FOR a money-lending firm or financial company to legally operate in Nigeria, they must obtain a license from the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN. However, The ICIR investigation discovered that several loan firms in the country violate the rules and regulations of the apex bank.
Not only that, the companies use crude methods similar to Shylock tactic to enforce loan repayment from their customers.
In August, Adeleke Ekundayo, a businessman based in Ilorin, Kwara State, was desperate for quick cash to buy drugs for his ailing mother.
He had no savings to spare. Adeleke downloaded the GoCash app, a lending app and applied to get N8,000 to buy drugs for his mother.
They credited his bank account a few minutes later, but the loan agreement terms stipulated he would return the loan within seven days.
On the fifth day, Adeleke decided to seek an extension beyond the agreed date for payment after his mother died in the hospital.
He got a rude shock. When he explained his ordeal to the GoCash loan officer, the agent rejected his request and threatened to share information about his debt with friends and family on his phone contacts.
At the due date, the debt officer made good on his promise. He sent messages to Adeleke’s friends, relatives and office colleagues saying he was a fraudster and had defrauded the money-lending company.
The regret of losing the trust of close friends and relatives sent Adeleke into a downward emotional spiral.
“It was the worst time in my life. I used to cry myself to sleep and contemplate suicide because those messages closed a lot of doors for me,” he told The ICIR.
When Adeleke finally got to pay the loan a week later, he settled with interest and overdue charges, but the messages had done the damage.
He paid his debt into a UBA bank account named “Soko Lending Company, GOCash Collection”, but his contacts still received messages that he was a fraudster.
Soko Lending Company is the parent company of the GoCash loan app, which is owned by its directors, a Chinese national, Lu Wang and Nigerian Ayodeji Ogunjimi Samson.
During his mother’s funeral, some of his relatives still got those damaging messages, and they called him to explain why he brought shame to their family.
His attempt to convince many otherwise failed.
In August, the National Information and Technology Development Agency (NITDA) fined Soko Lending Company N10 million for sending threatening messages to borrowers, which constitutes a privacy invasion.
Opened on August 28, 2018, Soko Lending Company was legally registered (RC – 1520881) with the Corporate Affairs Commission; CAC, through its business name, has yet to comply with CBN’s licensing requirements.
Soko Lending Company was missing on the list. Any company offering financial services, except for stockbroking and insurance, must obtain a lending license from the CBN to operate.
Soko Lending Company continues to offer personal loans to Nigerians, despite CBN’s requirements.
The ICIR investigation shows that some of these loan companies offer Nigerians financial services without a CBN licensing permit.
These illegal loan sharks make profits, charge high-interest rates, and cyberbully their clients.
Borrowers like Adeleke, who take these online loans, risk character assassination if they default for any reason. The majority of loan fintech spreads defamatory and malicious information about their defaulting clients with third parties.
A Chinese loan shark fleecing Nigerians
Tech-savvy Nigerians turn to digital lending apps for quick loans without collateral, especially those hosted on the Google play store.
The Nigerian fintech industry boasts of over 200 companies, ranging from digital loans to remittances and transfer platforms.
While the number of digital loan companies in the country grows daily, the permissive nature of Nigeria’s regulation means that these firms are under minimal scrutiny, and some take advantage of those in need of fast money.
Matty Adedoja in Ibadan borrowed N18,000 from imoney Nigeria, a loan lending app that took a few minutes.
With over 500,000 subscribers that had already installed the app on their phone via Google Play Store, she thought their services would be top-notch.
She was to pay back the loan in 8 days. This action breaches Google Play Store updated rules for an app to be listed on its platform.
According to Google Play Store rules, a financial app offering short term loans on its platform should give borrowers not fewer than 60 days from the date of issue to repay any loan.
Two days before the payment deadline, Adedoja got abusive calls and WhatsApp voice notes from the company’s debt officer saying she would share her information with her contacts if she didn’t pay on time.
“I will send your names to all your contacts and destroy you if you want me to lose my job since you won’t pay on time,” the debt officer who identified herself as Florence said.
She paid N22,500, including interest, on the due date and wrote an email asking imoney to sack the debt collection officer for being rude. They replied and promised to investigate.
Adedoja frequently gets abusive WhatsApp voice notes from the debt collection officer weeks after clearing her debts, but imoney Nigeria has not intervened.
In Nigeria, online loan companies have been accused by victims like Adedoja of charging high-interest rates, making illegal deductions from customers accounts, and cyberbullying.
Though, imoney’s website revealed little information, apart from the terms and conditions for getting a loan.
Investigations by The ICIR revealed that XGO Finance Limited, Lagos, was registered as a financial company with the CAC on May 20, 2019, and co-own three other loan apps, namely imoney, Xcredit and Credit9ja.
With registration number RC 1586333, it was listed as inactive by the CAC. The company owners are Chinese nationals, Duan Wei, also known as Robin Duan and Zhong LiuHao.
Wei is the co-founder and Chairman of Mobvista Inc, a Chinese technology firm whose subsidiary, MIB Network Limited, owns majority shares in XGO Finance Limited.
While LiuHao is saddled with handling the research and analysis of the Nigerian market in line with the company’s policies.
Kehinde Ijilade, a Senior Associate at Stonebridge Solicitors & Advocate located in Surulere, Lagos State, serves as the lawyer of record for the company.
The Chinese directors also registered an unlicensed microfinance bank with the CAC, Finpath Microfinance Bank and a logistics firm XGO Technology Limited on the same address as XGO Finance Limited in Victoria Island, Lagos.
They listed their address on the CAC forms as Room 503, No 33 Jiansheliu Road, Yuexiu, and 84, 1st Road, Xing Tian Town, Xingning, all in Guangdong, China.
The microfinance bank, though registered with the CAC, is listed as inactive. The CBN publishes a list of licensed, approved finance companies and microfinance banks in Nigeria quarterly.
The names XGO Finance Limited and Finpath Microfinance Bank were not on the updated CBN’s list of licensed financial companies or microfinance banks in Nigeria as of June 30.
Ideally, any fintech company providing financial services, for example, giving out personal loans, requires a licence from the CBN to be considered legal in Nigeria.
Section 58 of the Banks and other Financial Institutions Act (BOFIA) stipulates that “any person wishing to carry on other financial business other than insurance and stockbroking in Nigeria shall apply in writing to the Bank for the grant of a license.”
The management of XGO Finance Limited might claim to be unaware of Nigeria’s financial laws. Yet, the company advertises its loan apps on social platforms to lure unsuspecting Nigerians to take the predatory loans.
The ICIR raised these questions in an email sent to imoney, Xcredit and Credit9ja, to reveal their interest rates, loan terms and why their parent company breached Nigerian financial regulations.
The loan company responded via an automated email to The ICIR investigations saying they would send the request to the right channel.
“This is not the type of service that iMoney condones, and we have taken action regarding this instance. We would escalate your complaint to the right channel. In the interim, we implore you to be patient,” the email read.
A Multi-billion naira lending fintech company in suspicious schemes
Loan fintech companies constitute a significant chunk of Nigeria’s over 200 stand-alone tech start-ups.
A move spurred by venture capitalists funding, as the fintech industry’s projected revenue grew from $414 million in 2014 to $608 million in 2018.
Migo Money Inc, a US-based fintech company formerly Mines.IO Inc, joined the fray of money lenders in the Nigerian fintech market in 2017.
Founded by Nigerian technopreneurs Ekechi Nwokah and Kunle Olukotun in 2014, the fintech firm currently boasts of an estimated revenue of $37.7 million.
According to an article by TechCrunch, its Nigerian subsidiary, Mines.IO Nigeria Ltd, which owns a majority stake in Migo loans, has issued three million individual loans to over one million Nigerian customers between 2017 to 2019.
However, findings by The ICIR show that Mines.IO Nigeria Ltd, through Migo loans, has been giving loans to Nigerians without obtaining a license from the CBN, which contradicts the BOFIA Act.
The penalty for operating a financial institution without a license is liable to a fine of not less than N10 million and must be two times the amount collected from borrowers.
