From schoolboy trader to multi-business tycoon

Letter from New Delhi —

Twice a refugee in Africa, Asish Thakkar, the Dubai-based entrepreneur, makes it big in the continent

As a schoolboy, Ashish Thakkar was happy to get a personal computer while living in Kampala, Uganda, in 1993. A family friend came for dinner and, admiring his PC, asked how much it costs. Ashish padded the price by $100. 

The guest asked if he could get a similar PC and Ashish promised it would be done. The following day, he cleaned his PC of all his files, repacked it neatly in the original box and delivered it to make a profit and bought another PC for himself.

That began a flourishing business career as he bought keyboards, mouses, floppies and other peripherals during his weekly trips to Dubai and sold them at a profit during school holidays. He persuaded his family to loan him $5,000 to start his business at the age of 15. He dropped out of school, promising his father to resume his studies if his business floundered.

It didn’t. He founded his company, Mara Group, in 1996 and today it has operations in 24 countries and employs more than 11,000 people, mostly in Africa. It is headquartered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. And he is a billionaire.

Thakkar was born in Leicester, UK, after his family moved there from Uganda when Idi Amin expelled Indians in 1972. His family originally migrated from Gujarat to East Africa in 1980s. The Thakkar family settled in Britain as Ugandan refugees in 1972 and in Uganda as Rwandan refugees in 1994.

They returned to Rwanda and were again forced to leave in 1994 due to the Rwandan Genocide and settled in Kampala. That’s when Thakkar started his business career as a teenager. He founded the Mara Group and from trading moved into manufacturing, real estate, finance, agriculture and IT services. Later, he relocated his headquarters to Dubai with major offices in Kampala, Lagos and other African cities.

Believing in a bright future for Africa, he has written a book, The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle. Of course, he refers to the African lion given that he thinks that the time of the Chinese dragon and the Indian tiger is over.

In 2013, Thakkar announced a partnership with the former Barclays boss, Bob Diamond, to launch Atlas Mara, a company that invests in commercial banking institutions across Africa. Bestowed with numerous leadership awards, Thakkar, participated in the “Global Accelerator” event in 2014 hosted by the United Nations Foundation and the United Nations Office for Partnerships to discuss entrepreneurships in UN objectives; and the US-Africa summit, hosted by the White House, alongside former US President Bill Clinton, in addition to the World Economic Forum in 2010.

He wants to see Africa prosper and compete aggressively on a global scale. His Mara Group proudly wears the logo of the African Lion to symbolize Africa’s coming of age and he champions this cause in any way he can. “The Indian tiger and the Chinese dragon have had their day, ” he told BBC, “Now is the time for the African lion.”

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From Priest, Palmist and Astrologer to one of Kenya’s richest tycoons

From an assistant priest, palmist and an astrologer, Narendra Raval became a shopkeeper, an industrialist and now a multi-millionaire. Today, Raval owns Kenya’s largest steel and cement empire with a turnover of $650 million.

Born in 1962 in a small village near Surendrangar, Gujarat, he followed the Swaminarayan path from his boyhood. Getting up at 3:45 am, he helped with morning prayers at the local temple before going to school. After school, he helped with evening prayers. So when he got a chance to travel abroad to work as an assistant priest in Kenya, he wasted no time to land in Nairobi in 1978.

Then he became ‘guru’. He was told to hold religious classes for children every Sunday. To tempt them to attend, he prepared tasty snacks for them after lessons. Soon the number rocketed from 12 to 250 children and he was called guru.

When he reached 21 years, he was pressurised by his family to get married. So he married a medical doctor in 1982, but had to stop work at the temple as priests could not marry. He had no money and did not know many people. But his astrology came in handy. At the temple, he met a person for whom he made some predictions. This person offered him a job as a worker in a steel factory which he immediately grabbed. He worked and saved and opened a small shop and steel processing unit selling metal products with a loan from a benefactor in Nairobi’s low income suburb in 1990. He and his wife toiled. They worked up to 18 hours every day.

Gradually, he expanded his business, and established a steel rolling mill. Today, it has expanded into the Devki Group which deals primarily in steel, cement, infrastructure and real estate. It was not easy. In the first factory, he laboured with the workers and developed a close rapport to treat them as his family members. The big competitors undercut him; so his raw materials piled up along with huge unsold stocks. He had no cash to pay his workers or his bank loan. In this desperate situation, the prices of metal products rocketed three times in a short period and he was able to sell his stock and pay wages and the bank loan.

Since then, he has expanded his business. In 1992, he set up a small steel rolling mill near Nairobi to manufacture roofing and fencing materials. Now Raval’s Devki Group owns four such mills, two cement factories in Kenya, and one in Ethiopia, Uganda and the Congo with $650 million in annual income. The group employs more than 4,000 workers and is the largest building materials company in East and Central Africa.

Awarded the Order of the Burning Spear, the highest civilian award of Kenya, and a special philanthropy award by the British government, he has been interviewed in many African media, Times of India and made it to the front page of Forbes Africa this year.

Raval’s priority is helping the needy as he donates millions for education, nutrition and health care in Kenya and other African countries. “I am deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa,” he told Times of India, “I believe that wealth should be considered as a trust of the whole society and as trustees, individuals should use it for the benefit of society.”

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

  • Published in print edition on 18 September 2015

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