Nairobi, Kenya – Germany fans were on a high after their team beat Italy on post-match penalties at the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux, France, qualifying for the semifinal of the 2016 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA Euro 2016) championship. The Italians in the stands were visibly disappointed, with some in tears over the painful loss. A few days later and thousands of miles away in Kenya, a community was also in tears over the results of the game, but for very different reasons.
A young man had been found dead, hanging behind his mother’s house. The Kenyatta University student had committed suicide days after losing money he’d placed on a bet in the UEFA quarterfinal. More than three years later, the shock of this tragedy, which barely registered in the national consciousness, is still vivid for Nelson Bwire, a reformed self-described serial sports gambler.
“I was a student at the same university then,” 25-year-old Bwire told Al Jazeera. “They said he bet his entire school fees on the Euro game and lost $800.”
Once regarded as a hobby for well-heeled elites who indulged in horse racing at jockey clubs, sports betting has gone mainstream in Africa. Fuelled by online sports betting, which launched on the continent in the last decade and has since hit pandemic levels, it’s a pursuit where even one bet can hook someone and potentially send them spiralling down a path of financial destruction.
With mobile-savvy youths proving especially vulnerable to online sports betting, the pressure is on governments to crack down on the companies profiting from it.
“Sadly, my first bet was a winning one,” said Bwire, a self-described reformed betting addict. “I say ‘sadly’ because it made me think that it was an easy way of life. I placed $2 and won $48.”
Bwire would go on to lose almost $1,000 before turning his back on gambling and ultimately dedicating himself to reining in the industry that nearly destroyed his life.
I can use the sports betting apps to check the games' odds in real time as they change and deposit the money in my mobile wallet.
A pocket-sized Las Vegas
Over half of youths in sub-Saharan Africa have tried gambling, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Geopoll. The highest concentration is in Kenya, where 76 percent of youths have engaged in betting.
The survey also found that Kenyan millennials place bets more frequently than their counterparts in other sub-Saharan countries, and wager more as well, with an average monthly gambling spend of $50 – mostly on football.
Online gambling is commanding enough of a slice of disposable millennial incomes in Kenya that the managing director of a major brewery observed recently that it’s undercutting alcohol sales.
The boom in gambling is being powered primarily by smartphones. Some 96 percent of Kenyan youths responding to Geopoll‘s survey said they had used their phones to place bets. Gone are the days when punters had to go to a casino or racecourse. Mobile phones now serve as a pocket-sized Las Vegas, offering seamless integration of mobile money wallets.
“My phone comes in handy, inasmuch as I can check the day’s games on the newspaper,” said 28-year-old punter John, who asked Al Jazeera to change his name to protect his privacy. “I can use the sports betting apps to check the games’ odds in real time as they change and deposit the money in my mobile wallet.”
The lures cast to get mobile users to place bets can be handsome. A quick check of Kenyan online gambling platforms recently showed jackpots ranging from $120,000 to $2m.
Betting is a $2bn industry in Kenya, according to government estimates, with over 25 companies vying for a share of the market.
Until very recently, the most dominant company was SportPesa, which commanded roughly 40 percent of market share until September, when it closed its operations in Kenya over a tax standoff with government authorities.
The tug-of-war between tax authorities and betting companies has escalated since last year, when the government imposed a hefty 35 percent tax on gaming revenue – the highest in the region- on top of a 30 percent corporate tax and a legal mandate to dedicate 25 percent of betting sales to social causes.
After betting companies threatened to withdraw from the country, the government lowered the gaming tax to 15 percent, only to hike it again this year to 20 percent.
“These companies must show evidence of tax payment,” Kenya’s Ministry of the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi told reporters in April. “It may be a bit tough for some of them, but I promise you that they shall be out of this business soon.”
Jurisdiction for regulating Kenya’s gambling industry technically falls under the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board. But the law under which it operates was drafted more than 50 years ago – long before mobile phones and online betting were ubiquitous.
“The local governments are dealing with high cases of suicide as a result of this desperation … we must say no,” said Matiangi. “What kind of country are we building, are we telling our children to do nothing with their lives except bet and wait on a big win to become an overnight millionaire?”
That sentiment is echoed by Roy Gachuhi, who has covered sports in Kenya for more than 40 years. “Sports betting is a cancer,” he told Al Jazeera. “If there was a way of banning it, I’d be the first to cast a vote.”
The Betting Control and Licensing Board has taken some measures, such as outlawing outdoor and social media advertising on sports betting, though billboards around Nairobi bear testament to lax enforcement. The board has also banned television advertisements for sports betting firms between the hours of 6am and 10pm (generally thought to be the time children are active) – as well as endorsements by celebrity sports figures like Kenya’s only UEFA Champions League winner, McDonald Mariga, who was formerly a spokesperson for a betting firm in Kenya.
“These celebrities are normalising gambling,” said Bwire. “People see them as role models so they start attributing the celebrity’s achievements to sports betting and imagine that if they bet they’ll also become successful.”
One country in the region has taken its crackdown much further. In January, Uganda started phasing out all sports betting, decreeing that existing licences would not be renewed and no new ones would be issued. President Yoweri Museveni said gambling was diverting youth’s attention from honest, hard work.
Back in Kenya, Bwire has taken his own action against the industry by launching the Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, a volunteer campaign that advocates for proper regulation around sports gambling and offers support to those wrestling with gambling addiction.
“A man came to us for professional help,” he said. “He had squandered all the money that was meant for his upcoming wedding on betting, [and] he didn’t know what to tell the fiance or the in-laws.”
Despite the potential costs to those who practice it, online gambling remains legal in Kenya, and 28-year old John is still punting, even though he knows the odds are against him.”You get into a dangerous cycle chasing the high of your first win,” he said. “But the house will always win.”