Ashish J. Thakkar is the 34-year-old Executive Chairman and Founder of Mara Sokoni, a visionary entrepreneur, genocide survivor, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. In his book The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle (Palgrave; August 25, 2015), Ashish gives readers an intimate, on the ground view of Africa’s astonishing and unprecedented economic awakening.
The Lion Awakes strikes purposefully in an effort to educate the reader and shift the Western perception of Africa. In a conversation with the reader, Ashish talks through personal success stories of self-starters in the context of the economic and political climate of their respective markets. We follow the stories of businesses and entrepreneurs who are changing the face of the African economic landscape. We meet a new generation of ambitious, innovative, tech savvy young Africans who are developing everything from bamboo bicycles to iPhone Apps; we meet pioneering minds creating electricity from wind mills made of scrap metal and rubber; we meet artists, film makers and architects thriving with newfound freedom and opportunity; we are introduced to hyper-educated members of the diaspora who have returned to Africa after years, even generations, in Europe and the US to open companies and take up positions in government. Those who left once corrupted and war-plagued lands, have returned to invest in their now thriving homeland. They all tell the same story: 21st Century Africa offers them more opportunity than the First World.
But what does Ashish know about opportunity? A bit to say the least. From starting his first company at the age of 15 to founding the Mara Group, a globally recognized multi-sector group employing over 11,000 people in 25 different African countries through its investments and operations, Ashish has dedicated his life to seizing opportunity. Through his passion for enabling, empowering, and inspiring young entrepreneurs, he founded the Mara Foundation, an organization devoted to fostering and supporting African entrepreneurs through mentorship and venture philanthropy. Ashish has also been appointed as the new Chair of the United Nations Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Council (GEC), making him the first African entrepreneur to lead the Council. The GEC brings together leading entrepreneurs to work with the UN in finding innovative solutions to global issues.
One of the many significant innovations to come from Africa includes M-PESA, a mobile banking app that enables anyone the ability to transfer and deposit money through their mobile phones. The platform currently has 18 million regular users, including the president of Kenya. M-PESA sends a daily average of $50.6 million via 1.6 million transactions per day accounting for 30% of all financial transactions in Kenya. School fees, salaries, utility bills, retail purchase and bank transfers can all be accomplished using M-PESA, moving Kenya in the direction of becoming a cashless society.
Advancement has also come in other forms. In an effort to combat the horrific ethnic violence occurring across Kenya following a controversial election in January 2008, a group of entrepreneurs put together an emergency crowd-sourcing utility known as Ushahidi. The platform allowed anyone to instantly report incidents or threats of violence via e-mail, text, Twitter or the internet. These reports appeared on an interactive mapping system, allowing people to see potential danger zones. This encouraged people to avoid these violent hot spots, potentially saving hundreds of lives.
And while tragedy often dominates the headlines, Africa is now the world’s fastest growing continent, with an average GDP of 5.5% during the past 10 years and six of the ten world’s fastest-growing economies within its borders. The middle class has tripled in 30 years to 350 million, accounting for one third of the population. By 2040, Africa will have a larger workforce than China. The revelations continue. Such facts and figures conflict with deep-seated Western impressions of Africa. Ashish works to expel this investor ignorance and make a very clear point: Governments are changing, markets are expanding and opportunities are abundant in Africa.
As he travels from his ancestral home in Uganda, East Africa, to the booming democracies of West Africa, and down to the “Silicon Savannahs” of Kenya and Rwanda, Ashish shows us an Africa that few Westerners are aware exists. Far from being a place of war, poverty and oppression in need of our pity and aid, The Lion Awakes shows a continent undergoing a remarkable transformation, a place bursting with motivated entrepreneurs, a resource-rich economy and a rising middle class. Drawing from his business experience, and his own family’s history in Africa, which include his parents’ expulsion from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 70s and his own survival of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Ashish shows us how much difference a decade can make. These stories of growth, innovation, and opportunity bring life to what we might later come to know as the early chapters of Africa’s success.
The Lion Awakes examines the current state of the African economy, providing insight on what lies behind, but more importantly, ahead. By illustrating the successes of dedicated young African entrepreneurs and the foundational changes in the establishments which govern them, the book works towards a better understanding and re-framing the Western characterization of Africa. Ashish demonstrates his talent as an extraordinarily observant and driven individual, presenting a book that we can all learn a thing or two from. One of Ashish’s core values both in his personal life and business is the notion of doing good whilst doing well. He believes that if you genuinely do good through your business and have a positive social impact, your business will do well. Looking at his portfolio, it seems to be working.