At age 29 he was billed as Africa’s youngest billionaire. Uganda’s Ashish J Thakkar, now 31, is the founder of Mara Group, a conglomerate that made its wealth from real estate, tourism, financial services and IT, on four continents.
The Mara Foundation, launched in 2009, concentrates on empowering entrepreneurs and job creation though initiatives like the Uganda Fund, and the Mara Launch Pad. Making philanthropy fun is big on Thakkar’s agenda and he has turned business “speed dating” into an event.
Online mentoring and connecting African tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley business leaders is close to this maverick businessman’s own heart: he left school to start his own business when he was 15 after selling computers as a schoolboy in Kampala. He lives in the United Arab Emirates.
Q: How old were you when you sold your first computer and were you a successful playground entrepreneur?
A: I was 14 when I sold my first computer. I was a great playground entrepreneur – and it has served me very well ever since (I think).
Q: Where did you go to school and were you a geek?
A: No I was one of the cool ones! I went to school in UK, Kenya and Uganda and left school at an early age to start my business. So I am as uneducated as they come.
Q: Does your own relative youth shape and inform your philanthropic interests in any way?
A: Absolutely! I started my own business full-time when I was 15 and so much of my youth was spent developing my entrepreneurial self. This is why I am now so passionate about supporting and developing other entrepreneurs. I’ve been there and I admire people that decide to take that challenge. I feel like my development now lies in helping others to grow, be the best that they can be and avoid making the same mistakes I made. I believe when people receive they “pay it forward” – so my ultimate satisfaction will come from seeing this far-reaching impact.
Q: The Mara Foundation’s Uganda Fund aims to “make wealth through capacity building, mentoring and peer networking”. How does it work?
A: It provides financing for start-up businesses or already existing business with high risk but high growth potential. The fund is designed to respond to the challenges faced in raising capital by Africa-based young entrepreneurs and invests in innovative enterprises requiring equity or loan financing, or a combination.
Our aim here is to create self-sustaining enterprises by absorbing unique business ideas and transforming them into profit making ventures. We want to help professionalize micro, small and medium enterprises and provide them with an alternative to mainstream bank funding to significantly reduce SME mortality and bolster job creation.
Uganda is the just the start for us, we are now launching in Tanzania and signing partnerships in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa too.
Q: Tell us a bit more about the intriguingly named Entrepreneur Launch Pad
A: The Entrepreneur Launchpad mentorship programme was launched in 2011 by Mara Foundation in Kampala, Uganda. The launch involved a unique ‘business speed-dating’ event, where prominent business personalities in Uganda had a series of three minute timed conversations with young entrepreneurs. The event was an extremely valuable experience for young entrepreneurs and their mentors alike. 16 entrepreneurs were matched with formidable mentors for a mentorship period that spanned over 6 months. The second cycle of mentorship was launched in the same way on 24th October 2011, with a further 16 entrepreneurs being matched.
The impact has been far reaching. Mentors have developed the thinking, capabilities and networks of their mentees and helped them develop self-sustaining businesses. Mentees have increased turnover, employed more team members and some are even helping to develop the mentorship programme by mentoring part-time.
I had the most humbling experience in August last year in South Africa when I attended the Anzisha prize-giving event as the keynote speaker. The winner, whom I had never met, was from Uganda and in his speech he said the Mara Foundation initiatives have changed his life! It makes it all worth it!
We have now also launched our Mara Online mentoring platform, which has already helped 52?000 young entrepreneurs benefit from mentoring… and this is just the beginning!
Q: Do you think of philanthropy as a job or a hobby?
A: That’s easy! A passionate hobby, but a very serious one
Q: What – or who – first turned you on to philanthropy?
A: My spiritual leader; Morari Bapu. His teaching is truth, love and compassion.
Q: Is it important for philanthropists to get together in formal settings to discuss what you do – or might do – together?
A: The great thing about these types of conferences is that they allow people to compare notes on different approaches to really important issues like education, poverty, inequality and social exclusion. I think that lots of brilliant collaborations can be initiatied at events like these. This can lead to some great ideas and exciting “aha!” moments to pave the way for impactful contributions and far-reaching philanthropic activities.
Q: Is the culture of modern African philanthropy deeply rooted in Uganda?
A: No, it is pan-African.
Q: What has been your best giving moment?
A: Seeing someone like the young entrepreneur mentioned above receiving a pan-African prize is just phenomenal.
Another great story is about one of our young mentees, who at 16 started a business making school uniforms and employing one of her classmates. She was struggling initially and only making about $70 a month. Her parents are farmers and were making about $250 a month. After being paired up with a mentor for 6 months, this young lady is now employing 12 of her classmates and making over $750 a month! Seeing this kind of grassroots impact is very exciting and only makes us want to do more.
Q: As a Generation Y tech-savvy guy, do you play computer games?
A: No, but I do love my old time favourite board game – Monopoly!
» This series was developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.
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