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The Final Frontier: Ashish J. Thakkar Empowers Africa's Young Entrepreneurs

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It's fitting that I first met African entrepreneur Ashish J. Thakkar on Twitter. After all, he's revolutionizing the mobile and social communication landscape in Africa. It's equally appropriate that when I meet him again, this time in person, he's sitting across from me in a simple cotton, Indian kurta. "This is all I had for the last three weeks," says Thakkar, pointing to a small, nondescript, black trolley bag containing the extent of belongings required for a three week, around-the-world trip with his spiritual guru, Morari Bapu, the man he says the Dalai Lama calls, "boss."

Though he's a devout follower of Bapu and his teachings of truth, love and compassion, you would be foolish to think Thakkar became Africa's Youngest Billionaire by following the path of least resistance, for his is an irresistible tale of passionate perseverance and indefatigable drive. The founder of Mara Group, a pan-African, multi-sector business conglomerate with operations in 26 different countries, has been hard at work since he was only 15 years old, buying and selling computers to friends and locals in Uganda after obtaining a $6000 loan.

It is not this self-made, serial entrepreneur's many business accomplishments that first moved me -- though they are undeniably impressive -- but his commitment to empowering Africa's young men and women through the Mara Foundation, an organization that provides mentorship to fledgling businesses in East Africa. "In Sub-Saharan Africa, 75 percent of our population is under 35," Thakkar tells me, "we've got a very young population, how do you enable, empower, inspire them?" In their first year, the Mara Foundation mentored 120 businesses. Today, it's more than 130,000.

The latest buzz in philanthropy is making a charitable organization self-sustainable and if there were ever a poster child for this formidable endeavour, then Mara Online is it. To exponentially increase the number of young entrepreneurs Thakkar could help, he took the work of the Mara Foundation online and created Mara Mentor, which was expensive to both build and run. To make it self-sustainable, he created Mara Online, an ecosystem of apps and digital platforms -- including the 'African Skype' and a rival to PayPal. "It's become a very sexy business," says Thakkar of Mara Online. Forbes recently listed it as one of Africa's hottest tech startups and Thakkar tells me it's expected to go public in a few years at half a billion dollars. It would have been all too easy to donate a small portion of the profits from Mara Online to Mara Mentor and the Mara Foundation but that's not Thakkar's style -- instead, he granted ownership to the Foundation. "That was a way to make the Foundation self-sustainable for life," he says with a smile.

I ask Thakkar what his next goal for the Mara Foundation is and a huge grin spreads across his youthful face, "one million," he says without skipping a beat. Until then, he's focused on launching his latest project, Mara Women, the female-focused chapter of the Mara Foundation. He's already got a cadre of talented, successful women on board to help lead the charge and though they're not ready to reveal the identity of their top ambassador just yet, she will, no doubt, inspire millions of young women throughout Africa and the world.

As Thakkar likes to say, "it is time for Africa," and indeed, thanks to the Mara Foundation, there's never been a better time to be a young entrepreneur on the continent. Welcome to the final frontier.

mara group

Why is Africa the Next Big Thing?

It's such an amazing place, the people are so beautiful, the atmosphere is amazing, we've got a billion people. You've seen what India and China have been through the last 10 to 15 years but what Africa's going through is a completely different transformation. Unlike India and China, we're 54 different jurisdictions, 46 for Sub-Saharan Africa -- 46 different laws, parliaments, opposition parties, backgrounds, traditions -- the whole shebang. So we're really unique in that respect and unfortunately we're really generalized in a lot of different ways. We are a continent, not a country.

You frequently say, 'The days of the Indian tiger and the Chinese dragon are over, it's time for the African lion.' What does that look like?

Look at the number of natural resources we have, the amount of naturally rain-fed arable land, the population, the consumer base we have, which is growing -- the lack of penetration of anything in that respect. There are no shopping malls in a lot of these places. Fifteen years ago, India didn't have shopping malls, now it's nothing but shopping malls. There's a whole new shift, that's the next big thing.

10 to 15 years ago, India and China were misunderstood, misread, underestimated. Africa's in exactly that position today. Hence, my saying and why the Mara logo is the African lion. The U.S. is still investing in India and China, yet India and China are investing in Africa! We are the final destination, the last frontier.

Let's talk about the key to being the next big thing. For you and the Mara Foundation, that's Africa's young entrepreneurs?

The Mara Foundation is our nonprofit, which is focused on young men and women entrepreneurs. Hopefully in August or September, we launch our women-focused operation: Mara Women.

Mara Women is going to be our new thing, I'll tell you the reason why.

My mother has been working her whole life, and I've seen her go for business trips and my father go for business trips and they're perceived so differently. People take my father a lot more seriously than they take my mother.

Women, it's like you're doing them a favor if they're promoted or if they're in a particular area -- and that bugs the life out of me. Having grown up with a mother who has been active her whole life, having two sisters and no brothers gives me a real deep understanding of this. 'Young entrepreneurs' is obviously relevant -- it's me, it's who I am, it's who I've been -- I like to think I am still a young entrepreneur. But women entrepreneurs is a huge focus for us. There's still a lot of equality to be brought to the system and I think if we highlight it, it will hopefully inspire others to do more about it.

