#TheYNaijaInterview: Africa is the new China – Billionaire businessman, Ashish J.Thakkar

by Wilfred Okiche

Listed by Forbes magazine as Africa’s youngest billionaire, Ashish Thakkar, 33, sits atop the Mara group, a viable business entity with interests in real estate, IT, manufacturing,  and a personal net worth of 2.2billion Rand (260 million USD). Not bad for a young man who as a child, found himself displaced from Idi Amin’s Uganda and then domiciled in the Hotel des Mille Collines in Rwanda, where he and his family were some of the war victims whose lives were saved by manager Paul Rusesabagina. The real life events were documented in the 2004 Oscar nominated film, Hotel Rwanda.

Thakkar graciously accepted an interview session with Y! Africa magazine. We bring you excerpts from the interview.

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Mara’s emblem is the African Lion. How soon before you think Africa assumes this position and competes with the Asian Tigers and dragons of the business world?

In 10 years, Africa is going to be like China. The important thing is that we have foreign companies that invest for the right reasons – to create a positive social impact in our market and provide our economies with benefits in a true sense. Africa can grow with or without foreign investors but if they come, it will make it quicker.

Africa up until recent times has been known for political instability, lack of government policies and insecurity, have all this hindered your business experience on the continent?

Not really, but we can’t generalise when it comes to Africa. Nigeria has had 3 bloodless coups, they haven’t been violent. The perception of Nigeria is totally different; So many countries are very stable with good democracy, we have to understand one thing, our former generation of leaders were really there to create stability for the continent. The next generation of leaders have it as their responsibility to maintain stability and the growth of the economy. That’s key. What we’ve been through as a continent, a lot more countries have been through and it just about creating that stability. In Africa, I think we’re good and we can do so.

Everyone refers to you as the youngest billionaire in Africa, do you think the assessment of your net worth by Forbes is accurate, how much exactly are you worth?

The youngest billionaire in Africa, I hate that title. The measure of success should never be wealth, it should be the difference you’re making in the economy. Success should be measured by impact. Frankly, on a group level, we are not consolidated. On a group level, we don’t have any external shareholders, we don’t have any debt too; So I can’t give you accurate numbers but the fact still remains that wealth should never be a matrix for success. How many lives have you changed? How much impact have you made? How many people have you enabled, empowered and inspired? We get so carried away with wealth. Young entrepreneurs shouldn’t just aspire to make money, they shouldn’t compromise on their values by taking shortcuts and making wrong decisions. We don’t want that any longer; We want sustainable growth, a thriving economy, people with the right value system- who want to help people around them but also do make money. My new saying is “Do good and you will do well but don’t do well promising to do good”. Does that make sense? When you do well with the right intent to make a positive social impact, you automatically do well but when you do well, promising that once you do extremely well, you’ll do good, that’s rubbish. I spend a lot of time on Mara Foundation, and people ask me if I don’t think I’m too young to focus on a foundation? Or to too young to be focusing on giving back? And that shows you how we think. Are people telling me I should start giving back when I kick the bucket? I really want people to start thinking differently, success is not wealth. Success is how much impact you made in your sector.

Obviously, you are a very principled person and from previous interviews you’ve done, it’s clear that you really love Nigeria and you like doing business here. How do you handle scenarios where you are faced with cutting corners or losing the job, how have you handled such situations?

I will never cut corners, why cut corners? It’s better to have short-term pain and long-term gain, meaning do not cut corners, there are principled ways to go about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Africa does not have bureaucracy. We have lots of bureaucracy just like the rest of the world. When we face bureaucracy and issues, I have two policies if push comes to shove; I will name & shame and I will scream & shout, I’ve done it a few times in the past.  We cannot generalise, I have gotten amazing support from Nigerian leaders. The problem is that we generalise and believe me, it will trickle down on the system. Technology will enable us create more transparency in the system, it will help people to know that they have a voice and they too can scream and shout, name and shame. We are an emerging economy and emerging economies do have their own challenges.

When I say Nigeria is my favourite country, people get really shocked and surprised, and I hate it because the reality is so different from our perception. It’s time we write our own story.

