An African tycoon who could bring back Bob Diamond's sparkle


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The Independent Online

Bob Diamond, the disgraced former chief executive of Barclays, may have been the name who drew London investors to his new company aiming to buy banks in Africa, but it is his 32-year-old Ugandan business partner, Ashish Thakkar, who will be providing the all-important contacts.

Yesterday the company, Atlas Mara, launched on the London Stock Exchange, raising $325m (£200m) and seeing its shares leap from their opening price of $10 to $10.90 in conditional dealing.

But money is not much of an issue for Mr Thakkar, who is already one of the richest men in the world, having built up an empire reputedly worth $1bn with businesses across Africa. His interests range from telecoms to property to financial services. Young, rich and famous, it's little surprise that Forbes magazine last year declared that he had achieved "rock star status".

Prior to his birth, his parents had fled Idi Amin's Uganda for the UK, where Mr Thakkar started school before the family decided to move to Rwanda when he was 14. Shortly after they arrived, the Rwandan genocide began and the family had to drop everything and flee again, penniless, ending up back in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

At the age of 14, he sold his computer to a family friend at a $100 mark-up to its actual value and got the trading bug. He started selling computers to his schoolmates and, at 15, set up a small shop with a $6,000 loan during the summer holidays. The business did so well, so quickly, that he never returned to school.

Later that year, having flown a few times to Dubai to fill his suitcase with IT equipment he could trade back home, he realised many other Africans were doing exactly the same thing. "I thought," he told a magazine recently, "why don't I set up a base here to help them?" Still only 15, he opened an office in Dubai exporting computing gear to African countries. It is now reputedly the biggest IT company on the whole continent, and Dubai is where he now calls home.

Mr Diamond's decision to team up with him could open doors that would otherwise be closed to him in the region. Mr Thakkar has said governments on the continent "are really favouring African businesses over foreign businesses, and that is a huge edge for us".

Mr Thakkar has partnered on this project with Mr Diamond's New York-based Atlas Merchant Capital. They have invested $4m and $16m respectively.

Unlike with other similar acquisition vehicles, like Nat Rothschild's Bumi and Tony Hayward's Vallares, the two major investors will bear all the costs of setting up the business and doing the first deal.

They will only get a return once they have completed a takeover and the share price stays above a pre-set target for more than 10 consecutive days. Even then they will be paid in shares.

Mr Thakkar says he was inspired by Sir Richard Branson, and is possibly the only African to have paid his $200,000 for Virgin Galactic's first flight to Space.