Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Tycoon to fly African flags in space

From Ayesha Durgahee and Jessica Ellis, CNN
April 24, 2013 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ashish Thakkar, 31, is the founder of pan-African business conglomerate Mara Group
  • The Ugandan entrepreneur started IT venture in his teens
  • He now heads a corporation doing business in 18 African countries
  • Thakkar is set to go into space as part of the Virgin Galactic program

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- At just 31 years old, and already heading a vast business empire he built from scratch, Ashish Thakkar has been referred to by some as Africa's youngest billionaire. But this is a label the Ugandan entrepreneur doesn't want to associate himself with.

"Money should never be a measurement for anything," says Thakkar, founder of the pan-African multi-sector business conglomerate Mara Group.

"I like to see myself as an entrepreneur that's being disruptive -- I like to be the underdog in a lot of cases," he adds. "It's all about how you go about it; but one thing I definitely don't want to be known as is as 'Africa's youngest billionaire.'"

Whilst having problems with that specific description, Thakkar has no issue about claiming other, less corporeal, titles. An adventurous spirit, Thakkar is gearing up to become the first ever East African in space, proudly representing the region in the Virgin Galactic program, which offers paying customers the opportunity to travel beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

From schoolboy salesman to African mogul
African tycoon invests in game changers

"I'm taking quite a few of flags into space, as a way to kind of send a strong message that 'look, we as Africa have the vision and the ability as well," says Thakkar.

"It's something that started off for fun and it's actually turned out to be something quite nice where we can send a strong message to say, 'we're coming, we're going to mark our space in that territory too."

Reading this: Flying doctor takes to the skies

Conquering the space frontier seems like a rather fitting move for a maverick entrepreneur such as Thakkar, who quit school around the age of 15 to embark on his first commercial enterprise -- a small IT business inside a shopping mall built across the road from his father's shop in Kampala, Uganda's capital.

"The idea initially was to do it for the two months during my summer holiday," recalls Thakkar." And when school started again I conveniently didn't tell my parents that it did, and obviously they figured me out in a week."

Thakkar believes his business journey was easier because of his accommodating parents, who allowed him to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.

"So I told them, 'look, if you want me to go through the whole cycle I'll do it for formality purposes, but I'm going to end up doing this, so I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me do it now.'

We're evolving; we're writing our own story now; we're making it happen for ourselves.
Ashish Thakkar, businessman

"They were surprisingly really open-minded and kind of gave me the opportunity and said 'look, do it on your own, try it out for a year -- if it doesn't work out you go a year behind your friends.'

"And I've still got that option open 16 years down the line."

So, at the age of 16, Thakkar spotted a gap in the market and went big. As his business evolved, Thakkar started flying to Dubai to stock up on computer hardware and then sell it for a profit in Kampala.

"I was flying to Dubai every weekend because I didn't have the money to set up a shop and have enough working capital to do an air cargo," recalls Thakkar. "So Monday to Friday I'd sell my goods in Uganda and on a weekend I'd actually fly to Dubai, fill my suitcase up with IT stuff again and bring it back, and the same repeated," he adds.

This quickly developed into a thriving business and before long Thakkar was branching out into several other areas.

Today, the Dubai-based Mara Group has grown into a major corporation that operates in 18 African countries and has various and diverse interests -- from financial services and real estate to communication, manufacturing and agriculture.

The group also runs the Mara Foundation, a non-profit arm focused on fostering entrepreneurship among young Africans.

Read this: African CEOs look to bright future

While Thakkar acknowledges that there are still many challenges when it comes to doing business in Africa, he says the continent holds a fantastic opportunity going forward.

"The West is definitely investing more in Africa -- or wanting to invest more in Africa -- but they're still investing a lot in Asia as well, specifically India and China. [The] nice thing is that India and China's investing in Africa, so the ultimate destination is us," he says.

India and China have had their time, it's now ours.
Ashish Thakkar, businessman

"People do want to come to Africa; people realize that we're the next big thing -- India and China have had their time, it's now ours."

Echoing a growing chorus of voices cautioning against exploitative behavior from foreign investors, Thakkar adds that, whilst Africa still needs investment in many sectors, gone are the days where the continent desperately relied on outsiders.

"We're evolving; we're writing our own story now; we're making it happen for ourselves," he says.

"So I think that's very important for people to realize that they must plug into what's important to us and how it should be done that's going to benefit our countries and our people -- local beneficiation, empowerment of our people.

"We want to see our economies and our countries transform, so I think people with that mindset, willing to help us on that route, are more than welcome. And I think that's hopefully what we're going to see more of now, because we're becoming more picky as countries."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT