Africa’s top 40 Digital Leaders: #32 – Zhou Yahui, planting seeds of a digital harvest

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Digital Africa

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 2021 14:44, updated on Tuesday, 23 November 2021 10:20

Yahui Zhou, chairman and co-CEO of Opera.
Yahui Zhou, chairman and co-CEO of Opera.

Chinese billionaire Zhou Yahui has been moving his pawns across the digital chessboard for some years; in Africa he part owns OPay, a Nigerian Unicorn, raising $400m for further investment in the fintech space in Africa. He is is #32 in our list of Top African Digital Leaders.

A mobile-money platform also known for its motorcycle-­based delivery service in Lagos, Nigeria, OPay has become one of Africa’s rare unicorns (a startup with a valuation of more than $1bn). The company’s value is estimated at $2bn, after it raised $400m during an August fundraising round that included Japan’s SoftBank.

Opay is part owned by Chinese billionaire Zhou Yahui, founder of Kunlun Tech Co, a web game developer in China.

Zhou ranks #32 in our list of Top African Digital Leaders

OPay is an important company to watch as it is also part of the widening and deepening interest of Chinese players in Africa’s digital space, from telecoms provider StarTimes, to mobile manufacturer Transsion and telecoms big players like Huawei and ZTE.

Zhou controls OPay through Opera, a Norwegian company based in the Cayman Islands. He got his start in the digital sphere by creating a website for sharing animations while at Tsinghua University and then went on to work for social media platform Renren. He is chairman of the Board and co-CEO of Opera, which runs a mobile browser and news service.

Eyes only for OPay

In January, Opera, which is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, denied claims by short-seller Hindenburg Research that its lending practices breach Google’s Play Store rules. Opera Mini, Opera’s browser, says it has more than 100 million users and is rolling out new chat programmes and other services. Company statistics show 25 million active users for the Opera News service.

Zhou is no longer in a leadership role at Beijing Kunlun and is focusing his attention on the development of OPay, where he is the CEO, with eyes on the wider African market.

Through agent banking, OPay gives individuals the ability to act as a payment processor, handling $3bn a month, according to the company. It also claims to operate 80% of mobile banking transfers in Nigeria, a market that has big potential but has been further behind in developing mobile money than the likes of continental leader Kenya.

The mobile payment service and consumer platform incorporates banking but also allows users to order food and groceries.

OPay developed the bike-hailing app ORide, the loan application OKash and food-­ordering platform OFood in the Nigerian market. The app market in many African countries is spurring big competition from global players like US-based Uber, Spain’s Glovo and Africa-focused e-retailer Jumia.

After raising the $400m in August, Zhou told media: “We want to be the power that helps emerging markets reach a faster economic development.”

Summing up his long-term view, he told Chinese media outlet Xinhua: “The utilisation of internet data will speed up the establishment of a credit system, improve the overall commercial credit and tech ecosystem, thus optimising the investment environment in the long run. […] It may be a long and difficult process, but we will ultimately reap a harvest.”

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