When United States President Barack Obama led some of the world’s most influential individuals to Kenya for the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), there was no shortage of inspirational figures in the world of business.
Among them was Mr Ashish Thakkar, 35, a Ugandan who has often been described as Africa’s youngest billionaire. The Dubai-based businessman, with a long list of invitations to conferences was not new to Kenya. His Mara Group, a pan-African investment organisation, already has local interests, including in Naivasha’s Buffalo mall.
While attending the GES, Mr Thakkar pledged to empower one million youth and women entrepreneurs in the East Africa Community by the year 2020. The Mara Foundation announced a mentorship programme that will encourage sharing of ideas and knowledge between East African entrepreneurs and experienced professionals across the world.
“For entrepreneurs at the start of their life, a real obstacle to growth is the fear of failure. The best way to overcome this fear is to access mentorship from real business experts who have gone through the same experiences,” he said.
His story is one of rising from grass to grace. He is said to have narrowly escaped the genocide in Rwanda before he dropped out of school to start a business at the age of 15 to become a dollar billionaire years later.
But an ongoing divorce case in London with his wife Meera Manek has exposed details that have left questions on the famed businessman’s wealth. In the court case, Mr Thakkar claims he only has only about Sh54 million to his name, way below the billionaire tag that has made him a star attraction and inspirational figure across Africa.
His wife disputes the figure: “Mr Thakkar is of no mean achiever. He is, for example, chairman of the United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council. Three years ago he was appointed to the advisory board of technology company Dell and became the first African to be named in Fortune magazine’s annual 40 under 40 list, with total assets said to be in excess of $1bn (Sh100 billion) and employees across 21 African countries”.
He is said to have begun his entrepreneurial career in business at the age of 15 by borrowing a small loan from his parents to set up an IT company in Uganda. Within a year, he transitioned from a high school student to a full time entrepreneur.
Mara’s growth has seen the youthful entrepreneur selectively partner with multinationals and individuals including former chief executive of UK’s Barclays Bank Bob Diamond together with whom they to set up Atlas Mara, which is listed on London Stock Exchange.
Atlas Mara has bought BancABC, a medium-sized lender with operations in five African countries, and a second institution in Rwanda.
It solely offers loans to small and medium enterprises in a bid to help other entrepreneurs gain traction in Africa and internationally, while Mara’s foundation also supports young and female entrepreneurs. Thakkar’s success as one of the few African entrepreneurs to have penetrated a significant proportion of the continent saw him advise the Obama administration and be appointed a World Economic Forum Global Young Leader, after the recognition that the Mara Group had the potential to drive economic and social change in Africa, a region where local entrepreneurs have had only minor successes.
But the puzzle created by the divorce case has now left friend and foe scratching their heads. Is he hiding his wealth or is he less wealthier than he has claimed in the past?
Mr Thakkar himself told the court that he doesn’t own a stake in Mara Group, bringing the proceedings to a halt until his total wealth, including his offshore assets, can be assessed.
A Wall Street Journal investigation published earlier this month raised further questions on his various investments and projects. Mara’s investments and assets are worth about Sh3 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed court documents and filings and interviewed people related to the company and Mr Thakkar.
In addition, Atlas Mara also reportedly lost almost 80 per cent of its stock market value over the last three years.
Mr Thakkar told the paper that he never claimed to be a billionaire, and that the firm has always been owned by his mother and sister.
“Being the face of something doesn’t make you the owner of it,” he said.
There is, however, no doubt that the man considered to be among the richest in East Africa lives large, with his social media posts updating followers on his travels, initiatives and extravagant spending like buying a Sh160 million ticket for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flight. The truth, it seems, is out there.