Chinese Billionaire Behind Kenya's Popular Mobile Money Lending Apps
On April 13 last year, Kenyans were just beginning to adapt to a new life under a partial economic shutdown occasioned by Covid-19. About 9, 000 kilometres away in Beijing, Kunlun Tech Co Ltd chief executive Yahui Zhou had just tendered his resignation from the gaming firm he founded in 2008.
Aside from his famous gaming company, Mr Zhou was known for having reached one of the most expensive divorce settlements in China, having given his ex-wife Li Qiong Kunlun Tech shares worth $1.1 billion (about Sh119 billion). He had opted to leave Beijing Kunlun to become full-time CEO of Oplay Digital Services.
Oplay owns three Kenyan firms that offer loans through mobile phone apps without any security, and which have all significantly grown since entering the lending business between 2018 and 2019. They are Okash, Opesa and Credit Hela.
Mr Zhou runs several digital lending firms in Africa and Asia through an intricate web of shell companies registered in several countries. At the top of the pyramid sits Opera Limited, whose core product is a popular web browser by the same name.
While Opera Limited is headquartered in Norway, it is formally registered in the Cayman Islands, a popular destination for businessmen and companies looking to lower their tax liabilities.
The firm was founded in 1995 and went public in Norway nine years later after listing on the Oslo Stock Exchange. Beijing Kunlun Tech Co turned Mr Zhou into a billionaire after marketing and selling several popular video games in China.
In 2016, he paid Opera's shareholders $1.23 billion (Sh133 billion) to acquire the browser. Between 2016 and 2019, the tycoon went on an aggressive investment drive. Opera later bagged a deal to manage Opay Digital Services. Opay is registered in Hong Kong but with subsidiaries across the globe.
Opay in turn owned TenSpot Pesa Limited, a special purpose vehicle that launched the Okash digital lending platform in March, 2018. Opay and TenSpot Pesa were also at the time running a digital payment service that enabled users to buy mobile phone airtime at discounted rates.
In December 2018, Opera made a move on Opay, and bought the firm and its assets, including Okash for $9.5 million (about Sh1.03 billion). Interestingly, Okash began operations before it was registered in Kenya. TenSpot Kenya Ltd started operating Okash in March, 2018. TenSpot was registered on May 23, 2018, more than two months after operations had started. Hong Kong-registered TenSpot Pesa Limited owns 20,000 shares in the Kenyan firm.