The pocket-sized Las Vegas addicting Kenya’s youths

Mobile-savvy youths are flocking to sports gambling, and the government is cracking down on betting companies. Kenya has the highest concentration of millennials in sub-Saharan Africa who have tried gambling, a survey found. Kenyan youths also place bets more frequently and wager more as well, spending an average of $50 on monthly gambling, mostly on football.

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. I say ‘sadly’ because it made me think that it was an easy way of life. I placed $2 and won $48.”

– said Bwire, a self-described reformed betting addict.

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.

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. 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.”

– said 28-year-old punter John, who asked Al Jazeera to change his name to protect his privacy.

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.


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