From banking to hospitality and real estate to e-commerce, Ashish Thakkar built his vast business empire from scratch. The Ugandan tycoon started small with a little computer shop that kept him busy after leaving school at 15. These days, his Mara Group spans over 20 countries and he’s been called “Africa’s youngest billionaire.”
In late 2013 Thakkar joined forces with the former boss of Barclays bank — Bob Diamond — to start an investment fund focused on Africa called Atlas Mara. The powerful duo raised $325 million through a share flotation – well above the $250 million target.
But his vision spans beyond Africa, and Earth — Thakkar was the first African to sign up for the opportunity to travel to space with Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic.
CNN’s Marketplace Africa spoke to Thakkar about African innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration. An edited version of the interview follows.
CNN: You are active in several African countries. How is the current business landscape on the continent?
Ashish Thakkar: Right now in the last 18 years I have been active on the continent, I have never seen so much global excitement around Africa that I’ve seen today. The climate and the ease of doing business on the continent has drastically improved. Unfortunately, it’s one of those cases where perception is so different from reality. The reality on the ground is so much better than the perception. You’ve got to remember, as Africa, we are 54 countries. Some of the countries may be challenging and may have issues, but that cannot be an excuse to generalize the entire continent which is unfortunately something that happens quite a bit.
CNN: Why do you think that entrepreneurs are so important to the future growth of the African continent?
AT: We have a very young demographic — 85% of our populations are under the age of 35. We have an extremely entrepreneurial society and culture. Yet, entrepreneurship is not in the education system. Where do our entrepreneurs go for advice and the right guidance? And it’s something, frankly, that I am extremely passionate about, because the answer to unemployment is not foreign direct investment or large scale manufacturing plants, etc. It’s going to be nurturing small and medium enterprises. So, it’s great to see that there is a real entrepreneurial vibe coming into the system, and innovation is totally embedded into that.
CNN: What is it about Africa that encourages innovation?
AT: The biggest advantage we have at the moment, and you’ve seen this with mobile phone penetration, is that we don’t have legacy systems. We didn’t have landlines and we didn’t need them. We didn’t have to go through that hassle of creating landlines everywhere. We leapfrogged straight into mobile telephony. Today, we have over 750 million phones on the continent — more than North America and Western Europe put together.
We can actually leapfrog in so many different ways. Mobile money is another brilliant example. Mobile money was created in Kenya. The whole concept of having money on your phone, which is the best thing because it’s secure, it’s practical, made more sense. So, these kind of innovations, you’re going to see a lot more of on the continent. I spend a lot of time with young entrepreneurs when I travel across the continent, and just seeing the kind of innovation and new ideas and concepts that they’re coming up with is just so inspiring.
CNN: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who’s just starting out?
AT: Entrepreneurship is a journey, it’s not a destination. There are going to be so many challenges, you are going to get knocked down so many times, but you’ve got to get up, dust yourself off and get back to it. The persistence, the passion, and staying on course is very crucial. You’ll be tempted to cut corners, you’ll be tempted to do things that get you there quicker, but it never lasts. People say the youth are the leaders of tomorrow – we’re not. We’re the leaders of today, but it’s our responsibility to take the seat at the table.
AT: Pan-African collaboration is extremely important. I think things like regional integration, inter-African trade does need to increase and is increasing. I mean, the progress in the East African community has been amazing. The manner in which they’ve harmonized so many different laws and policies and mindset and priorities within that region has been fantastic. So, we need to see more of that take place on the continent. The fact that we’re 54 countries, yet we’re a billion people is an advantage and a disadvantage. I think to strengthen our weakness in that collaboration across the continent is crucial.
CNN: Are you confident about the future of the continent?
AT: I am so bullish and so proud of how the continent has evolved in terms of leadership, the mindset of our leaders. It is so inspiring to see that. It’s unfortunate that, you know, globally the highlight remains things like Ebola…The little issues that we do have are just magnified, yet on the broad scale we are doing so amazing.
CNN: Is this Africa’s century?
AT: Mara’s logo is the African Lion and our little joke, which a lot of people don’t appreciate, hence I love it even more, is that the Indian Tiger and the Chinese Dragon have had their days and it’s now the African Lion’s turn. And it genuinely is — this is our turn.