Friday

Child refugee who built business empire


While many successful entrepreneurs have come from difficult backgrounds, few have faced the horrors that Ashish Thakkar and his family went through.

Mr Thakkar, who today is the founder and boss of the pan-African Mara Group conglomerate, was 12 years old when he and his parents and sister fled the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

After sheltering with more than 1,200 other terrified people at a hotel in Rwanda's capital (the one at the centre of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, the Hollywood movie about the genocide), they were able to get on a flight out of the country.

"Fortunately we came out alive," says Mr Thakkar, now 32. "But unfortunately my parents lost everything they'd built up between 1972 and 1993."

For his parents, it was the second time they had been forced to leave an East African country, as back in 1972 they were among the 50,000 people of South Asian descent who were expelled from neighbouring Uganda by its then ruler, the dictator Idi Amin.

They rebuilt their life in the UK, where Mr Thakkar was born and spent his early childhood, before moving to Rwanda two years before the genocide started.

After escaping Rwanda, the family settled once again in Uganda.

As a teenager living in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, Mr Thakkar decided to play his own part in rebuilding the family's fortunes by trying his luck in business.

Importation business

Aged 15, he sold his new computer to a family friend for a profit of $100 (£60).

Immediately realising that making money didn't have to be complicated or difficult, he then bought and sold a second computer.
 
He showed a natural acumen for commerce and his parents let him take out a $6,000 loan, with which Mr Thakkar started to import floppy disks and other computer products from Dubai.

As such goods were hard to buy in Uganda, he would fly to Dubai every weekend and bring back as many as he could carry. It was the beginning of today's Mara Group.

Mr Thakkar persuaded his parents to let him drop out of school and he widened the business. Instead of personally importing the IT hardware and selling it in Uganda, he opened an office in Dubai and started to sell to companies across Africa.

Since then the Mara Group has grown and diversified. It now has businesses as wide-ranging as telecoms infrastructure, packaging manufacture, hotels, conference centres and shopping malls, a paper mill, and thousands of acres of prime agricultural land.

It operates in 21 countries, mostly in Africa, and employs more than 8,000 people.

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