BY DUNCAN ONG’AYO
He is a youthful man who clearly had a vision. Ronald Karauri, the Chief Executive of Kenya’s leading sport betting firm SportPesa has on his way up often chosen to take the unbeaten path. Many would perhaps aptly describe him as a gambler, however, be that as it may, Ronald is not your ordinary gambler, the amiable chief executive has had to make tough choices – a situation which in many cases has helped redefine his life and helped retrained his focus on the big prize.
The CEO reveals he sold his piece of land which was then only his single most important asset in his quest to team up with other colleagues to set up what has become Kenya’s leading multi-million shillings betting firm.
“We looked around and found that the idea of making money through sport had not reached Kenya so we decided to take the bold step to start it though it was a very big risk since I sold my Shamba, which was then my only asset to join hands with my colleagues in starting the investment,” Mr Karauri said.
For Ronald, the game of risk taking started way back in 2002 when he dropped out as a third year student at the University of Nairobi to join Kenya’s national carrier Kenya Airways (KQ) for a training program.
“I was in the University of Nairobi taking Mechanical Engineering but I dropped out. KQ started an ab initio program where they would train the selected people, paying for them everything. Since I had great interest in being a pilot, I applied and fortunately I got the job or unfortunately because it was meant to be, I dropped out of college. We were the first ab initio lot to be trained by KQ,” he explains.
He adds: “I got into KQ and became a co-pilot for 11 years flying KQ 737, 767 and 777. I later became a captain from 2010 flying KQ 737 until when I left,” he narrates adding that he broke the record to become the youngest ever Secretary General of the Kenya Airline Pilots Association (KALPA), a position he says he held up to early 2015 when he resigned.
Ronald says he quit the KALPA position not only because of the pressure that was associated with the job but also to fully concentrate on SportPesa. “I left KQ with insomnia as the pressure the job gave me was unbearable since we could see the issues coming, trying to bring change but no one was listening. Since we had already started SportPesa, I decided quit KQ and fully focus on it,” he asserts.
Now at the helm of one of Africa’s biggest betting firm, Ronald says his job as Chief Executive of SportPesa is ‘simplified’ by the company’s board of directors as he “only delivers on what the board of directors directs.”
According to the Captain one has to take risks in order to succeed especially when venturing into a field that is largely virgin and untouched. Ronald notes that SportPesa was the first ever sport betting firm to set shop in Kenya adding that proper preparations also take a pivotal role in a business. “SportPesa was launched in 2014 but preparations for the same started way back in 2012, two years before its launch. It is not by chance that we are in our current position,” he asserts.
With only two years in operation, Ronald says that SportPesa has had well if not the best reception noting: “We have gained a massive following on social media with over 100,000 followers on Facebook, over 50,000 on Twitter and over 6000 on Instagram, making us not only the biggest sports betting firm in Kenya, but across Africa as a whole.”
He states: “Sports betting is an enormous business with great potential for opening up government revenue streams but is very unfairly treated since people tend to focus more on its negatives than the positives.” In the United States for instance, Ronald says the betting industry remitted over US$270 billion in tax revenues to the government and that locally, SportPesa also recently received a letter of appreciation from the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) commending the company for the high revenue they remitted.
So is Kenya on the wrong path when it comes to betting? “Just like in any other activity, when one goes to the extremes they are more likely to suffer the consequences. Betting should be done with moderation. In fact, it should just be done for fun, just to make one enjoy more the game of football or any sport whatsoever. I don’t expect anyone to quit their jobs for betting,” he says.
The CEO says it only takes a minimum of Sh100 for one to participate in betting with SportPesa which revolves around predicting the outcome of either a single match for single bets or the outcome of two or more matches for multi-bets. Jackpot as he explains involves predicting right the outcome of all the thirteen selected matches across Europe.
He notes: “SportPesa weekly Jackpot has totally transformed the lives of many Kenyans who have kissed goodbye to poverty. Even if you trace the first guy who won the jackpot, you will be amazed by how much his life has fully transformed.”
