Nurturing African businesses

Ashish Thakkar, one of Africa’s youngest business leaders, has created an eco-system for young African entrepreneurs to thrive.

Ashish J. Thakkar, Founder and Managing Director of the Mara Group, was named by Forbes as one of the ten young African millionaires to watch. With no formal education, the 31 year old businessman has taken the Group from the humble beginnings of selling computers from his garage, to a global firm employing over 6,000 people across 19 African countries.

Thakkar is a British citizen of Asian descent and has been living in Dubai, where his company is headquartered for more than half of his life, but says his heart will always belong to Africa. At 13, he moved from the UK to Rwanda with his family, only to find themselves a few months later caught up in the Genocide. After escaping with the help of the UN inside Hotel Rwanda, Thakkar and his family started over in Uganda. When he was 15, Thakkar’s entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to drop out of school and take a $6000 loan from the bank to help set up his first company, Raps, which sold computers.

In 2010 the Mara Group was identified by the World Economic Forum as a dynamic high-growth company with the potential to be a driving force for economic and social change in Africa. He divides his time between the Mara Group and Mara Foundation, the former concentrates on investing in diverse sustainable commercial projects in Africa, including IT solutions, tourism services, agriculture and agro processing and manufacturing. The aim is to create local jobs while reducing the need for importing materials from overseas. The latter is his philanthropic initiative; the Mara foundation was set up to create a new, modern venture capital firm designed to support the needs of entrepreneurs. It consists of an online entrepreneurial mentorship platform, online jobs site and even a dating website, designed to enable like-minded young African entrepreneurs to meet.

When chatting with Thakkar, it’s easy to see his genuine passion for the development of the continent he calls home. “All work is geared towards creating an ecosystem of support for young African entrepreneurs,” he says.

Thakkar drew upon his own experiences and what he believed was the missing links for young Africans to succeed in business: funding, physical work space and professional guidance to launch the online mentoring platform. The service is free, connecting local and international business leaders with young entrepreneurs. While the Mara Launch Pad is a base for growing business, an innovation and enterprise center for young businesses, useful as a professional office space, offered for as little as $20 per month – “this is important for visibility and credibility” according to Thakkar. “It’s sexy to work from your home in Europe or the US but in Africa no one will take you seriously unless you have an office space.”

Thakkar also uses his expertise to influence and advise several heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa and is a team member of the Commonwealth Business Council and COMESA. He will be representing East Africa on Virgin Galactic’s first mission into space next year, making him Africa’s second astronaut.