Unmasking secret lives of Kenyan billionaires in the betting industry

Monday July 22 2019

Kenya 7s coach Innocent Simiyu (left) SportPesa

Kenya 7s coach Innocent Simiyu (left) SportPesa CEO Ronald Karauri KRU boss Richard Omwela and Lionesses coach Kevin Wambua at Norfolk on November 22, 2016. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |  NATION MEDIA GROUP CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP, THE CITIZEN

By VINCENT ACHUKA

Kihingo Village in Nairobi’s upmarket Kitisuru estate is a step back to the pristine view that suddenly appears after a lonely drive on Peponi Road where horses occasionally compete for space with vehicles. Its rustic yet modern houses with brown exteriors give the gated estate a modern yet classical look that defines the epitome of luxurious living.

College dropout

Among those who call this estate where rents start from Sh500,000 per month and sell from Sh150 million upwards are a governor and wealthy businessmen.

Every morning, a famous tenant in the estate leaves in a black Range Rover Overfinch with customised number plates and a black chase car in tow.

The two cars which are easily noticeable on the Waiyaki Way traffic snake their way to Chancery Building on Valley Road which houses the headquarters of betting giant SportPesa.

If betting could be described as a way to riches the way gamblers perceive it, then SportPesa’s Chief Executive Officer Ronald Karauri is the poster boy of this wealth.

As other directors of betting firms in the multi-billion-dollar industry prefer to remain reclusive, Mr Karauri, who has grown SportPesa from an unknown entity to the global behemoth it is today, lets his flamboyance open for all to see.

His social media pages are photo albums of a man living a flamboyant life which a majority in the betting community can only dream of. After all, the son of the former Tigania MP Mathew Adams Karauri, who incidentally does not bet but has said in the past he plays poker once a month, has made big gambles in his life which all paid off.

“I am actually a college dropout. That is the only gap in my CV. Everybody knows I didn’t finish campus but you know in life sometimes that is where it takes you so long as you are successful,” he said during an interview with K24 TV in December 2017.

Mr Karauri dropped out of an engineering class at the University of Nairobi to try his luck at Kenya Airways and ended up as a pilot for 11 years. He tried his luck in the entertainment industry and was part of the ownership of the once popular Skyluxx Lounge in Westlands before quitting. He then sold off a piece of land he had bought for Sh2 million at a cool Sh25 million in order to buy shares in SportPesa which was just starting.

Organised crime

That was in 2014 and mobile phone betting was still unchartered territory. Apart from casinos, the only other widely accepted form of gambling then was the Kenya Charity Sweepstake in which people bought raffle tickets hoping to get matching winning numbers. On Friday, British newspaper The Guardian said Sportpesa made Sh100 billion in revenues last year, a figure the company has vehemently denied before.

“No one even thought it could go anywhere. I remember asking some guys. ‘Do you have some cash to put into this thing?’ They would tell me ‘Boss, what is this? You’re talking about gambling. It can’t work,” Mr Karauri told Business Daily in a past interview

It is, however, one of the speakers on the night SportPesa was launched on February 1, 2014 who gave the Sunday Nation a peak into convoluted underbelly of a giant industry the government is now fighting hard to rein in.

“It is very unusual for a politician to maintain old friendships. But I value my friendship with Gero, Genata and the whole team. I am very proud that Gero, who is one of my best friends, is the engine of this team,” said Bulgarian Politician Slavcho Slavi Binev during the launch of SportPesa in 2014.

Mr Binev was referring to Gerasim Nikolov, SportPesa’s global Chief Executive Officer and 21 per cent shareholder. Mr Binev himself was in a 2005 WikiLeaks cable described by former US Ambassador in Bulgaria James Pardew as the head of an organised criminal enterprise called the MIG Group.

“The group’s business interests also include construction and tourism; it operates a travel agency as part of its Cool Place entertainment complex. The group’s criminal activities include prostitution, narcotics and trafficking stolen automobiles,” said the cable.

Mr Nikolov on the other hand moved to Kenya just before 2,000 and launched the famed Toto 6/49 which was replica of a similar Bulgarian lottery. Toto 6/49 which was run by First Lotto Limited was licenced to challenge the monopoly of the Kenya Charity Sweepstake on the basis of its support for the physically-disabled and the destitute.

The company halted operations on February 28, 2011 amid claims that it had run short of gaming tickets without ever dishing out its Sh20 million jackpot.

Mr Nikolov then went under for three years before partnering with 10 other shareholders to start SportPesa which is currently in trouble with the State and 27 other firms.

Like Mr Nikolov who came to Kenya for other ventures before joining the gambling industry, Italian Leandro Giovando came to Kenya to join his relative Nico Giovando. Nico Giovando was born in Nyeri in 1954 and though he lived in Europe as he grew up, upon his return to Kenya, he started Almanara Luxury Resort.

Located just five minutes’ away from Diani airstrip, the hotel is a favourite for very deep pocketed individuals, business moguls, international celebrities and politicians.

In July 2010, renowned Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho spent three weeks at the facility with his family. After winning the 2013 elections, President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto spent a couple of days at the property.

In 2017, Betin which had operated in different countries in Africa under GoldBet Group, which has other markets in Europe badly wanted a pie of SportPesa’s success after seeing it branch to England and even sponsoring Hull City in 2016. Goldbet partnered with Domenico Geovando and Leandro Giovando to set up Gamcode which currently operates as Betin.

