I may not have had a conventional childhood but I believe that is why I am who I am today. I’ve always been passionate and driven, and I’ve always dreamed big dreams, but at the age of 13, living in Rwanda in the middle of a genocide, I never imagined I would one day be running a multi-sector business with operations in 19 African countries.
In 1890, my father’s great-grandparents left India and sailed for 45 days looking for trading opportunities. They ended up in Uganda. In 1920, my mother’s great-grandparents left India, also sailing for 45 days. They ended up in Tanzania. My parents met when my mother was visiting Kampala from Mwanza. They were introduced by my mother’s elder sister. It was love at first sight. After my parents got married they lived in Kenya for a few years before moving back to Uganda. In 1972, the brutal dictator Idi Amin expelled all expatriates from Uganda – my parents among them. Having lost everything, they moved to England where my father got a job in the Ford factory and my mother in the Walkers factory. Working hard and saving diligently, they built up a small amount of capital, established a small business selling ladies fashions at various markets, and bought a modest home. In 1993, they decided to return to Africa, this time to Rwanda, so they sold both the house and the business.
On 4 April 1994 – just nine months later – the Rwandan genocide started. My parents, my sister and myself became refugees for three weeks. We moved from our house to Hotel Rwanda, and finally to the French school. The world in 1994 was not nearly as connected as it is today, but amazingly my eldest sister, my grandmother and the rest of my family in England found out we were alive when they saw us in CNN footage, filmed at the French school, two weeks into the genocide. We finally made it to Kenya but with only our lives. Everything my parents had built from 1972 to 1993 vanished during that horrible period. I think back on my father, who managed to entertain my mother, my sister and me by playing games and acting chirpy, as if everything was fine, and I realise how strong he had to be for us.
When we finally resettled in Uganda, I watched my parents struggle to rebuild. I could see that people kept their distance from us, afraid that we might ask for help or favours if they became too close. I wanted and needed to do something about it.
At the time, I was passionate about computers, my parents somehow in all the chaos having managed to buy me a new machine. One night, when one of my father’s friends came for dinner, he saw the computer and asked what I had paid for it. I told him the price but added $100 more than what we had actually paid for it. He asked how many I had and I told him two. When he asked about my plans for the second one, I said I was selling it. He asked me to deliver the computer to him the next day. While the adults enjoyed their dinner, I deleted the files from my computer and returned it to the packaging. Obviously, I didn’t have a second one. At first I was afraid that my father would tell me off, but he only laughed. As promised, I delivered the computer the following day after school, making a quick and tidy profit of $100. At that moment I said to myself, “Wow! This is doable.”
When my summer holidays came, I told my father I wanted to set up a small shop that I would shut down before I returned to school. In 1996, at the age of 15, I took a $5,500 loan. I spent half of the money setting up a small shop, paying the first month’s rent, buying furniture, and a plane ticket to Dubai. I took the rest of the money with me to Dubai and filled my suitcase with hard drives, processors and motherboards, and then returned home to Uganda. I sold the goods from Monday to Friday, returning to Dubai when my stock ran out. Each week I shuttled back and forth, building my business. When the summer holidays ended I didn’t tell my parents. I was just getting started and I loved it!
After a week or my parents realised I hadn’t started school. We sat down as a family and I said, “If you want me to study and go through the whole cycle, I will do it for formality purposes but I’m going to end up doing this anyway. So I would really appreciate it if you’d let me start now.” My father is a pretty unconventional person and he said that I could try it on my own for one year. I had to promise to return to school and start a year below my class and my friends if it did not work. The choice was easy!
I continued travelling to and from Dubai for about four months before asking my suppliers to grant me credit. They were hesitant because I was from Africa. At that same time there were many Africans doing what I was doing and I managed to make contact with a few of them to ask how they had obtained credit. They said they couldn’t, simply because nobody trusted them. Someone advised me to set up a shop in Dubai and give post-dated cheques, which would allow me obtain credit. I decided to give it a try and established a small business in Dubai, signing post-dated cheques and finally receiving credit. I approached the other Africans I saw in Dubai every weekend, also travelling to and fro with their suitcases, and offered to extend credit to them if they could guarantee me that they would pay it back. I told each of them that I first wanted to visit their homes, stay for a night or two, look them in the eyes and then make them promise. So there I was, at the age of 15, travelling to Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, DRC, and South Africa, staying in these fellow Africans’ homes, going to work with them in the morning, breaking bread with them in the evening, and making them promise to repay me on time. This is how I started. I obtained 45 days of credit with post-dated cheques and dispensed 21 to 30 days of credit. I took an enormous risk trusting these individuals. If they did not pay on time, I would have landed in serious trouble. A bounced check in Dubai sends you straight to jail. It is a very serious criminal offence. Luckily for me, not a single one of my debtors ever defaulted!
Sixteen years later, my company, the Mara Group, is a multi-sector business with operations across four continents. People often ask for my secret but I really don’t have one. For me it was all about hard work and never giving up. I never believed the sky is the limit. We are going to space!
ADAPTED FROM VENTURES AFRICA
Written by Ugandan tycoon, Ashish J. Thakkar