apps, Nokia Ovi, Blackberry and Google Play store. Join Mara Mentor to enable, empower and inspire Africa’s youth.

Mara Mentor Stories

So what has been the impact of this online platform? We asked two mentees to share their experiences

Meet Munga Muchemi, a University student at the Technical University of Kenya.  Munga joined the platform earlier in the year.

“As a young entrepreneur it’s imperative to have a guiding hand to take you through the entrepreneurial journey. Someone who will be genuine enough to tell you what can work and what can’t in business. Most of the time, these people lack in our society and if present, they have extremely busy lives. Getting mentorship from them is next to impossible. I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but the key question I asked myself was where to start. I had been toying around with the idea of Mifugo Help for about eight months researching and doing some of the technical work. This is an app which I created that helps farmers get relevant information on new products, markets and much more. I was in dire need of guidance from experienced people to tell me if my idea was viable. I had no networks, getting advice from a professional therefore seemed like a pipe dream.

“A friend told me about Mara Mentor, an online platform that offers mentoring to young entrepreneurs. When I logged onto the site I was impressed by the mentors they have. I immediately created a profile and began interacting with mentors both national and international, whom I believed would give me proper advice. Within two days, I received messages from some of the mentors, and guess what? They thought Mifugo Help had great potential. My interaction with these mentors, especially Eric Kinoti of Shade Systems, has, over time, grown into a relationship. I’ve had to rethink my idea and even change the business model (which I realised through their advice wasn’t workable). In a few months, I believe I will launch my farming app. I am a more mature entrepreneur thanks to Mara Mentor.

“My advice to other young entrepreneurs would be to sign up for free on Mara Mentor and forge a relationship with experienced guys who have the know-how.”

Munga Muchemi, first Year, Bachelor of Commerce Student – Technical University of Kenya.

Brian Karina is yet another aspiring leader and entrepreneur. He is a student at the Karatina Technical University in Central Kenya and a mentee on Mara Mentor. For Brian Karina, the mentorship programme has seen him acquire what he calls lifelong lessons.

“Mara Mentor has been one of the best highlights in my life. It is quite a captivating, inspiring and motivational space for any dream achiever or go-getter. I am humbled and privileged to be part of the family.

“On Mara Mentor, I have learnt to create and retain a useful network through Nina Werner, a mentor.

Bruce Richards (South Africa), Ashish J. Thakkar (CEO, Mara Group), Janet Adetu and Olanrewaju Elvis (Business Development) are just some of the mentors whom I follow on the platform and their words have been nothing short of inspiring.

“I have been privileged to attend The Emerging Leaders Conference and the Africa Talent Bank Summit held at the K.I.C.C. free of charge through the sponsorship opportunities Mara Mentor provides. Thanks to these conferences, I’ve interacted with awesome mentors and networked with very many entrepreneurs who just like me, dream big.

“The lessons learnt from Mara Mentor have enabled me to start a project called Creating The Society We Want. As students, we feel the need to give back to the underprivileged in society by mentoring them. So far, we have visited one children’s home in Kayole and this year we plan to visit many more. We plan to invite the Mara Mentor team to Karatina this year – my fellow students could benefit more from their insight.”

Brian Karina, third year Bsc. Entrepreneurship Studies student – Karatina University, President, KUESA Club.