Ashish J. Thakkar is widely known across Africa as one of the continent’s most innovative and inspiring entrepreneurs. The founder and Managing Director of the multinational conglomerate the Mara group which has operations in 19 African countries and 21 countries world wide, Thakkar has been in business since dropping out of high school in 1996 at age 15 to found his first business selling computers. Thakkar chats with Ventures Africa about business, entrepreneurship, and the future of Africa:
VA: You dropped out of High school at age 15. Many people have not completed school but don’t end up as successful as you. What do you make of your success?
AT: It’s very humbling. It’s important to never forget your roots, to never forget where you came from. I have no shame in saying I was a school drop out, but at the same time, when I dropped out of school, the circumstances we were under as a family, it’s something I had to do, something I needed to do for the family. Then being in this position today? Frankly, I can try and take credit for it. I can try and act like the smartest thing that happened, but the fact of the matter is, in my opinion, I genuinely believe its God’s grace. And I also genuinely believe that if you genuinely do good, you will always do well. Too many people promise that once they do well, they’ll do good. And I think that we get that order mixed up sometimes. I don’t want to sugar coat it for you. It’s not easy. Entrepreneurship is very challenging, and working multi-country, regardless of which part of the world you’re in – no country is the same, no two cultures are the same – therefore how do you truly operate locally in the true sense, yet operate in a global manner? I think it’s extremely challenging and you always go through tough phases and parts of your life. We’ve been through tough phases in terms of coming out of a genocide [Rwanda] alive and that’s a different type of thing. But even in entrepreneurship you face different challenges in the economic and financial sense of it. But the bottom line is – and I have a firm philosophy and a spiritual side – Muraru Bapu my spiritual leader who’s core teaching is truth love and compassion, he said once and it’s such a cool thing: Don’t tell your god how big your problem is. Tell your problem how big your god is. And it’s such a beautiful way to sum up what your thought process should be like. Having that positivity, having that faith, having a clean heart and the right intentions, in my opinion there’s no way you can fail. Will it take time? Yes. Will you have hurdles? Of course. And if you don’t have hurdles, you’ll never appreciate it….On another note, I genuinely believe now, that Mara’s got the right blend of remaining truly entrepneurial but at the same time having a real institutional framework as well. I think that the combination of being really entrepreneurial and being very institutional is the perfect blend to go forward. I think typical asset managers etcetera are very institutional but don’t have an entrepneurial spirit. I think entrepreneurs sometimes become too entrepreneurial like I have been historically. But I think having that right blend –which I think we’ve managed to create as Mara, and Africa being so hot at the same time – I genuinely believe it’s the start of my career. It’s the start of Mara. There’s so much we can do and we’re skimming the surface. This is it now. This is our time.
VA: How do you balance being an entrepreneur with running a major multinational corporation?
AT: Historically I’ve always been—I’m a hard core entrepreneur, and I still am. But being extremely entrepreneurial, you end up biting more than you can chew. You end up rushing into things or trying to do too much at the same time. There’s a lot of pros and there are cons against that as well. Being too institutional you just miss out on opportunities. You end up chewing left overs because you missed the cream, because you’re just too slow, you’re not able to move on it, you’re not able to identify, you’re not able to feel it. How do you create that blend? Globally when you look at companies that have tried to do that, I would say Virgin [The Virgin Group] is maybe one example but again they were probably too entrepreneurial at one stage. I think now they’ve balanced it out. Tata [The Tata Group] is another great example […] I think now GE still has an entrepreneurial side but maybe is very institutional because of their size and scale. So finding that right balance is crucial. There are a lot of fellow entrepreneurs that we have on the continent that are too entrepreneurial. Then we’ve got many institutions that kind of think this is the West and they can plug and play in their own way in terms of financial markets and it doesn’t work like that. So I think I’ve been grappling with this blend for a long time and I think over the last 12 months. I think I’m really happy with what we’ve been able to create as Mara in terms of what in our opinion is a good blend, where we are still able to move quickly on decisions, we’re still able to do things very smartly and quickly, but at the same time we tick off all our boxes doing so. But we don’t waste time ticking those boxes.
VA: How do you select the right kind of person for that environment?
AT: If they’re going to be working with me directly, I need more institutional because I’m too entrepreneurial. If I’m looking at creating an organization within one of my companies then I want a blend. I don’t think anyone can do both very well. I think its very challenging to have a two in one kind of blend. I think I can claim to be a two in one blend, but I’m way more entrepreneurial than I am institutional. But I’m a founder of a listed entity on the London stock exchange. I understand governance. We’ve strengthened governance in all of our companies for the last six, seven years. I do get it, but I still think I’m more entrepreneurial than institutional. My ideal scenario is getting two people: one being an extreme or slight extreme on one end and one on the other. But it’s really case to case, country to country and business to business.
