Gaurav Dhar, a tech investor and second generation fintech entrepreneur in Dubai, has a keen eye on the sector in Africa, saying the continent will see larger and larger funds coming into enabling environments–and there are also some key lessons from the Middle East.
“THE CONTINENT OF AFRICA HAS ITS OWN PATH OF ADOPTION FOR TECHNOLOGY, INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE DIFFERENT ECONOMIES… THERE IS HUGE POTENTIAL BUT THE UNLOCKING OF IT HAS TAKEN DIFFERENT TRAJECTORIES…”
At the Dubai Fintech Summit in May, Gaurav Dhar is outside the lavish Madinat Jumeirah hotel where the event is being held, walking out of the venue into the afternoon sun in a dapper blue suit. Like the weather by this chic coastal property, he is warm and welcoming, referring to our chat a few weeks earlier.
As the Group CEO of Marshal Fintech Partners, these are the events you will typically find him at in the spiffy Middle Eastern emirate, those that focus on investments, fintechs, startups, venture capital, entrepreneurship and innovation.
Just like Dubai, the city he was born and raised in, his specialties too are as dynamic and diverse.
Like any third generation expatriate, Dhar says he has a great sense of pride locating his activities out of the glistening emirate, yet doing business for the world, even for Africa.
“I consider myself an ambassador of the UAE. I have Indian roots, but for all intents and purposes, I consider myself an honorary Emirati. Because there is this pride when you [have been] part of the story of building this country in some way, shape or form.” Dhar’s grandfather came to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the early 1970s to become the General Manager of General Motors, when the country had just been carved out as seven emirates from its hitherto existence as the Trucial States.
Dubai was still a dusty city being developed around a port, bringing in tidings and tidy profits from the sea.
“The UAE was its own little paradise, and now is this behemoth global player… Our business evolved along with the country–it was a very side-by-side story,” says Dhar about how after his grandfather, his father, Anil, too followed in the late 1970s and took to “the landscape that was fresh, exciting, mixed and new”.
He worked at Unilever and Texas Instruments before “manifesting his own destiny” and deciding to go his own, turning around an office furniture and supplies company, slowly implementing it also as a technology-focused enterprise, incorporating typewriters, photocopiers and fax machines, as more and more businesses in the region started looking for ways to formalize and store work.
“My father wanted to follow the next trend…and understand the space where again, he could control his own destiny, as opposed to waiting for Xerox or Microsoft to tell him what to do, how to build or what his revenue could be,” recalls Dhar. Called Marshal Equipment and Trading LLC, the company started in the UAE, expanding across the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Africa. “It has been profit-generating for over 35 years and consistently growing,” says Dhar, speaking from his new office on Dubai’s ritzy Sheikh Zayed Road, also home to the almost-kilometer-long Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower. When his father started his business, it was in a small office in Deira–a historic district bursting with character, old forts, wind towers, the legendary Clock Tower and the shimmering waters of the creek.
As a curious child growing up in this space, watching the business evolve, Dhar’s answer to questions while studying at Doon School in India was always that the family was in “payments technology”. His mind was already on the job.
The business grew from one country to another and so did the public penchant for payments technology slowly gaining currency in the boardrooms and bourses of Dubai as “people also started understanding the blocks that make up the fintech system”.
When Dhar–who studied law at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and calls himself “a second generation fintech entrepreneur”–first started exploring fintech, it also took a little convincing to get Dhar’s dad, who is 70 this year, to get on board.
“When we started talking in 2015 about the concept of nonprofit generating companies that are pure valuation-based, you can imagine his reaction, as a businessman, it was initially to say this is not going to fly, this is not going to work as a concept, because it’s very easy to spend money, but it’s very difficult to make money.”
Dhar started spending time in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India and other places to understand more of what was happening in the “high-risk, high-return, high-failure-rate” venture capital space in this regard.
About seven years ago, Dhar, in his personal capacity, started investing in fintech in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the United States, and three years ago, the company’s name changed to Marshal Fintech Partners–as it got acquired by a sovereign wealth fund in the Middle East.
With over 19 years of experience under his belt in various aspects of business, Dhar now has a well entrenched interest in fintech ecosystems and solutions.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of this evolution, where the ecosystem from a startup or investing point of view has started maturing and we were part of that as it started again…
“If I were to have an intellectual conversation in detail about payments technology with my father, he is extremely wellequipped, because he was there as it was being written, assembled, and literally adopted by all parts of the ecosystem in the Middle East, so he’s extremely capable,” smiles Dhar.
The business growth has been organic, as the entire ecosystem works mutually on codependency and reciprocal relationships from a technology, landscape, business and venture capital perspective. Along the evolution journey, through these collaborative interactions, Dhar says he has also formed networks and friends with “tangible value exchange” and “a genuine desire” to drive economic growth and create job opportunities in the Middle East and Africa.
The Middle East has historical ties with Africa, and Dhar continues to build connections on the continent, often featuring founders of African fintechs and Web3 startups on the podcast series (on Spotify, Apple, YouTube) he hosts every week. “The continent of Africa has its own path of adoption for technology, infrastructure and the different economies… there is huge potential but the unlocking of it has taken different trajectories…
“Let’s not forget that the Middle East has a lot of sovereign wealth, and they have been engaging in investing internationally for decades…So along with that wealth comes access to knowledge, learning, and exposure, so it has been much faster.
“I think the African continent again has it in pockets, but it’s not been [able to] move that timeline faster to have the whole continent benefiting from the influx of capital. So these are very separate ecosystems with different outcomes,” he says.
But there is no doubt there are massive opportunities and synergies between both regions.
“What you’re going to see is larger and larger funds in Africa, either pooled from Europe, or within Africa itself. Entrepreneurship still needs funding and fueling.”
“Whoever is going to be the most-friendly regulator is going to win, then the most-friendly telco operator is going to gain massively; and then the third is with the government allowing people to understand subsidized ecosystems to spark long-term talent staying in those ecosystems, and the understanding of educating properly what is happening in that ecosystem.” Effective partnerships between the government and the private sector is one thing the Middle East has done extremely well, he adds.
“They have written the playbook for this essentially–the marriage between the government or the federal ecosystem and the private sector has been very close. They talk to each other and push each other to do bigger and better things. And one of these things in the UAE is the venture capital space. And that perhaps is something that needs to happen more in Africa.”
Also a board member of the MENA FinTech Association, a trip to Africa is on the cards soon, but when Dhar is not spending his time on advisory boards and “giving back” to the entrepreneurial community, he dabbles in his other interests: F&B, collecting vintage cars and hosting vintage car rallies every year, where all roads eventually lead to Dubai.