By Prudence Minayo
Everybody around the world loves a good success story, and when Heshan De Silva made the headlines, Kenyans were inspired by the story of a young Kenyan who had built a multi-billion empire.
Appearing on K24’s Young Rich show in September 2013, Heshan detailed how he built an empire worth more than a billion from Ksh10,000. In the interview, the young entrepreneur explained his struggles with alcohol, attempted suicide, and getting his life back on track.
At the age of 25, he had faced his fair share of tribulations and still managed to rise to the pinnacles of success. The K24 interview would be followed up by several others in different media houses.
His acumen earned him a mention among the Top 10 African Influencers in 2013 and Forbes’ 2014 List of Most Promising Young African Entrepreneurs and Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30.
Two years later, however, holes would appear in his story as some dubbed him a fraud.
Heshan grew up in a Christian family and had a fairly normal childhood. His parents were firm believers in education affording him the privilege to study in Banda School followed by Rosslyn Academy. Naturally gifted, he managed to score good grades despite not putting much effort into academia.
At the age of 16, he graduated from high school and proceeded to the University of Miami in Florida, USA.
The culture shock he encountered was enormous. It was nothing compared to his sheltered upbringing as partying, alcohol and drugs were the order of the day for university students. He soon realized he could trade his intelligence for money. Most students who wanted a grade C overall in their examinations would pay him to write their essays and in a day he would make up to 600 bucks. He started dressing flamboyantly and joining the party scenes, living beyond his means.
The once high performing student became a truant and began recording dismal grades. He started drinking heavily and taking drugs, struggling between alcoholism and the awareness that he was disappointing his parents.
Feeling depressed and unable to stay away from alcohol, he emailed a suicide note to his parents. He then swallowed down a number of pills and pushed them down with some Gatorade.
He, however, did not die. After treatment, he was flown back to Kenya where his parents helped him in the journey to recovery.
Heshan attended a South African rehabilitation centre for recovery. It was here that he found his way back to God.
Coming back to Kenya after rehabilitation, he applied to a number of hotels. These applications were met with rejection as he had no degree. He joined his family’s tea export business which he told K24 was not that big.
Later, three people approached him with a business proposition. He had only Ksh10,000 which he invested and they started a company that bundled insurance cover. The insurance cost as low as Ksh5 and could be purchased via mobile phone. By the end of the year, they reportedly made a sum in excess of Ksh90 million.
De Silva Group
The success of the insurance company enabled him to start the De Silva Group. The company grew to have an extended foothold in several industries. It was also the holding company of DSGVenCap, a company that invested in startups.
The investment company was touted to have invested in over 22,000 ideas and created over 17,000 Businesses. Heshan touted the social arm of the company at to all about helping the poor rise on their feet. From a mobile food business to a fashion house, they seemed to be helping many stand on their feet.
Allegations of fraud emerged when, Glass House, a PR firm headed by Mary Njoki, began working with Heshan. Mary connected with Heshan on Twitter and they ended up meeting at her office. He agreed to let her company do PR for him.
Mary then began organizing interviews between Heshan and top journalists including Jeff Koinange and Julie Gichuru. However, she noticed inconsistencies in his stories but made excuses thinking he had just forgotten. At the time, they had even started Hesh Talks, which had inspired many entrepreneurs.
The nail in the coffin came when she approached NTV asking if they could do a sort of Kenyan version of Shark Tank with Heshan as an investor. They agreed but papers and documentation was needed. Upon being asked, he said they were missing. She knew he was lying.
Glass House PR publicly announced they were no longer working with him. They cited ambiguity and inconsistency with the brand. This would raise a lot of questions as a number of blogs pointed to the inconsistency in his story.
Larry Madowo would then publish an article casting doubt on the entrepreneur. He said the entrepreneur reached out to him in 2013 on social media. He then conducted research on him and the businessman had just sold a tea company to Unilever. However, there was no evidence of this and he did not provide it upon inquiry.
“I have spoken at length with Unilever and have been advised NO ANNOUNCEMENT can be made about the acquisition of our former tea/coffee/sugar/rice arms till Unilever announces it through their press’ department at the end of their fourth quarter of 2013,” is the response Larry Madowo got concerning his inquiry.
The announcement never came.
Despite the fraud allegations, Heshan went on to state he had beach houses in Mombasa, Durban and a holiday home in Florida. He went on to state people’s opinions didn’t matter and they could write him off as a thousandaire for all he cared.
He had also taken down his social media page and vowed not to do more interviews.