VA: On a broader note what makes a good entrepreneur?
AT: Number one: I think it’s being able to indentify a good opportunity and proceed with it even if there are a quite a few concerns with it. Number two – this is a bit of a cliché – but when people are going one way, you should be going the other way. It’s always one of those things where “don’t do the obvious.” Thirdly, I think genuinely – and I mean this – it’s really important to do it ethically, and to have the right value set, and to do it with a long term approach, and not try to do it with a quick win kind of mindset. It’s all about the short term pain which leads to long term gain. There’s no quick money in all of this, no short cuts. There’term no none of that. It has to be looked at for the medium to long-term mindset.
VA: Your Mara Group was recently the subject of a case taught at Harvard Business School. What do you hope people will get out of having Mara Group taught as a case study?
AT: My broader ambition behind the case? They approached us and they’ve been writing it for almost a year, but what excites me behind it is the fact that it shows cases and highlights a different kind of African story. It’s an African business, an African group, by an African family that has been innovative, that has been disruptive in its own respect and that has succeeded in its own way in a few different segments. I think hopefully that will trigger peoples minds that there’s’ a lot to be done, and it can be done and that our continent is evolving. We are genuinely the next big thing and I’m hoping this will inspire people to look at us in a slightly different light and not with a very confused light. That’s why giving specific country examples is useful because we’re generalized as a continent still whether we like it or not, and whether people like it or not. [People] laugh every time I say that we are fifty-four countries and not one country, and they get it theoretically, but practically they still club us together and it cheeses me off. If you’re going to generalize us, generalize us positively not negatively. I still think we’re misunderstood. I still think—even though there’s a lot of hype and excitement around us—I still genuinely feel people still don’t understand how to plug into us. They still don’t get it. There’s no way you can copy and past strategy. If something works in Nigeria, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work in Ghana and vice versa […] it just doesn’t work like that.
VA: You have started a banking venture with former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond. He’s a bit of a controversial figure. What’s the nature of this new business?
AT: Firstly the controversy around Bob: everybody who understands the sector understands that it had nothing to do with him in that respect. It was an unfortunate thing and it wasn’t fair what happened to him. But everyone who knows him and knows the industry knows that he’s a legend. I mean what he did with Barcap [Barclays Capital] and BGI [Barclays Group International] was unbelievable. Within nine years taking Barcap from a $400 million business and organically growing it and selling it to BlackRock at $15.5 billion. Not many people can do that. We met about a year ago at an event, and we met talking about the Mara foundation and the Diamond Family Foundation and then very quickly, within fifteen minutes, started talking business in terms of what the opportunity is [in Africa] and what’s happening, and all of a sudden realized there’s this great synergy there. So we met up after a few times in New York and started brainstorming what that could look like. I think Bob’s multinational financial services experience, his relevant African experience through Barclays and through ABSA, and his passion for Africa through the Diamond Family Foundation; and Mara being a recipient of financial services for the last seventeen and a half years understanding where the gaps are in the market, Mara being a strong African brand, having a strong footprint across the continent, the blend made a lot of sense. That’s when we came up with the concept of creating Atlas Mara. The whole strategy became this: We want to own controlling stakes in financial services institutions across Africa. I think frankly to be perfectly honest we’ll probably start off on the commercial banking side. We have to have controlling stakes because otherwise we can’t add value. The potential is massive. Number one: seven percent of our continent is banked. Number two: currently, unfortunately, the majority of the players are getting clients’ deposits, putting them into government treasuries and making 1000-1200 basis points spreads. There’s not much innovation in that market. The mobile money angle has been telecom led more than financial institution led. Banking technology has been lacking in the true sense […] Bob and I have been pretty bold in stating we want to be the leading financial services institution in the continent. However, what we mean by leading is not the biggest. What we mean by leading is the best. And that’s what we want to emphasize.
VA: If you had to pick three sectors that are going to be the most interesting for Africa in the near future, what would you chose?
AT: For Africa generally, I would definitely say technology is going to be massive. There is still so much to do on the technology angle. We’ve seen how mobile penetration has taken off, but mobiles are still used in a simple manner. I think there’s so much to be done on that front. So I think definitely technology.
Secondly I think agriculture is going to be huge in terms of food processing. The world is jumping up and down about food shortages, etcetera, but on a practical note – you know we’re the bread basket of the world— but how do we actually add value to our crops and export it is the key thing. And the third, frankly, is financial services. I think there’s so much to do in the financial services space, be it developing capital markets, be it securitization, be it just general banking. Seven percent of our continent is banked. That’s pathetic. It’s pathetic. There’s just so much to be done on this. These are the three angles, which I think are the most exciting across the continent. Obviously, look I’m not talking about things like natural resources because there are certain givens, but I think that these three are more exciting than natural resources in the long run for our people and our economies and for the countries as a whole – especially for our people.