Also, the names of both subsidiary and parent companies were absent from CBN’s recent list of licensed financial companies recognised by the CBN, last updated on June 30.
Mines.IO Nigeria Ltd possesses sketchy CAC registration details, a red flag showing they may have operated without being registered for two years.
Every company in Nigeria is mandated to have a certificate of registration as evidence of its existence and rights to do business from the CAC, a legal requirement by the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), 2020.
The ICIR confronted Migo Money Inc with some of its findings to hear its side of the story.
Chief Executive Officer, CEO of Mines.IO Nigeria Ltd, Winston Osuchukwu, told The ICIR in an email that the fintech company is a collection agent for banks.
“Mines acts as a collection agent for the banks for all loans it facilitates and guarantees the repayment for loans disbursed based on its technology.
“You will find Mines.IO Nigeria Limited registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (RC – 1291683). Because Migo does not directly operate in Nigeria, it is not registered with the CAC,” he said.
He said none of its business models directly provide loans to borrowers; instead, they offer technological and financial support to Nigerian banks to issue loans to borrowers.
His claims were false, or the CEO deliberately hid vital information from its potential customers.
The ICIR journalist visited the Migo loans website to ascertain the process of getting a loan; the fintech described its loans as “Migo loans” and did not state the source of the loans.
The fintech company had two offices in Lagos, Migo Money Inc, the unregistered arm located at Ayo Adebanjo Close, Lekki Phase 1, while Mines.IO’s office is located at 3B Bedwell in Ikoyi.
Mines.IO Nigeria Ltd was not found on CAC’s database when The ICIR checked but discovered Cymantix Analytics Limited had the same CAC number (RC – 1291683) as Mines.IO, another red flag.
The firm, Cymantix Analytics Ltd, registered with the CAC on October 8, 2015, and its board of directors are Ekechi Nwokah and Kunle Olukotun.
This finding raises questions about when Cymantix Analytics transferred the CAC registration number to Mines.IO. Was the due process followed in changing names? How long have they provided loans to Nigerians without meeting the CAC criteria?
On September 17, 2020, the Filing and CTC Despatch department of the CAC had sent a copy of form CAC 7A to the Mines office, an application for change of the particulars of its directors. The ICIR traced the applicant’s phone number to a Dolapo Osiyemi via Truecaller.
Dara Oniosun, a lawyer, confirmed to The ICIR that the possibility of a firm having the same RC number occurs if there is a change of name of the company, but a change of the particulars of a firm’s directors doesn’t mean the firm’s name has changed.
“Every company has a unique CAC registration number, and if the company collapses and decide to resurrect after 100 years, they will still retain that unique number.
“A change of the particulars of a company’s directors is not necessarily a change of name,” he said.
However, at the time of writing the report, a new firm, Migo Credit Bureau Limited, was undergoing registration at the CAC, also located at Migo’s address at Ayo Adebanjo Close, Lekki Phase 1.
“Two companies cannot be assigned to the same RC number by the CAC except there is a change of name,” a staff of the CAC, who requested anonymity because she was not authorised to speak, told The ICIR.
“If there was a change of name or the old name was struck out, you are likely to see both names on the database unless they are yet to upgrade their system to reflect the new changes, but you must see the first name,” she said.
The ICIR contacted Titi Savage, Mine.IO lawyer, to shed light on its new findings, but she neither acknowledged the email nor responded at the time of filing the report.
Cracks in a lucrative market
The ICIR identified a few fintech companies not listed by Nigeria’s financial regulator, CBN, to carry out money lending services.
The loan apps include KashKash and EasyCredit owned by Speedy Choice Limited; CashLion, NairaPlus and LCash, all owned by Grola Tech Credit Ltd; Kiakia loan app run by KiaKia Bits Ltd, Qcash owned by Windville Financials Nigeria Ltd and QuickCheck Nigeria owned by Arve Limited.
Arve Limited is co-owned by Benjamin Benaim Elie and Tunde Akinuwa Olabode. Benaim also runs another lending company in Nigeria called Lendigo.
