How ‘Africa’s Youngest Billionaire’ Got to the Top

May 26, 2013 Updated: April 13, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO—At age 31, Ashish Thakkar has gone from being a penniless civil war refugee to heading a multi-million dollar pan-African conglomerate. He has enough wealth to be known as Africa’s youngest billionaire. But when it comes to wealth and business, Thakkar has his own view.

Thakkar’s parents, originally from India, were forced to leave Uganda in 1972 during the expulsion of Asians by then-president Idi Amin. They fled to the United Kingdom, and this is where Thakkar was born. When he was 12, his parents decided to sell their business and move the family to Rwanda. 

But a peaceful life didn’t last long. When the Rwandan genocide broke out in 1994, Thakkar and his family were forced to flee the country—through the now famous hotel Rwanda—to Uganda.

“It was, of course, horrific … Today, I’m probably thankful I got to see that, because it was an experience which has reshaped my thinking and my philosophy,” said Thakkar in an interview with The Epoch Times in San Francisco.

In Uganda, Thakkar and his family started to pick up their lives again. Eager to start his own business, Thakkar convinced his parents when he was 15 to allow him to drop out of school and start his own business. His parents consented. He managed to borrow $6000 and rent a small store in a nearby shopping mall where he started to sell computers. He frequently flew back and forth from Uganda to Dubai to purchase the computer supplies he sold in Uganda. 

Eventually Thakkar settled in Dubai where he founded the Mara Group. Thakkar has proven to be extremely proficient in business. He has grown the group to now operate in 26 countries, 19 of them in Africa, and to employ more than 7,000 people. It’s ten subsidiaries operate in the communication technology, real estate, hospitality, and manufacturing sectors. 

But despite heading a multi-million dollar conglomerate and ambitions to become a defining force in strengthening Africa’s business power, Thakkar is not your average entrepreneur. 

A ‘Clean Intention and Clean Heart’ in Business

At the center of his personal and professional vision are what he describes as the core values of “truth, love, and compassion.”

“People should never underestimate these values. It’s so important; they were applicable a hundred years ago, and they are still applicable today,” he said.

“When you do things with clean intention and clean heart, it always works out. I am a strong believer of that.”

They are values that Thakkar relates back to his spiritual belief as well as what he went through in Rwanda as a teenager. It helps him in dealing with the problems he encounters in doing business.

“Some things don’t work out, and they’re not meant to work out. And the things that do, are meant to … I think honesty, being transparent, being truthful is the key thing,” he said.

While the first few years of his career were all about the bottom line, Thakkar says that has now transformed into the idea of making a difference and how to “really move the needle on a global scale” for Africa.

And it is this needle that Thakkar is now tirelessly trying to move—hoping to give young African entrepreneurs the same opportunities he had.

“If you’ve been given the tools to help others, then you must now help others,” he said.

Supporting African Youth

A report published earlier this month by the United Nation’s International Labor Organisation (ILO) states that on average 12 percent of youth in Africa are unemployed, a number that exceeds 50 percent in some individual African countries. It’s a number that the ILO doesn’t expect to change anytime soon.

Thakkar believes that the answer for Africa lays in its small- and medium-sized businesses. While these private enterprises have the potential to provide a large number of jobs, many fail. Thakkar wants to improve the success-rate of these businesses by guiding them and setting them up for success. 

In 2009, Thakkar created the Mara foundation to provide young entrepreneurs with the knowledge they need to succeed in Africa, as well as to empower and inspire them. Part of the foundation’s program connects successful entrepreneurs as mentors with new entrepreneurs.

“I’m a home product, I’m made in Africa. So I’m not someone who has done it in Silicon Valley, who quickly made an amazing amount of money by creating the right app. This was hardcore training on the ground in Africa,” he said.

But the last thing Thakkar wants to see is wealth become a goal in and of itself for these young entrepreneurs.

“The measurement of wealth is the worst thing … The driving force being just purely wealth, I don’t get it. It doesn’t excite me,” Thakkar said.

According to Thakkar, impact, not wealth, should be the defining factor what inspires young entrepreneurs. “I want to celebrate the people who are creating the most impact,” Thakkar said. 

Thakkar is now frequently called “Africa’s youngest billionaire,” a title he himself calls unfortunate. “Some things you can control, some things you just can’t,” Thakkar said about the lists published on the internet that list him as a billionaire. When asked whether the statement is true in essence Thakkar declined to comment.

“We were on the top philanthropists in Africa list, that is more of an exciting thing for me. That inspires others, you know I want to be on that list.”

Thakkar said he believes that the fact that wealth is not an exciting factor for him comes from what he and his family went through.

“No matter how much money I would have had, I would have still been a refugee. … I wouldn’t have been able to stop that with my wealth … I still could have got shot in crossfire,” Thakkar said. “Money can’t buy everything.”