Ashish Thakkar and the Mara Group Take a flying leap at becoming the Skype Facebook, Google Talk of Africa

Ashish Thakkar is a big believer in sub-Saharan Africa  and he thinks Silicon Valley should become a big believer, too.

“It’s time for Africa,” says Thakkar, who I first wrote about in August.  And he really means it.

Thakkar, 31, who’s known as the continent’s youngest billionaire, is planning an aerial assault on the valley during the annual TiEcon summit on Saturday. He’ll present his message to the digital decision-makers gathered at the venerable networking event in a very analog way: A small plane pulling a banner with the message and the logo for his conglomerate, the Mara Group.

“We’ll fly over Google for an hour, over Facebook for an hour and over the rest of the valley for four hours,” says Thakkar, who’s here to speak and TiEcon and talk up VCs on his latest social media play.

Here’s Thakkar talking about his colorful mobile (hey, planes are mobile) advertising idea:

The plane-and-banner move sounds like one of those childish “in your face” stunts from a guy who is about to move into Internet phone service, instant messaging and social networking through his division. (One of Forbes Five Hot African Startups to watch in 2013.)

But sit down with Thakkar for coffee, as I did Thursday, and it’s hard not to believe that he is sincerely dedicated to making life better in Africa while also launching successful business operations.

“It will be for creating that African brand,” he says of the stunt. It says, “we’re coming. We have the ability.”

Thakkar is all about Africa. Yes, he runs a multifaceted business with its hands in manufacturing, IT consulting and call centers in 18 African countries. But his is also the co-founder with his wife, Meera Ashish, of the Mara Foundation, an Africa-based nonprofit that offers in-person and on-line mentoring to young African entrepreneurs.

A self-made business success himself (he started his business in Uganda at 15 by selling computers that he cobbled together from component parts), Thakkar says boy billionaire is one of his least favorite titles. (Billionaire? Millionaire? Who’s counting?)

“The fact that wealth should be a measure of anything is the worst thing. I’d rather be known as a disrupter,” says Thakkar, adding that he wants the young entrepreneurs to think of business as a way to build their countries, not just as a way to make money. “The last thing I wanted to do is show them that that would be a measurement of success.”

Thakkar talked about the issue with CNN here.

The truth is, Thakkar says, his latest push to become the Skype, Google Talk and Facebook/ of Africa comes with an ulterior motive. The nonprofit Mara Foundation will benefit from any future exit move — an acquisition or IPO.

Here’s a quick video of Thakkar talking about’s latest initiatives:

Thakkar says Mara branded online products — the services he’s launching this week will go by the names Mara Connect, Mara Messaging and Buzz Me — will have a special resonance in Africa.

“The beautiful thing about this is Mara is truly African,” says Thakkar, who grew up in Africa and has a home in Uganda. “Unlike Facebook and Google, Mara is ours and that’s why people are embracing it.”

Embracing the idea, perhaps. We’ve yet to see whether people will embrace the products that Thakkar is announcing this week. But after talking to him and feeling the energy he brings to the task, I wouldn’t bet against him.



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  • Panafricanist

    So truly African that he is going to Silicon Valley do announce it and chooses to live in Dubai with “a home in Uganda”?!

  • Ashish story is very inspiring!