The ICIR sought to ascertain why QuickCheck Nigeria offered money-lending services without a lending license.
Customer support specialist of QuickCheck Nigeria, Oladipupo Akinwunmi, in an email to The ICIR, directed the journalist to Arve Limited for further questions.
“You are required to direct all your questions/inquiries to ARVE LIMITED. Please note that this platform is a customer support platform that is not required to answer such questions you have asked,” a section of the email read.
He also failed to provide an email address or phone contact for Arve Limited as the firm has no visible online presence.
Other loan companies yet to meet CBN licensing requirements are LCredit app, owned by Cashigo International Limited, and NCash, 9Credit and Easymoni, co-owned by OTP Technologies Limited.1
For a fintech to obtain an online lending license from the CBN, it must present a certificate of its incorporation of deeds, Form CAC 2A (return on allotment of shares), Form CAC 7A (Particulars of Directors), and a tax clearance certificate for three years(if applicable).
The application and licensing fee cost ₦100,000 and ₦1 million, respectively, and have a minimum shareholder fund of ₦2 billion, though that amount is negotiable.
Cyberbullying: A debt collection strategy
Some loan companies shame loan defaulters by sending their debt information to their phone contacts, defaming their character and cyberbullying them as part of their debt collection strategies. To do this, they need some data from their customers.
Thus the loan apps require users to provide their Bank Verification Number, BVN, permit access to their location, access to picture and video recording, phone contacts, media and files on their phones.
After downloading the app, users are required to put their financial details to allow the app algorithm to generate a credit rating before issuing loans.
James Emanoke had taken a loan of N13,500 from NairaPlus on July 21, though his due date was July 27. But the loan company told James on the due date that he was overdue by 86 days and charged N30,645.
He pleaded for an extension to pay the loan, but the NairaPlus agent declined. They started sending him death threats about his family members and defamatory messages to his contacts.
“They attached my complete phone number to the messages before sending it out to my contacts and family members,” he told The ICIR.
As part of its terms and conditions, Migo Money Inc compels users to consent to forfeit their rights to privacy before taking their loans. Migo has exclusive rights to send text messages to contacts of borrowers who have ever called or sent a text message to the borrower.
For Rebecca Kenneth, a crayfish trader in Kaduna, her missing phone was a conduit pipe into the hideous world of debt collectors of loan companies.
Two weeks later, her contacts got text messages and calls from debt collection officers of Truenaira, an online loan app.
She reached out to the debt collectors to inform them fraudsters had taken the loan on her behalf, but her appeal fell on deaf ears. They continued harassing her contacts with defamatory messages calling her a fraudster and criminal.
“My friends are still sceptical about me as those messages also affected my relationship with business associates. People always want to do business with someone without a criminal record,” she told The ICIR.
Regulatory agencies are mute
The Nigerian Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) prevents loan companies from unauthorised disclosures to third parties, abuse of customers’ data and defamation of character.
The ICIR contacted NITDA’s Director of Corporate Affairs and External Relations, Hadiza Umar, to shed light on why the agency responds slowly to the numerous complaints of Nigerians whose data privacy is infringed by the loan firms.
A female operator answered the journalist and directed his call to another official who asked the journalist to direct his enquiries to other agencies that NITDA could not respond it.
When The ICIR contacted the CBN spokesperson Osita Nwanisobi to explain why unlicensed financial institutions operate freely without sanctions from Nigeria’s financial regulator, he ignored the request.
He did not answer calls, texts and WhatsApp messages sent to his phone.
The ICIR reached out to the CBN’s desk dedicated to complaints against erring financial institutions via phone call to ascertain if the CBN licensed the firms mentioned in the report to operate.
An official who declined to disclose his name confirmed that the CBN did not license the firms and stated that his desk receives frequent complaints from Nigerians on their operations.
“The CBN does not license these companies you mentioned, I’ve been receiving complaints from people, but we have told them not to take loans from them,” he said.
When asked why the CBN has not clamped down the firms, “I don’t know,” he told The ICIR.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.