From truant to tycoon.

Author:Wan, James
Position:Interview - Interview
 
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In less than two decades, Ashish Thakkar turned a $5,000 loan from his parents into a continent-spanning empire. How did he do it?

For someone who dropped out of school aged 15, Ashish Thakkar is doing pretty well for himself. His conglomerate Mara Group is estimated by some to be worth over $1bn, which would make him Africa's youngest billionaire. He spends much of his time jetting from capital to capital, and when not striking new deals or meeting world leaders, you will often find him fulfilling global speaking engagements, promoting Africa's cause. He has become the poster child of Africa's soaring class of successful entrepreneurs and also its aspirational youth.

Now aged 33, his biggest regret, he tells me, is that he didn't leave school earlier.

Despite meeting at the swanky Intercontinental Hotel in London's Mayfair, Thakkar is known for being more of a 'smart-casual' kind of guy. Not one for stuffy suits and cold formalities, he is smiley and personable, and speaks eloquently about his life and his businesses--though a quiet PR man sits attentively by his side just in case.

Thakkar has no shortage of things to talk about. Founded with just $5,000 two decades ago, Mara Group is now estimated to have an annual turnover of over $100m. It has created thousands of jobs across Africa and has fingers in countless pies, from real estate to e-commerce to agriculture. The conglomerate has joint ventures with some of the world's leading multinationals. It has a hugely ambitious pan-African infrastructure project in the pipeline. And even all this, Thakkar says, is barely scratching the surface of what he wants to do.

"As cheesy as this sounds, I genuinely believe that everything that Mara has done--the brand it's created, its presence, the track record it's got--I think it's now that we're really beginning," he says. "Next year we turn 20 as an organisation so this is our last year of teenage life, so I really do think we're just getting started."

The dropout

Unlike many of Africa's billionaires, who have made their money in the resource sector or been helped by inheritances and political contacts, Thakkar started from more modest beginnings.

He was born in Leicester, UK, in 1981, where his father once worked at Ford and his mother at a Walkers Crisps factory. His parents had grown up in Uganda, the children of Indian migrants, where they had set up a business in agriculture and textiles. But with the rise to power of Idi Amin in 1971, the family had lost everything. Acting on what he claimed was an order from God, Amin ordered the expulsion of Uganda's Asian minority in 1972, forcing the Thakkars, along with thousands of others, to uproot to the UK.

They rebuilt their lives there over the next two decades, but in 1993, they determined to return to Africa--this time to Rwanda. Ashish attended school in Kenya, and it was when he was back home during his Easter holidays in 1994 that the genocide began. As the country went through its darkest hour and fleeing the atrocities, the Thakkar family sought refuge in the Hotel des Milles Collines, the subject of the film Hotel Rwanda.

"My parents are amazing. They kind of played down the entire Rwanda scenario even while we were living through it," recalls Thakkar. "They were playing games with us, they were keeping us positive, they were keeping our minds off what was actually happening out there."

The family was evacuated to Burundi before they eventually came full circle back to Uganda. Once again, they had to start from scratch and Thakkar remembers family friends avoiding them for fear that they would be asked for a loan. This hapless situation awoke in the teenager a go-getting, do-it-yourself drive.

"I didn't want my family to go through this, we didn't deserve it, so I think I got into that entrepreneurial mindset because I felt like I wanted and needed to do something about it," he says.

Thakkar hardly began his career with some grand master plan in mind, however. Rather, his first transaction, aged 15, was selling a computer his parents had given him. He...

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