Five Tips To Help You Succeed In African Business From Ashish J. Thakkar – The Ugandan Venture Capitalist
Forbes Africa — At 31, Ashish J. Thakkar is one of the wealthiest, most successful entrepreneurs of Ugandan origin. He is the founder and CEO of the Mara Group, a conglomerate with tentacles in everything from Real Estate and tourism to financial services, information and communications technology, agriculture, BPO services, renewable energy and manufacturing.
The group’s operations span 16 countries in four continents, including Asia, and he employs over 6,000 people. As a successful global entrepreneur and native son of Africa, Ashish has learned quite a bit over the past decade and a half since he started his first business at age 15 selling computers. (Go here to read a detailed interview with Ashish J. Thakkar).
I recently caught up with him in Kampala. I asked him for 5 tips for succeeding in business in Africa. Here’s what he told me, in his own words:
1. H.I.T. The Ground Running. Establishing a thriving business in Africa depends on your honesty, integrity and truth – hence, getting off to the right start you must H.I.T. the ground running. Honesty, integrity and truth must be the bedrock of your corporate values, work ethic and all business operations. Africans are very keen on honest business people who operate with integrity and tell their clients and employees the truth, even when it is difficult.
Despite the media’s overarching view that African leaders, businesses and citizenry are wrought with corruption, I believe that Africans expect and deserve transparency and truth. I know that my success as an entrepreneur is because of my core spiritual premise of truth. Personally, I know for sure that honesty is indeed not only the best policy; but, it is the only way for long term customer and business partnership loyalty, profitability and success.
2. Don’t Blend In – Blend Out. I heard this phrase uttered from a young African girl. She said that instead of blending in with everyone, one should “blend out” and be a unique individual. I thought to myself – this is brilliant because I lead my business team to embrace the unconventional. All of my business success in Africa is because I have taken traditional perception and turned it on its head. When I think about the strategies, products and services inherent to our business, my team does not strive to do “business as usual”. Instead, we find innovative, intuitive and inconceivable ways to gain an edge while also ensuring that our competitive advantage is sustainable.
We also embrace controversial ideas at a time when most businesses are trying to avoid controversy, we leverage them. We explore ways to blend out – not only for the sake of being different but for the fact that we know we can deliver a superior service, product and idea to our clients. To succeed in business in Africa, here’s my advice: when you see everyone going east…find out what’s going on in the west…that may be your door to success!
3. Dream Big But Don’t Hit The Snooze Button. Oftentimes, I am privy to many business leaders’ conversations about grandiose plans they intend to do. They dream big but instead of executing the dreams with small practical steps, they hit the snooze button. I want to say to them, “wake up and get it done!” Talk is cheap and dreams are only as good as the strategy and resources that you put behind them to make it all happen. My business success in Africa was not an overnight sensation or a one hit wonder! Just the opposite, it is the culmination of dreaming big dreams, daily strategic execution, hardcore teamwork and a pragmatic “hands on” approach.
I remember in the early days, when one of my corrugated box plants in East Africa was 24 hours away from delivering one of our largest orders to date. The machine operator was out ill and no one else who knew how to operate this piece of equipment, yet the order of corrugated boxes still needed to be fulfilled. So as the CEO, I sat and read the manual and taught myself how to use the machine. And needless to say, within 24 hours I was able to help my team fulfill this order in time to deliver to our client on time. We increased our business load and revamped our strategy shortly thereafter. Execution is the key. In Africa, you must be willing to take the bull by its horns and make things happen…even when it is not in your traditional job description. Just get it done…on time…no excuses!
4. Go To The S.P.A. Growing operations in Africa will require the business to consistently reinvent itself; and more often than not, reinvention must include a S.P.A. (Strategic Partnership Agreement). Strategic partnerships are like marriages, they are easier to get into than to get out of – so choosing the right partners and signing the right agreements are vital. Vetting partners should not be a quick process – instead you should start by wooing a partner and dating them for a while before signing on the dotted line.
Great partnerships can help your business hedge risks, expand exponentially, enter into challenging markets, navigate around landmines and most of all provide more stability to your bottom line. The agreements that you and partner enter into will determine whether a partnership is successful marriage or a down right failure that ends in divorce. The Mara Group has had its share of fantastic partnership agreements and also those which didn’t work out so well. Overall, our success and growth in Africa has been contingent on well executed partnership agreements whereby we and our partners believed it was of mutual benefit.
5. Find A Mentor. Be A Mentor. Mentorship is essential in business. Personally, professionally and spiritually I have mentors who helped to guide me as a business leader and successful entrepreneur. I am so passionate about entrepreneurship mentorship that it was the impetus for the launch of the current mission of the Mara Foundation. We provide support for young African entrepreneurs. As a successful entrepreneur, my work and legacy will be for naught if I do not serve as mentor to emerging African entrepreneurs who are following in my footsteps. My business success was due to great mentors opening doors, rendering advice and encouraging me when the chips were down.
Finding the right mentor is difficult but when you find the right person who sincerely wants to see you succeed – with no hidden agenda – it is a diamond in the rough. I always advise young (and older) business people to find a mentor and then when they reach a level of success – to become a mentor. There is an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast…go alone. If you want to go far…go together.” My 16-year journey as a successful entrepreneur has not been picture perfect or meteoric; but, it has been purposefully fraught with hard work and innovative ideas. Every day, I forge my journey with great mentors who continue to walk this uphill windy road with me. It is my hope to walk along with other African entrepreneurs as their mentor because I believe passionately that Africa has a bright future of innovation, prosperity and global relevance.