Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For applying serial entrepreneur skills to disrupt Africa’s telecom biz 

At a time when most teens have only a hazy vision for their future, Ashish Thakkar dropped out of school and used US$5,000 to launch his first IT business. “I’ve always had this weird ambition of becoming an industrialist—and I wanted to make that a reality,” he says. 

Fast-forward two decades, and Thakkar’s company, Mara Group, employs more than 8,000 people across 19 African countries, in sectors spanning manufacturing, financial services, real estate and agriculture. And a nonprofit offshoot is centered on mentoring young entrepreneurs—paving the way for others to more easily emulate the path he blazed. But the big buzz is around Mara Phones, Thakkar’s latest venture that looks to disrupt the telecom biz across the continent.

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In a one-on-one conversation, Thakkar talks persistence, pandemic pivots and his next big initiative:

What project are you most excited about at the moment?

This is going to sound really cheesy, but I feel like all the businesses I’ve been a part of all come together in our current venture, Mara Phones. We’re trying to create a device-as-a-service ecosystem and manufacturing high-quality mobile phones in Africa for the first time. Bringing affordable phones to the masses can have this huge impact on individuals—it means access to digital banking, digital education, e-commerce, last-mile logistics, agricultural efficiency, digital healthcare. But making it affordable without lowering the quality means creating a membership model and a sustainable ecosystem of phones. I’m really excited about it.

How has the pandemic reshaped your team and your work?

We didn’t let anyone go, we didn’t cut anyone’s salaries and we didn’t force any leave on anyone. That was very painful on a short-term cash-flow basis. But at the same time, we expanded our product range from smartphones to tablets, rugged devices, laptops and wearables. We repositioned ourselves to take advantage of what every government and business has realized: that becoming digital is no longer an optionality, it’s an absolute necessity. 

How did you accelerate product development during this time? 

Imagine you have hundreds of really smart people working on payroll, but all of them have nothing to do. We’re not an assembly plant. We do high-tech precision manufacturing. That means we’re making the main boards, the sub-boards—and you can’t do that from home. So we took advantage of the pandemic lockdowns to really focus on R&D. 

What is the must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?

Persistence. There are always going to be challenges that come up—look what the whole world experienced in the past year. But the people and the companies that didn’t give up and evolved themselves emerged transformed. Unfortunately, change and challenge are our new normal. But you can control how you react to it. Never give up.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

It’s a controversial answer, because I quit school at 15. But I’d probably give my younger self the advice to quit earlier. I don’t think parents would love me for that advice, but it’s been a great journey. The other thing I’d say is to dream big, but start small. Entrepreneurship is a matter of going step by step, armed with a very long-term mindset.