Back to the battle by the operators to regain their licences, on Thursday, High Court judge Weldon Korir refused to reverse the cancellation of Betpawa’s licence.

“I do not find it just and proper to issue interim any orders, let parties file and serve their responses for the matter to be heard on the July 26,” ruled Justice Korir.

Betpawa through its parent company Nanovas International sued Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB) under a certificate of urgency seeking orders to be allowed to continue operations without interference.

Nanovas is majority owned by Nikolai Barnwell who like Sportpesa’s Nikolov came to Kenya on a different mission but ended up in the betting industry.

Mr Barnwell’s private seed fund, 88mph, catapulted him to fame in 2011 by providing much-needed finances to upcoming ICT prodigies. 88mph in 2011 invested Sh50 million in seven start-ups in Kenya followed by a Sh100 million investment the following year.

In 2015, the company which at some point even wanted to buy Ghafla, a popular blog then, said it was taking a break from start-up investments as Mr Barnwell put more concentration on his other love — Betpawa.

 

On Thursday, the Financial Reporting Centre (FRC) and Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) opened investigations on the bank accounts of the 27 betting companies whose licences are currently suspended with an aim of establishing whether the accounts are being used to launder money.

This is after the BCLB wrote to FRC asking them to probe their bank accounts.

The banks had on Tuesday morning started to freeze the accounts which are thought to hold billions of shillings following an order by Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) on Monday night.

Among the issues currently being investigated is whether a well-moneyed senior politician is among the shareholders of one of the big suspended firms through a company registered in a tax haven which is being used to launder money stolen from public coffers.

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“We have established that three politicians are heavily involved in the betting business through proxies and in the firms suspended on suspicion of money laundering but this will come out in due time,” an official at the Interior Ministry told us.

In an industry that is almost entirely run by foreigners, the locals in it are mostly well-moneyed businessmen who help the foreign investors to get the right political and business connections necessary to navigate Kenya’s murky entrepreneurial waters.

This dance between politics and the betting industry occasionally comes out as it did last weekend when President Uhuru Kenyatta admitted that the government has to get its fair share of taxes even though some of those being punished are his friends.

“Some firms have been hoarding taxes but we have managed to push them to pay and we will continue doing so. Those in the betting companies are our friends but we have to agree that the government must get its rightful share to build cultural centres and other developments,” said Mr Kenyatta during Kirinyaga Governor Anne Kamotho’s wedding to lawyer Kamotho Waiganjo.

“The firms should stop threats that they will move to court. The government must get its share to fund activities that are beneficial to this country,” he said.

It is still difficult to determine who runs the highly lucrative betting industry as the few Kenyans in it are very reclusive. Betin, Betpawa, Premier Bet and Dafabet are, for instance, fully owned by foreigners. Elite Bet which is operated by Seal Capital Partners limited is fully owned by digital firm Oxygen Eight East Africa Limited.

Oxygen8 is headquartered in Birmingham, UK, but also has offices in London, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Ireland, Kenya, South Africa, US, Singapore and Uganda.

Briton Mr Keith Shane Leahy and Kenyan Mr Brian Waluchio are Seal Capital’s directors while Jared Omari Lituga of LJA Associates is company secretary.

Politically connected

Mr Waluchio was last year barred from travelling outside Kenya owing to a tax dispute between Oxygen Eight, where he is the ICT director, and the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

Oxygen Eight has been accused of evading tax by depositing monies due to KRA in a dummy account whose name resembled that of the taxman.

But before his troubles began, Mr Waluchio was a man riding high courtesy of Lotto, a lottery that claimed to award Sh100 million to one person each month. Under the banner “You Win, Kenya Wins”, Lotto said it had raised over Sh180 million for good causes across the country.

The Lotto Foundation was one of the largest sponsors of Team Kenya in the Rio Olympics. It also contributed greatly to the Kenyan team in the Youth Commonwealth Games in Samoa.

Last year, the company even donated gym equipment to the Presidential Security team in an event attended by former Inspector General Joseph Boinnet.

It is such closeness to power by those in the betting industry that makes it difficult to think about what the end game of the government crackdown on the industry would be like.

Among the politically-connected individuals within the betting industry include Kiprono Kittony, Paul Ndung’u and Asenath Wacera.

Sh10m a plate

Mr Kittony who is the son of former Maendeleo ya Wanawake chair Zipporah Kittony and a shareholder at Radio Africa Group. Mr Kittony together with Patrick Quarco, another Radio Africa group shareholder own 30 per cent of Betway Kenya through their company Quadco.

Ms Wacera, a shareholder at SportPesa, on the other hand, is a widow to former Nairobi Mayor Dick Wathika.

Mr Wathika was mayor of Nairobi between 2004 and 2010. It is during this period that a number of privately owned lotteries mushroomed to rival Kenya Charity Sweepstake like Toto 6/49, ShindaSmart 6969 in which Ms Wacera held a 10 per cent stake and Playwin’s ‘Je Ukipata’ promotion which collapsed in 2007.

But among the three of President Kenyatta’s close associates, it is Mr Ndung’u who is the most reclusive but also most influential.

The businessman who seldom gives interviews was the chairman of the fundraising committee that planned the Sh10 million a plate dinner to fundraise for Jubilee during the 2017 elections.

Among those in the technical committee that organised the event that raised Sh1 billion under one hour included Wanderjoy events organising and equipment director Maina Wandere who has interests in Rafikibet- another betting firm.