By David Himbara
Often referred to as Africa’s youngest billionaire, Ashish Thakkar, a Ugandan businessman, charmed General Paul Kagame — and took Rwanda by storm from 2013 onwards. Kagame soon made Thakkar an advisor and a member of his Presidential Advisory Council. Kagame then handed over to Thakkar and his partner, Bob Diamond, significant Rwandan public assets. The Rwandan ruler transferred part of Rwanda Development Bank (BRD) and Banque Populaire du Rwanda (BPR) to the Atlas Mara group owned by Thakkar and Diamond. The trio — Kagame, Thakkar, and Diamond — were now part of the Davos elite who shared the global stage broadcasting stories of transformative banking and ending poverty in Rwanda.
Thakkar then begun to reward Kagame with what the Rwandan ruler loves most — praises and medals.
- In 2014, Thakkar nominated Kagame to the World Entrepreneurship Forum (WEF) for the ‘Policy Maker’ for the 2014 awards. When WEF refused, Thakkar angrily returned the award he himself had received for young entrepreneurship to show solidarity with his newly-found friend, Kagame.
- In 2015, Thakkar described Rwanda as Africa’s ICT Silicon Savannah in his book The Lion Awakes.
- In 2016, Thakkar awarded Kagame’s Rwanda his “Ashish J. Thakkar Global Entrepreneurship Index” for being the most lucrative place for doing business in Africa.
By February 2017, however, the Kagame-Thakkar romance had run into serious trouble. It turned out Thakkar was only half a millionaire — further, his businesses disintegrated. The Wall Street Journal’s article, ”Africa’s Youngest ’Billionaire’ Is Less Successful Than He Seems,” described Thakkar as follows:
”It came as a surprise to a U.S. investment company checking on a Mara Group e-commerce startup to find that Mr. Thakkar didn’t own a stake in the new business, or in its parent company, which is based in the world’s tallest building in Dubai. Further checking showed that various projects he had publicized hadn’t made it off the ground, and most of 11,000 people he has said the company employs in 25 African countries don’t work directly for Mara…Mr. Thakkar told the divorce court last year he doesn’t own Mara Group and his personal assets are worth less than $600,000…Mr. Thakkar and Mara Group, similarly, have hit a rough patch. Atlas Mara Ltd., the African banking group Mr. Thakkar co-founded with Mr. Diamond, lost 78% of its stock-market value in three years.”
In order to revive Atlas Mara, Thakkar was removed from the board in 2017.
Kagame-Thakkar romance has re-emerged via the mobile phone
Fast forward to October 8, 2019. Kagame launched Thakkar’s US$24 million plant that is to manufacture 1,200 mobile phones for a day. Kagame who put the current smartphone usage in Rwanda at 15 percent, said that made-in-Rwanda manufacturing is taking off. Let us hope that the Kagame-Thakkar romance will bring better results in the telephone sector than in the banking sector.