Predictions 2017: Mara Group & Mara Foundation founder Ashish J Thakkar

Thakkar says addressing Africa’s infrastructure needs could be a big opportunity for the company in the year ahead

2016 has been a monumental year for Mara Group and Mara Foundation. Not only have we launched a number of exciting new business ventures and foundation initiatives, 2016 also marks the 20th anniversary of the group – a significant milestone in our history.

What started as a journey of a family’s survival 20 years ago, has led to a voyage of discovery and the evolution of a business that we refer to today as ‘Mara’. Like many start-ups, we have faced an abundance of challenges along the way and understand that our failures, along with our successes, are a fundamental tenet of our growth. Doing good whilst doing well is a motto that is now ingrained in our psyche and will continue to serve as a solid foundation for our work in Africa for years to come.

While we can’t ignore the challenges Africa has faced in recent months, including the dip in commodity prices, economic slowdown in China and rising pockets of political instability in the Horn and Southern Africa, etc, our passion and vision for the business opportunity on the continent remains as bold and optimistic as it was when we started our journey 20 years ago.

This year alone, we have launched three new businesses with footprints spanning the Middle East and Africa region: an infrastructure investment vehicle for Africa, formed via a joint venture with Mara, General Electric and Atlas Merchant Capital; an online jobs portal, Mara Jobs, set up to connect blue and white collar workers in Africa to part and full-time work opportunities; and a last-mile delivery business, Mara Xpress, servicing the growing e-commerce markets of the Middle East, soon to expand into Africa. What this clearly demonstrates is that despite recent economic, political and infrastructural challenges, we remain confident in the long-term prospects of the African and Middle East economies, as do our partners and investors.

Beyond our core commercial activities, at the end of last year, our social enterprise, Mara Foundation, also launched the inaugural Ashish J Thakkar Global Entrepreneurship Index 2016 to better understand entrepreneurial environments around the world. What became clear from our study of the African markets is that one of the principal barriers facing Africa’s economies and entrepreneurs is the lack of infrastructure. Around 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are currently without electricity access – 70 per cent of the population – and 50 per cent of businesses in sub-Saharan Africa view a lack of reliable electricity access as a major constraint to doing business. As a result, Africa’s businesses, and especially entrepreneurs are limited in their capacity to succeed and grow.

But with this challenge comes opportunity – an opportunity to provide a regular, reliable supply of electricity to enable large, medium and micro businesses to thrive. This is something we are looking to address through our infrastructure vehicle.

As we look to the year ahead and, indeed, the next 20 years, our commercial focus will very much remain in Africa and the Middle East and our foundation will continue to support young and female entrepreneurs around the world mentorship and advocacy.

This is a pivotal and exciting time in our history where our physical, digital and biological worlds are colliding. Africa has shown us before and they will show us again how they can leapfrog the bad habits of the West and truly lead on the digital revolution. This, along with the infrastructure challenge, will be key to Africa’s success.