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Mara groups Ashish Thakkar: How he


established a multi-million dollar, pan-
African group
By G Seetharaman, ET Bureau | Jan 26, 2014, 05.32 AM IST Post a Comment

READ MORE ON Zain Telecom | united nations | United Arab Emirates | Uganda | Tanzania | Sunday ET | Sri Lanka

Ashish Thakkar says the biggest mistake


investors and companies make about Africa
is to consider it a country rather than a
continent.
"There are 46 countries in sub-Saharan
Africa alone. Each has a different culture,
history, languages and regulations.
Generalizing the continent is like an Indian
company taking a strategy or product that
has worked in India to Sri Lanka or
Bangladesh and hoping it will work," he adds. African leverage: Ashish Thakkar creates a multi-million dollar
biz empire in Uganda with just $5,000

Thakkar knows what he is talking about since


his Mara Group operates in 19 of the 46 sub-
RELATED COMPANIES EXPAND
Saharan African nations, besides the United
Arab Emirates and India. Mahindra & -2.25 (-0.16%)

Bharti Airtel 2.10 (0.66%)


With a presence in sectors ranging from
information technology to financial services, Airtel 2.10 (0.66%)
and a headcount of 8,500, Mara has attracted
attention as a rising group in a continent which
has become an increasingly viable destination for multinationals.

No Ordinary Odds to Overcome

Thakkar's paternal great grandfather moved from Gujarat to


Uganda in 1890 to trade in maize, cotton and other
Most Most Most commodities. But his family had to leave Uganda in 1972
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when the country's dictatorial leader Idi Amin ordered the
Capital-led companies stretch for their Patanjali expulsion of Asians. His parents moved to the UK, where
moment
they set up a business trading women's fashion goods and
Startup Tonbo Imaging keeps watch over Indias
borders where Thakkar was born.
Flipkart says it has crossed 100 million registered
customers The family was itching to get back to Africa so they moved
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"We lost everything, financially, twice first in Uganda and then in Rwanda," says Thakkar,
on a call from Dubai where Mara is headquartered.

A year after the family relocated to Uganda in 1995, Thakkar dropped out of high school to
sell computers and their parts like hard drives, floppy disks and CD ROMs which he would
buy from Dubai where he would travel on weekends. He was all of 15 then and his dream
came to fruition with a $5,000 loan.

Three years later, Mara ventured into the packaging business. "I had this crazy fascination
with being an industrialist and wanted to get into manufacturing," says Thakkar, now 32.

With plants in Uganda and Kenya, Riley Packaging makes corrugated cardboard boxes for
fast moving consumer goods and agri products. Though Thakkar is loath to discuss Mara's
financials, when asked if group revenues could be $200 million, he says they are higher.

Why Africa is Attractive

After losing its way in the 1980s and 1990s, Africa has lately been on the growth path, with its
share in world output growing from 1.85% in 2000 to 2.73% in 2010, according to the United
Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Africa's GDP grew at 5% in 2012, higher than that of developing economies and more than
twice the rate of growth of developed economies.

Even within Africa, investors tend to veer toward sub-Saharan countries rather than politically
unstable North African countries like Egypt and Libya.

The International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook estimates sub-Saharan Africa's
growth in 2013 and 2014 to be 5% and 6%, respectively, compared to the global average of
2.9% and 3.6%. Indian groups are among those increasingly drawn to the business potential
of Africa.

In 2010, Bharti Airtel bought the African business of Kuwait's Zain Telecom for $9 billion, and
the Godrej Group has made four acquisitions there. Adi Godrej, chairman of Godrej Group,
says the reason behind that, besides good growth rates, is the improved governance in
many African countries.

Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, says Africa
faces challenges like corruption, poor infrastructure and political instability, similar to
emerging economies like India, which gives companies from these countries a competitive
advantage.

Smart Strategy
"The only way companies will survive in Africa is by
understanding how these different countries work and
finding local partners," says Thakkar, who has signed up
for Virgin Galactic's first mission to space. Mara has
used joint ventures as a key strategy since it could
combine its partners' expertise with its Africa know-how
in businesses like manufacturing of cardboard boxes
and float glass, real estate, IT and financial services.

Mahindra says Thakkar made a big impression at the


Mahindra Blue Chip conference in Cape Town in
December, where Thakkar spoke. "With remarkable
clarity and simplicity, Ashish is committed to improving
the quality of life across the African continent and doing
good even as he does well in his businesses... I am sure
Ashish will be an entrepreneur to watch out for in the
years to come," he adds.

Despite a minor presence in business process


outsourcing in India, Thakkar, who speaks Gujarati and
visits his spiritual guru Morari Bapu near Bhavnagar in Gujarat every few months, says his
focus is on Africa. Mara is developing two real estate projects in Tanzania and Uganda,
totalling over 4 million sq ft and valued at $720 million. Thakkar also has big plans for
financial services.

Atlas Mara Co-NVest, an investment company founded by Thakkar with former Barclays
chief Bob Diamond, raised $325 million in an IPO on the London Stock Exchange in 2013.
The company, says Thakkar, will pick up controlling stakes in commercial banks in Africa. If
economic predictions of the region are any indication, Thakkar has clearly put his money on
the right horse.
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