Illustration by Martin O’Neill for Boldness in Business 2015 special report

Ashish Thakkar is wearing large sunglasses as he swings open the doors to his 73rd floor penthouse in Dubai’s financial district. Casually turned out as if he were in Silicon Valley, the African-Indian entrepreneur apologises for any suggestion of affectation — the dark glasses are to protect his eyes after corrective eye surgery.

The spacious apartment is buzzing: besuited executives are holding meetings in side-rooms with views across Dubai’s skyline. In the kitchen, cooks are flipping rotis. Thakkar’s home acts as a spill-over office for Atlas Mara, his joint venture with veteran banker Bob Diamond that hopes to transform African financial services.

Thakkar spends a considerable amount of time on the fledgling financial services business, but while criss-crossing continents he also wears his original hat as founder of conglomerate Mara Group.

Spanning property, manufacturing and agriculture, the group has grown from being a computer-importing business, which he founded in 1996 with a $5,000 loan. Ebulliently positive about the outlook for Africa, Mara’s latest focus has been property development. It is building hotels, malls and service apartments in, among other places, Tanzania and Uganda.

Like many emerging markets, that for retail and commercial property is expanding with the continent’s boom. Thakkar points out that Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, with around 20m residents, only has two shopping malls.

For all the optimism about Africa’s economic opportunities, infrastructure continues to drag. The World Bank estimates infrastructure bottlenecks are damping private sector productivity by 40 per cent, putting the problem on a par with corruption, crime and red tape.

Mara will soon unveil a partnership with a global multinational for a large venture to invest in infrastructure across sub-Saharan and north Africa. Seeking to take advantage of Thakkar’s government contacts, the joint venture will invest in new and existing projects with a focus on power generation.

Africa is particularly underserved in power generation. Consumption is a tenth of that of the developing world, according to the World Bank. The 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa generate the same amount of power as Spain.

Another new venture hopes to capitalise on growing interest in online shopping with the launch of an ecommerce platform across 25 countries, based in Kenya. The platform plans to combine business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer interfaces, although it will face typical problems of logistics and regulatory disharmony across the continent.


Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, with 20m residents has only two shopping malls

Thakkar believes Mara’s personal touch and local knowledge will help overcome obstacles. His own charm was on show at an African investment conference organised in Dubai last October, where he glided round a room filled with politicians and businessmen from across the continent, and Gulf investors seeking opportunities there.

Attendees crowded around. “I managed to hug three ministers from three countries,” he says.

Mara Group’s Dubai connection is a key one. African buyers sought to gain a foothold on the commercial entrepôt’s property ladder after the crash of 2008. Today the market has recovered most of its losses and Africans are an even greater presence in the mix of nationalities that make up Dubai’s diverse expatriate population.

Dubai’s wholesale markets for household goods and machinery continue to draw in African traders. Chinese companies, seeking to exploit natural resources in Africa or carry out contracting work, have set up Dubai bases as bridgeheads for sub-Saharan Africa. Dubai’s government, seeking to bolster its position as a business hub for the continent, has long hosted African leaders in its glitzy hotels.

Large Dubai family-owned groups have for years been investing in the continent, especially eastern Africa. The Dubai chamber of commerce is opening offices across the continent to help Gulf investors take advantage of the rising trade flows.

“The government of Dubai is passionate about Africa,” says Thakkar, noting that it will be interesting to watch the growth of UAE interest in the countries of the continent.

As for the Atlas Mara venture, it raised more than $600m from a London initial public offering in 2013 and a further tapping of the market in 2014. It has been putting the money to work, acquiring pan-African group BancABC, the commercial unit of the Development Bank of Rwanda and a stake in Union Bank of Nigeria. “It’s been brilliant, considering we are only a year old,” says Thakkar.

He believes mobile banking services could unlock the future for finance on the continent. Thakkar sees the potential to exploit the mismatch between banking penetration of 11 per cent versus mobile phone usage of 80 per cent. “That’s why banking penetration is so low — mobile money is still driven by telecoms operators,” he says. “We can do a lot of innovation on that front.”

Using cloud services will reduce costs, says Thakkar, while the latest technologies could enhance the back-end capabilities of financial services companies. “We want to be the leading financial institution on the continent,” he says. “We want to be a truly positive disruptive force.”

Global financial expertise and first-hand knowledge should allow Atlas Mara to leapfrog the telecoms companies, he says. “The key is how to plug it in and make sense in a local manner with global standards.”

Atlas Mara is still hiring, mixing top names from global finance and those with African experience. Last year, John Vitalo, who worked under Diamond at Barclays in Africa and the Middle East came in as chief executive. Arina McDonald, formerly of South Africa’s Standard Bank, was hired as chief financial officer. In January Atlas took on Nigerian lawyer Beatrice Hamza Bassey from a firm in New York to be legal counsel.

The Mara Foundation, which promotes African entrepreneurship, is a key focus for Mara. It is launching a fund to help fledgling businesses in Africa gain access to capital.

Financial institutions are holding back development across the continent, Thakkar says. African banks take deposits and put them in high-interest accounts, a common malady in developing economies. “I have been on the receiving side of these financial services,” he says. “Banks take deposits and pour them into treasury bills — they don’t lend.”

Mara Group’s vision — as personified by its founder — for the continent and reform is imbued with a sense of evangelism. The 33-year-old, who is single, regularly meets his spiritual leader, Morari Bapu, a Hindu preacher, who has been part of Thakkar’s life since he first met him as a child at his parents’ former home in Leicester in the UK. The Thakkar family plied the rag trade in the UK fleeing Uganda in the 1970s, when Idi Amin, the country’s president, expelled Asians.

Thakkar brushes aside thoughts that Atlas Mara — given Diamond’s investment banking background at Barclays — could undermine spiritual messages of “love and compassion”. He believes disruptive change in Africa’s financial industry can transform banks into wealth-creating machines delivering growth in, crucially, small and medium-sized enterprise.

“We are about doing good and well at the same time,” he says.

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