What are some of the exemplary cases the Mara Foundation has had?

A 17-year-old schoolgirl came to us for advice. She was making about $70 a month. She was still studying, her parents were farmers in Uganda and they were making about $220 a month. She was stitching school uniforms and selling them for her classmates.

I ask a lot of these entrepreneurs, "What do you want?" "How can I help you?" Generally the perception is they're going to ask for money -- but they didn't, 8/10 didn't.

She asks, "I'm doing this business, how do I grow?" We gave her six months of mentorship. We taught her how to buy materials more efficiently, to do logistics more efficiently and how to market herself. Really simple, standard stuff. Within six months she was employing six of her classmates and she was making $700 a month. Three times her parents!

That is just empowering. That is just enabling. Inspiring them that there is hope, that it is doable. And therefore, we realized that money isn't that main thing, hence why mentorship is such a big piece of this.

On Going From 120 Mentees to More Than 130,000

I had one-to-ones with about 70 of these entrepreneurs and I said, "How do I do this better for you?" They said two things, which blew me away. Changes the whole way mentorship is typically done.

One, they want more than one mentor because they wanted more than one perspective.
Two, they wanted international mentors, not local mentors and that was surprising to me as well. I thought they'd see a car drive by and say, 'I want to be like him,' but it wasn't. They've got the Internet and they are exposed to creative forces and get inspired by people who have done it in a bigger way, outside.

So with that feedback we decided to take it online and that's when we created Mara Mentor. It was costing a lot, we asked ourselves, "How do we make this self-sustainable?" I can't charge mentors, because they're helping us. I can't charge mentees because they're getting the help they need. I can't get advertisement on it because that just makes it cheesy. So how do you make it self-sustainable?

That's when we created Mara Online. It was a way to create other products alongside Mara Mentor, which will create revenue, which will make Mara Mentor self-sustainable. So we launched Mara Connect, Mara Messenger and Mara Pay. Frankly, it was never the plan but Mara Online was ranked by Forbes as one of Africa's hottest tech startups -- it's become a very sexy business. There are a few more announcements coming up soon, which are going to blow people away.

mara group

The sky is not the limit for Ashish J. Thakkar -- he'll be representing East Africa on Virgin Galactic's first flight to space.

You're very active on Twitter, you're online, was making yourself accessible a conscious decision?

I always wanted to be accessible. My way of communicating with people directly is through Mara Mentor. People can follow me on Mara Mentor and they communicate with me and I communicate with a lot of people. Twitter, I'm as active as can be.

Your Tweet in response to Donald Trump's comment that the $7 billion pledged by the U.S. to help build reliable electric power grids in Sub-Saharan Africa would be "stolen" went viral.

I genuinely never intended for that but [Africa] is something I'm very passionate about -- I don't like people saying crap about Africa. If it's true, if they've got a specific example in a specific country, so be it, I'm not going to be unnecessarily defensive about the continent. But when you generalize us and say every penny of that $7 billion is going to get stolen, that's a very ignorant, stupid comment. It really is.

Today we are going through a transformation. I advise some of these heads of state and they're after creating a transformation, leaving behind a positive legacy. You can't generalize us for what we've been known for in the past.

Who are your mentors? I know your Guru is one.

My Guru is a huge one for me, my father is obviously a very important one to me as well. I've had "Idol Mentors." Mentors I've studied, read a lot about, who I've tracked. Never knew them but really looked up to them and respected them. Richard Branson, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates -- more recently, because of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is amazing -- Ratan Tata I look up to a lot as well, I think he's an amazing person.

What is your best advice for young, male and female entrepreneurs?

It's important to think big but start small. I can't emphasize that enough. Sometimes people want to grow too quickly [but] it's very dangerous for business. Be very practical for how you build up.

Honesty. Integrity is such an important piece. What goes around comes around. This world is becoming smaller and smaller, more and more open, and therefore just being absolutely open, transparent and clean is very important.

Love what you do. You've got to love it with a real passion or you're just not going to succeed. We [Mara] only do things we really enjoy and therefore, think we're good at.
For women, I think it's being confident and putting your foot down and knowing that you have equal or more say than others. Stand that ground. You have to stand up for your rights, you have to have a voice.

What do you see Africa looking like in the next 10 years?

What I want Africa to look like in the next 10-20 years is a self-sustainable Africa. I want us to be completely independent, standing on our two feet and a power, a force of our own. And I think that's absolutely possible. We have all the necessary ingredients and we have all the tools to enable it. It has begun!

Marissa Bronfman is a writer, journalist, editor and digital media consultant living in Bombay. She is the Founder and President of Moxie Media, a boutique consulting firm that assists fashion, luxury lifestyle and travel companies in translating and building their brands in the digital space. Read more at marissabronfman.com