Ashish Thakar has his hands in so many pies. He is the promoter of the $300m Kingdom Mall, the Kensington apartments and Riley Packaging. Contributing Editor Paul Busharizi caught up with him at the Dubai headquarters of his company, Mara and spoke to him about his business and plans.
Q. What’s the progress on your Kingdom Kampala Mall?
A. We are now doing the first phase which should be done by this time next year. This some retail space, serviced apartments and parking for 1200 cars. We are deciding on what to build next of the hotel – which we are glad to say will be run by the Hotel Intercontinental chain who want to make this their flagship facility in the region, shopping malls and the conference center.
We reshaped the whole design. We needed to be more careful, we need to consider the externals, the traffic, the surroundings. The aim is to make it a destination not a place you go to on your way to someplace else. We drive our inspiration from Dubai, this is a destination not a transit point. We are determined to build a memorable structure.
We thinks as a conference center our central location will be a great advantage. Unfortunately people think they can get away with anything in Uganda, we hope that when we are done we will set the bar for quality facilities not only in Uganda but in the region.
We want to empower people by transfer of technology so we have brought in experts on site who have done this often and around the world and understand our vision, they are working with Ugandan engineers, architects and designers to bring local context to the structure and learn something as well.
Q. You think there is space for one more mall in Kampala?
A.I think many of Ugandans travel abroad and they understand and appreciate quality and if they have it locally they will come, so there is definitely a market. The reason people shop outside because they are not getting what they want locally, this will change things. But in addition the conference guests are going to mean a few hundred more visitors and clients to our facility so yes the project is definitely viable. You don’t put down $300m solely on a whim.
Q. Given the investment don’t you think government should be doing more in terms of marketing the country abroad?
A. It’s a chicken and egg situation . If you don’t have the conference facilities to boast of then what do you market? As Mara we have developed a CD promoting Uganda. Its very well done and we want to pitch it to the CAA, that they have all airlines flying into Uganda showing that CD on Uganda, they do it here in Dubai why not at home? And it will cost nothing to them.
Beyond that there has to be a determined effort to come together by the public and private sector, it’s a two way street we need to do things with a long term view and then they can tick.
Q. We hear of political risk inour part of the world, dissuading would be investors, what is your take?
A. I think this perception is hyped unnecessarily. I obviously have a different perception I understand the people, I have been there and worked there and its not just me my father is even called Kakooza.
I have also found that African governments trust African businessmen. I am not going to come around and do a shoddy job, when I say I will do something I do it, I have too much invested beyond the money – family, reputation, my home.
It nmakes sense though to spread your wings get some foreign investors in as well but you never know really, how do you know the man will not bust and just leave?
Q. Do you think governments are doing enough in attracting investment, creating jobs?
A.They simply are not doing enough. They still have this wrong idea that FDI will solve the employment issue, the answer is with the SMEs. The big companies have to be competitive so they are not going to have manual processes the are going to automate, so where are the jobs?
Q.You do some work with SMEs what are you learning?
A.We have been working with SMEs for a while now. The Mara Fund has been around for 12 years with it we help with incubation and mentorship and in a limited way we provide venture capital , small sums of $5,000 to $10,000. IN June we plan to launch Mara Women and we will have Graca Machel as our global ambassador.
There is amazing energy wherever we have been. There is real fire in the belly, a desire to succeed. Seventy percent say there most immediate need is advise not money, they want mentors and more especially international mentors. They want to play in a bigger league which is really great.
We have created a mentorship platform mara.com that will go online in the next few weeks and later we intend take it on mobile – Blackberry and Nokia afterwards.
Q. What is the extent o f your interest on the continent? What are you looking to invest in?
A. We are present in 17 countries on the continent but we are very selective in the projects we get into. They have to have a pan African element, we are not interested in companies that want to operate in one country, it has to be a game changer – either it does something new or does existing things much better than existing models, it has to have a social impact and it is branded Mara.
Q. Last word for our local businessmen who want to stretch out into the world?
A. Our businessmen need to travel at several times a year and not just to do their businesses but to actually learn how things work in this countries. As it is now they are too conservative and they think if it has worked like it has all this time why change it and they continue to play in their small pond. There are no limits to where you can play or what you can achieve.
ASHISH THAKAR ON ….
“I was at Hillside Bunamwaya I dropped out in second term , senior three…. I had a discussion with my parents I said this is what I am going to do anyway why wait. Thankfully they were supportive and the rest as they say is history…”
“There are no boundaries with what we can do. We want to build Mara into a global brand one of the first out of the continent and why not? What is stopping our businessmen from thinking the same way? Nothing.”
“There is amazing energy, a real fire in the belly a desire to succeed among the youth that has surprised even me wherever I have gone in Africa…. 70% say they want advice n ot money, which is great. They want mentors, international mentors … they want to play on a larger stage.”
LIVING IN HIS 90TH FLOOR APPARTMENT IN THE WORLD’S TALLEST BUILDING, THE BURJ KHALIFA
“If I had a fear of heights I would not be going into space”
RETURNING TO SCHOOL
“I have just done a ten-day executive programme at Harvard, we did it with people from 34 different countries… It helps you stretch your boundaries, the limits of your thinking … and now my friends are jealous I got the famous email address in 10 days what it took them to get in four years.”
HIS TRANSITION TO GLOBAL BUSINESSMAN
“I needed to expand my computer hardware business but the Dubai suppliers would not give me credit because my business was not based here. So I registered a company and started getting credit. I discovered other African businessmen were having the same challenge and unlike me could not move to Dubai so I offered to give them credit and now I have a presence in 17 countries on the continent.”