Your advice to the young entrepreneur is to change one person at a time, individual decisions and business actions can trickle down and form the general change we are willing to see

Yes and not only that, remember that we shouldn’t be hypocrites. You can’t clap with one hand, it takes two to tango. When we keep on saying that it was so frustrating that we just compromised the system, then we blame the other side for being the guilty part. It’s our responsibility, if we stop giving they’ll stop taking. It’s easy to point fingers at the public sector and blame them but the private sector is giving and they are taking. We need to take responsibility also. It’s not government’s country, it’s our country.

With so many companies and interests under the Mara Group, how do you juggle and keep abreast with all of them?

Every single one of our businesses is very independently structured, its got its own governance, its own structure, partners, management team etc. So our company is very independent; On a group level, I have fantastic partners who help me run the company. I have a brilliant team that overlooks everything and adds value to everything and my role is to be more focused on strategy and business development. I get daily reports and weekly reports but I’m not directly involved in the day-to-day running, however, I am aware of everything that goes on in the office. Due to the scale of the group, it’s difficult to put my hand on day-to-day activities and there are people who can do it better than me so we just structure it that way.

Which of your businesses worldwide is the most profitable?

Real Estate is a large part of the business, we have millions of dollars in our real estate portfolio. Our manufacturing site is also very large, and it is growing still. ICT is a huge part of the business, we’ve got IT companies and an online business. Also now, we are into financial services.

Is there anyone that has given you so much trouble so far?

All of them are very interesting, I overlook them as well as the foundation. Frankly, no there’s none of them that’s not doing well, all are growing. Frankly, I don’t have any ego, if anyone isn’t doing well I’ll simply shut it down. I won’t keep it there just to look good, that’s not the way you run a business. I think all entrepreneurs should think the same way, don’t hold on to that whole ego thing like “ Oh my God, if I shut this thing down, how will I look? What will people think of me?” Just be practical.

Has this experience re-defined life for you? Like you feel life is too short?

No, I think it makes you appreciate everything more. It makes you know you shouldn’t be too materialistic, like you came with nothing and you’ll leave with nothing. Be practical, make a difference. Think differently. Be ambitious, dream. I want people to think big but I want them to start small. Avoid unhealthy competition, be real. I think it has helped me to redefine my values. My spiritual leader has changed a huge part of my life too, with his teachings of truth, love and compassion. I think those three teachings are just so vital and key in everything.

Can you walk us through your journey from a small IT store to a whole Mara conglomerate? How did you go from borrowing $5,000 to start your first business to where you are right now?

I spent half of that money paying my first month rent, buying a bit of furniture and buying a ticket to Dubai. With the other half, I went to Dubai and filled my suitcase with IT equipment. When I got back, I kept selling it from MondayFriday, I sold the stuff and from $500 it grew to $3500. I went back and $3500 grew to $5000, I slowly kept on growing it. After 4 months of doing that, I requested for credit from my suppliers in Dubai. They declined, I eventually found out that other Africans like me had also been turned down credit requests because the suppliers didn’t trust them enough. These other Africans had been in the business for 2-5 years. I thought of a way I could get credit from these suppliers and then I decided to set up a business in Dubai so I could get local credit. The plan worked and soon I met the guys from Ghana and Nigeria and offered to give them credit. They accepted my offer and I travelled to see their businesses in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. I was 15-16 when this happened. I always had the dream of being an industrialist. I just loved the word ‘industrialist’, it sounded really sexy (laughs). Later, I set up a little packaging company in Uganda when I was 19. I grew the company and that’s how the manufacturing company started, then I started doing real estate, I did a small housing development and started doing more business with hotels. Then I continued growing it. Our strength is that we understand all the countries in Africa deeply. Our strength is not necessarily that we understand a particular sector so we’ve brought in strategic partners who understand the sector and we understand the continent, the combination is perfect and that’s what we are doing at Mara.

What are your thoughts on beneficiation? Does the Mara group practice this very seriously?

Absolutely, the Mara Group tries to empower and inspire entrepreneurs. In Africa, I understand what it’s like with very little capital and no ability to network. I understand the challenges we face, so how do we make entrepreneurs learn from my mistake and do it faster than me? That’s the key thing and that’s what I’m trying to create. So through the Mara foundation, I’m very passionate about this and spend a lot of time on that.

You’re young, wealthy, very good looking (at least that’s what the ladies say), Is there a romantic partner in your life? Is getting married and having kids part of your plan?

(laughs) I think … right now, the focus has to be on truly making that difference so that isn’t really a priority right now

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