With over Sh80 million claimed in their weekly jackpots in 2015, Ronald says they expect to issue even a higher amount this year considering that it has of late barely lasted four weeks before it is won with the weekly increasing prize always starting at Sh10 million once the previous one is won.
SportPesa he says pumped Sh400 million in their debut year of operation, with a vision of being a world class operator of entertainment and profitable games. The firm has to date partnered with Chase Bank to offer professional financial advisory to jackpot winners in a bid to ensure that the prize money is put into profitable and sustainable use.
The company is the new official shirt sponsors of English Premier League side Hull City, in a record breaking deal. According to a statement on the club’s website, the new sponsorship deal is the most lucrative in the Club’s proud 112-year history.”
The partnership will see Hull City emboss SportPesa logo on their shirts for three seasons. It will also see Hull City travel to Africa to play a Kenyan select side in an effort to see Kenya in the 2022 World Cup. “The SportPesa platform will now be available in the United Kingdom and later in the year present in several African countries,” Ronald confirms adding that “one year from now; we will have presence in at least four continents.” Indeed, according to Ronald, it is all about “scaling of a Kenyan brand into the global market.”
Domestically, SportPesa sponsors the Kenya Football Premier League which has rebranded to SportPesa Premier League. The firm also sponsors the Super Eight Soccer Tournament and two football powerhouses in terms of fan base; Gor Mahia FC and AFC Leopards in the main league, and Nakuru All Stars in the lower division. He reveals that “SportPesa strives to uphold, strengthen and enforce footballing culture in the country by supporting clubs’ activities to not only to grow the players, but the league as whole while creating stronger competitiveness in Kenyan football.” In addition, SportPesa recently announced a Sh607million sponsorship for the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU).
The sports betting firm has partnered with English Premier League side, Arsenal Football Club as their official betting partners in Kenya. He says the London based football club will fly to the country twice a year to train local coaches and scouts to tap football talent in the country. “In the first football clinic under the partnership, Arsenal legend Sol Campbell accompanied by six other Arsenal Academy coaches held a five day training with sixty of our local coaches, 16 of whom were from the Kenya under twenty League. This is to improve the level of football in our country as all our eyes are set on the 2022 World Cup.”
In an attempt to do away with sport hooliganism in the country that has been a thorn in the flesh of local football the CEO notes that SportPesa suspend sponsorship for the two clubs; AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia FC until they committed to tame the vice. “As part of the solution, mobile courts have been introduced in football stadia while the clubs have also gained support from the police who have promised to provide tighter security on match days,” he says adding that stewards from National Youth Service have also been deployed to man perimeter walls helping tame the vice that was slowly killing Kenyan football.
The former KQ captain says Kenya has great talent that if tapped can totally change the socio-economic status of the country. However, he cautions that that will only succeed if the sports industry is well managed. “If sport industry in Kenya can be well structured and managed, it can be the major life changer in Kenya, even bigger than agriculture. We should never leave sports entirely to be supported by the government.”
Having been brought up in a political family, being a son of the former Assistant Minister for Education and Member of Parliament for Tigania Constituency, Matthew Adams Karauri, Mr Karauri says it was hectic growing up as he never used to get enough time with his then ever busy dad whom he says spent most of his time attending to a stream of people who visited their home when he was not in his office. However, Ronald asserts: “My Dad’s political career taught me to always be honest – it is the honesty which has steered me to where I am today.”
Born in Meru but brought up in Nairobi, Mr Karauri went to Harambee Primary School in Buru Buru before proceeding to Mangu High School where he played basketball to national level under coach Paul Otula, the current basketball coach and Principal for Maseno School. “I really respect Paul Otula. He taught us al lot and actually made me have the respect and confidence I have today. I remember him telling us that anytime we take to the field, we were to play against the opponent and the referee and that any call the referee made, whether right or wrong, we had to obey,” he recalls.
“It is good to participate in schools’ co-curricular activities as it moulds one to be very organized and disciplined even after school. I will not discourage my son if he decides to participate in any sport he loves,” he concludes.