How Africa’s Silicon Savannah became an online Vegas

Other companies followed SportPesa’s lead. Hampstone Nagare, a former radio reporter hired in 2017 to manage social media for one of the company’s competitors, recalls a particularly aggressive marketing period: billboards placed across the country offering T-shirts in exchange for the “good-looking women” sign. ups, unsolicited text messages, and Ngare’s own posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are designed to entice followers who may later convert into customers. Opportunities were prevalent. A 2016 poll by Kenyatta University found that 78% of male and 57% of female students attempted betting, gambling at least once each week (and reported 80% net loss). A subsequent survey by Geopol found that more than three-quarters of young people in Kenya and more than half in Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa were addicted, most of them on mobile phones with the help of mobile money.

By 2018, Kenyans were spending $ 1.3 billion a year betting on the SportPesa platform.

As sports betting entered, addiction followed. Ogachi diagnosed about seven out of 10 gambling disorders in a 2020 study of Kenyan student betting. Nelson Boyer, who led the Kenyatta University polls when he was an undergraduate, was so alarmed that he founded a nonprofit, the Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, which seeks to reduce the harm caused by gambling. Bwire has advised students who have been forced to drop out of school after betting on their tuition, and workers who have been jailed for embezzling money from their employer.

A habit that is not easy to kick

Some argue that Kenya should impose a complete ban on sports betting. There is a definite example: the practice is highly restricted in many parts of the world, including most countries in Asia and the Middle East. However, those familiar with the Kenya area say dramatic improvements are unlikely. For one thing, the taxes levied on speculation have become an important source of revenue for Kenya’s cash-strapped federal government. Many of the country’s leading betting houses also have close financial ties with politicians or their associates; Some believe the 2019 bill, which calls for a new regulator with strong teeth in Kenya’s parliament, could be part of the reason. And betting companies themselves have become an important source of employment: Nagar, who has worked for many of them, says he would prefer to return to journalism, but he also has the rent to pay and return home to support his parents. Have returned.

However, there are indications that the Kenyan authorities have had some success in curbing the excesses of the industry. The new tax on bets and wins seems to have encouraged some claimants to cut back. A law passed last December gives the central bank new powers to regulate digital lenders. And thanks to restrictions imposed by the country’s betting control and licensing board (BCLB), gambling firms will no longer be able to advertise on radio and TV during the day. But the industry is still moving forward. In July 2019, the board refused to renew the licenses of 27 consecutive betting companies, including SportPesa, on the payment of back taxes. Some returned, and new companies started. Today, BCLB lists 99 licensed bookies, more than ever before the crackdown.

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In an interview at its Nairobi headquarters, Peter Mbugi, director of the BCLB, told me that Kenya’s number of bets and the total volume at stake today are less than 2019, although he declined to share any figures. The Mbugi drop is attributed to the stricter rules and the growing awareness that sports betting is “not so rosy” as many thought. But others say the drop in numbers could be a temporary blip due to the 2019 tremors and epidemics, which put pressure on household finances and disrupted the global soccer league for months. Data from Safaricom, which controls more than 99% of Kenya’s mobile money market, shows that in the six months ended September 2021, transactions with M-Pesa users’ betting sites were valued at $ 737 million, up from $ 436 million in the same period in 2020. Meanwhile, there are new African markets to explore. Karen Njerenga, who heads marketing in Kenya for the global firm Betway, which operates in seven African countries, says the company is looking at many other countries. Chacklein Sports, which helps betting companies acquire and retain customers, has described the continent’s “unusable potential” in online gaming as “incredible”.

Nelson Bevier and Weldon Koros are activists who advocate for policy reform around gambling.
Nelson Boyer (seated) and fellow activist Weldon Coros (standing) have partnered with British company Gambon to launch an application that allows addicts to block gambling sites on their device.

Brian Otino

Some hope that similar technologies that have enabled the industry to thrive can also reduce losses. Last year, for example, Bwire and fellow activist Weldon Coros partnered with British company Gamban to launch an application that allows addicts to block access to all gambling sites on their devices. Software usage, which cannot be uninstalled, has been modest so far, but Bwire says it has helped some people “reduce the temptation”. Bwire and Koros have also had some success lobbying universities to block betting sites on their networks: if students have to pay for data, they can spend less time on their devices. And the men praised Safaricom for launching a “smart mobile payment system” for student loans in 2021, which would prevent tuition fees from being diverted to speculation. But Bwire wants to see the company do more, including imposing stricter restrictions on text-based advertising and overdraft features that many bookmakers use to wager on credit, as well as loans from outside apps. (A Safaricom spokesperson earned $ 37 million from betting fees in FY2021, but did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Kirwa says that betting has become very important for his identity, without which it is difficult for him to understand life.

New digital products could impress some contenders towards alternative hostels. Kevin Kegara, a third-year student at Kenyatta University, says he tried sports betting after high school but quit when he learned he was being bullied. These days, it has moved toward foreign currency trading: FXPesa, an application that allows it to use mobile money, which was launched in 2019, and others have followed it. Many of his friends also use apps to trade in foreign currencies, cryptocurrencies or foreign stocks – options that were not available until a few years ago. Kegara, who aspires to be “Kenya’s Warren Buffett”, doubts that greater awareness of these products will attract some educated Kenyans to speculation, though perhaps not the public. “It’s very difficult to convince a non-college student about the markets,” he says.

Kirwa, for his part, is unlikely to kick his habit. One evening in Eldoret, I joined him in his red Toyota Vitz, a hatchback he had equipped with tinted windows and electric-blue interior lighting. Afrobeats roaring from the stereo would have been less small if he still had his old sound system, he lamented, but he sold it to pay off the loan used for betting. Despite Kirwa’s poor record in the years following his big win, he says he has no plans to leave. Betting has become so key to his identity, he says, that it is difficult for him to understand life without it. Also, it is very convenient. His smartphone and M-Pesa wallet will always be in his pocket અને and luck will always be on his side again.

Jonathan W. Rosen is a writer and journalist from Africa,

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