* This article was updated as per the note at the end of the piece on February 26, 2021.

The fortunes of Kenya’s once mighty betting giant SportPesa have been dealt yet another blow after two advisory companies that are key to its international operations severed ties — raising further questions over its future.

They include Equiom, SportPesa’s registered agent in the Isle of Man (above), which has provided corporate services, such as maintaining company records, in the betting-friendly tax haven since 2015.

The other is London law firm Ince GD Corporate Services which has acted as its UK company secretary since 2017.

Resignation notices for both companies have been filed at their respective company registries in the Isle of Man and the UK. Neither SportPesa, Equiom nor Ince GD Corporate Services have offered any comment or explanation.

But Equiom’s resignation could threaten SportPesa’s future in the Isle of Man, where company law requires firms incorporated on the island to have a registered agent “at all times”. 

Operating from the Isle of Man allows SportPesa to offer betting services to the international market, including the UK, while benefiting from a 0% tax rate and minimal public disclosure of its financial information.

The developments are the latest blow to the troubled SportPesa group, which has been plagued by tax disputes with the Kenyan authorities and revelations in the media about its internal operations.

The company faces a pivotal moment today, January 25, when a judge in Kenya will hear a case in which SportPesa is trying to prevent the country’s regulator from cancelling its betting licence.

Rise and fall

Its downfall — from the heady days when it sponsored English Premier League club Everton FC, and the Racing Point Formula One — has been almost as rapid as its rise.

That meteoric rise began in Kenya in 2014, when a group of Bulgarian and local co-investors launched it as a sports betting company.

It opened a hub in the Isle of Man in 2015 followed by European headquarters in Liverpool two years later.  By 2018 SportPesa was raking in bets totalling a whopping £1.15 billion annually from Kenya but it suffered a major blow in mid-2019 when it lost its betting licence as a result of a £130 million tax dispute with the government.

Its Kenya revenues – responsible for as much as 95% of its total global income – dried up in an instant and the glitzy sports sponsorships soon came to an end.

The company limped on until October last year, when it attempted to re-enter the Kenyan market by piggybacking on another firm’s betting licence.

The Kenyan betting regulator promptly cancelled this licence too, although SportPesa has continued to operate thanks to a temporary court order.

But perhaps most damagingly, its attempted comeback also coincided with a court hearing where an official from the Kenya Revenue Authority made allegations of tax avoidance and money laundering. SportPesa has strongly denied the allegations and the court found in favour of SportPesa. 

Offshore hub

Although the revenues earned in the Isle of Man — £40m in 2017 — were only a fraction of the betting income SportPesa generated in Kenya, its operations in the UK Crown Dependency were a crucial part of its international expansion.

This is because a gaming licence from the Isle of Man’s Gambling Supervision Commission is widely recognised internationally, while betting companies based on the island pay 0% corporation tax. 

A licencing loophole also allows SportPesa to offer its betting products to British punters without direct oversight by the UK Gambling Commission, via a so-called “white label” arrangement.  

But there now appears to be a question mark over the international strategy as the pressure on the company and its owners intensifies in Kenya.

Equiom notified SportPesa of its intention to resign on December 2, giving the betting firm eight weeks to find a replacement in line with Isle of Man company law. 

With that eight week deadline set for January 27, SportPesa does not appear to have appointed another registered agent yet, according to available records at the company registry. 

Research by Finance Uncovered shows that other companies which work with SportPesa in the Isle of Man include audit firm KPMG, Standard Bank as well as white label licensee TGP Europe.

Termination

Equiom’s resignation was followed on the first working day of the new year by London law firm Ince GD Corporate Services, whose role as SportPesa’s UK company secretary terminated on 4 January.

No replacement has yet been made either, according to Companies House, the UK’s corporate registry. 

Unlike in the Isle of Man, however, this is not a legal requirement.But SportPesa is required to file regular annual financial statements with the UK registry, where a notification indicates that they have missed a December 31 deadline to file its 2019  accounts.

According to previous filings, its UK revenues for 2018 were £21.6m (Sh2.8bn), with profits of £15m (Sh1.95bn), most of which was passed on as dividends to the group holding company.

An investigation by Finance Uncovered and Kenya’s Daily Nation last year revealed that most of SportPesa’s 2018 income in the UK derived from an IT services agreement charged to the Kenyan operation at a 400% mark-up.

* UPDATE, February 26, 2021

On February 26, we were informed by law firm Schillings, acting for SportPesa Global Holdings Ltd and SportPesa Holdings Ltd, that SportPesa Holdings Ltd did appoint a new registered agent in the Isle of Man a few days after this original article was published. We were informed the new agent, Quayside Services Ltd, was appointed on January 29 and as such SportPesa was not operating in the Isle of Man without any registered agent.

Posted by Lionel Faull

Lionel Faull began his career as a journalist at the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa before joining the country's pre-eminent non-profit investigations team, amaBhungane, in 2011. He has been working with Finance Uncovered since January 2017, joining as a full-time senior reporter a year later. His investigative interests include following the money flows behind mega-infrastructure procurement and natural resource exploitation, as well as exposing the professional enablers of grand corruption. Lionel has worked on several award-winning team investigations, including the GuptaLeaks in 2017, the Panama Papers in 2016, and lavish state spending on then-President Jacob Zuma’s private home in 2013. He has also freelanced for the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK.