Concerns Grow over Sports Betting in Africa

In at least five African countries, many people consider sports gambling as a way to get regular income. Some consider sports gambling a way out of poverty. But critics warn that sports betting in Africa is increasing while poverty, unemployment and a lack of industry rules remain big problems.

In one example, a Ugandan health official was so sure Argentina would win its World Cup soccer game against Saudi Arabia that he bet $1,800. The money was loaned to him by officials from an amount meant to go to 243 people who had taken part in a polio vaccine campaign.

Argentina lost the game, and the official lost the money. Later he was chased by an angry crowd and locked himself indoors for days. His supervisor said he could lose his job.

In Uganda, the official’s loss was a lot of money. Yearly income per person in the country was $840 in 2020. Sports gamblers include students, politicians, workers or government officials.

Customers watch screens in a sports betting shop in the low-income Kibera neighborhood of the capital Nairobi, Kenya, AP Photo

Information on sports betting from all of Africa is not available. But data from a few countries show its growing popularity. Online gambling has grown in recent years. The increase has been driven by a growing use of mobile payments and demand for online entertainment. Much of the betting is on soccer games in Europe.

A South African government study from 2017 was among the most recent on gambling. It found that sports betting grew 14 percent a year between 2008 and 2016. But the number of South Africans who gambled fell from 57 percent to less than one third of the country’s adult population.

Today, online sports betting makes up 45 percent of the South African gambling market. Just 10 years ago casinos held an 80 percent share of the market, said the National Gambling Board.

In Zimbabwe, most people do not make more than $100 a month. Sports betting there “has become a major income earner even for those who are in formal employment,” said Japhet Moyo. He is secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. “The problem is that it becomes addictive and some lose their salaries to betting.”

A salary is money earned from work.

African gamblers often expect to pay for daily needs with gambling winnings. Philo Ragada is an unemployed schoolteacher in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. He bet on England to beat Senegal in a World Cup game. Ragada supported the African team but said he wanted England to win because “that’s where my money is.” His winnings, he said, would be “enough for tomorrow’s bread and tomatoes.”

Wale Babalola is a college graduate in the Nigerian city of Lagos who owns eight betting shops after once struggling to find a job. “If not for betting, I wonder how some people will survive in this country.”

Concern about the industry is also growing. Reagan Wamajji is a researcher with the Uganda-based Center for Policy Analysis. He said there should be campaigns against gambling, especially sports betting. “However, it is such a lucrative business that meaningful reforms might be hard to push,” he said.

A Ugandan parliamentary group earlier this year suggested banning daytime betting.

Neighboring Kenya has reported a decrease in gambling since 2019. That was when the country began taxing all bets. The government also withdrew the licenses of several major gambling companies. A Kenyan government study said that gamblers who considered gambling a good way to make money fell by half to 11 percent between 2019 and 2021.

For regular gamblers, especially those who bet money that is not theirs, the recent World Cup has been punishing. Gideon Matua is a security guard in Uganda. He said two friends recently lost their jobs after losing other people’s money.

“I’ve seen very many people here crying,” he said. “Someone comes here and puts a big amount on one team. If the team loses, they just go home. Some of them have been chased away from their jobs.”

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