Policy Positions #5: Sports Betting, Gambling and Mental Health in Africa

May 8, 2024

By Temi Ibirogba

The rise of mobile device, internet and social media usage over the past two decades has brought with it an increasingly difficult habit for many young men in Africa to break: sports betting and gambling. Companies across the continent like SportyBet, Betway, Bet365 have been able to profit off the ease and accessibility that online betting provides users in addition to increasingly ubiquitous brick-and-mortar outlets. Culture and socialization as well as aggressive marketing by betting companies have also played a crucial role in the rise of sports betting shops and online betting activity. But a crucial element missing in these discussions is not only how the lack of mental health awareness and facilities across Africa serves as a main contributor to the increase in betting, but the negative effects that betting has on young people including financial issues from losing money, neglecting friends and family, self-esteem, work performance and similar harms.

THE RISE IN GAMBLING REQUIRES REGULATION

Researchers and health professionals believe that this rise in gambling specifically amongst African youth is causing social harm. But what catalyzed it? Mobile internet users in sub-Saharan Africa rose by 71 percent between 2017 and 2022 from 170 million to 290 million people, one of the fastest adaptations in the world.

This increased internet connectivity and accessibility of course allowed for a variety of social and commercial benefits, but with policy infrastructure being unable to keep up with the quickly changing digital landscape, regulations that pertain to internet laws are often not created in time to keep up with modern issues. Currently online gambling and sports betting is illegal in 38 countries out of the 55 in Africa but this is rooted in a general prohibition of gambling encoded in colonial legislation that has not been updated. As a result, “the sector is mostly underground and unregulated” according to Business Insider Africa. In countries like Ghana and South Africa betting is only permitted on licensed websites and at designated physical sites respectively — and includes over-18 age restrictions. Overall the lack of regulation in so many other countries means the “legal status of online gambling in Africa” and regulations around it are “rather unclear.”

Source: Regan Van Rooy

As recently as October 2023, the executive secretary of the National Lottery Trust Fund (NLFT) Bello Maigari has pushed for the Nigerian Federal government to “create a framework that can encourage the sports betting industry to start paying taxes in Nigeria.” He says “leveraging the gaming and betting industry as a tax contributor can help create a level playing field for both local and international operators. By establishing clear and equitable tax regulations, we can encourage foreign players to operate within our regulatory framework, ensuring that we benefit from their presence whilst safeguarding our citiziens.” According to The Guardian, there are over 65 million Nigerians engaging in online gambling and spending $15 per day with 14 million bet takes and payments being made daily making it the largest betting market in Africa. Globally, the online betting market is worth over $50 billion and continuously growing. The scale of the sector is why Maigari says taxation is so important.

According to Russell Eastaugh, a tax advisor who specializes in the betting industry and African tax, “the rush of punters wanting to gamble and of investors to provide them with the means to do so has also been matched by the desire of governments to tax the industry. Governments across Africa are certainly trying to ensure that they are ‘winners.’ Many governments tax the industry at multiple levels — taxing the operators on sales, customers on bets placed and again on winnings, and then also taxing operators on the purchase of the services that they need.”

It appears that there are more intricate levels of regulation in certain countries, but a lack of regulation in others. Research on gambling and sports betting in Africa is also somewhat limited because of its infancy and exponential growth, research papers that have been published express this limitation and even admit their case studies are limited to South Africa in some cases.

CULTURE’S CONTRIBUTION

Culturally, sports betting is regarded as a social activity and form of entertainment that brings communities together. European soccer games are usually the focus of sports betting in Africa, the rise in betting began 70 years ago around the same time when football became the most popular sport on the continent. Events like the World Cup, AFCON and the NBA playoffs (currently taking place) are also popular subjects of sports betting. The pandemic-era also further inflated this demand for betting as a form of digital entertainment.

Betting, whether online or in person, can also be seen by many as a possible pathway to exit from poverty. The basis of why young men and some women are turning to gambling in the first place is rooted in the financial shortcomings of African governments specifically within the realms of youth employment, economic growth, inflation, housing prices and the cost of living which make it very difficult for young people to grow and evolve during their formative adulthood years. Because “it is easy to bet, but very hard to make money from it,” many become further trapped in precarious situations. Africa has the world’s largest youth population with a median age of 18, meaning half of the population is younger than that age. While these statistics are usually stated optimistically, the reality that so many of the continent’s “future” have to gamble to eat that day is cause for extreme concern.

AGGRESSIVE MARKETING BY MULTINATIONAL COMPANIES

Being able to prey upon already vulnerable young people, desperate to make quick cash works to the advantage of betting companies who use aggressive marketing.

Many European football clubs are sponsored by betting companies which give a biased impression about the product, Youtube is full of betting company ads and local celebrities who get paid to promote betting. Since these companies are usually subsidiaries of large multinationals that take the money out of Africa, the payouts to African gamblers is lower due to poor value odds. This strategic marketing toward a vulnerable population shows that young people need to be protected. Unfortunately, their governments are doing so little pertaining to mental health, employment and other important areas despite wanting Africa to be the future with an empowered youth generation like they claim.

THE STATS

One in five people ages 16-25 are considered a “problem gambler.” Problem gambling is mainly an issue for men although it does affect women too according to journalist Zoe Flood who produced the documentary ‘Gamblers Like Me: The Dark Side of Sports Betting’ which examined the effects of gambling on communities in Uganda. The high number of young people experiencing harms from gambling shows why mental health in Africa is so important. Gambling issues, as well as the underlying issues and trauma contributing to it, like poverty, need to be better addressed by mental health professionals. If gambling related disorders in Africa continue to grow unchecked, they could lead to “financial difficulties, crime and mental health problems” for this “vulnerable stratum of society” according to a Journal of Gambling Studies paper published in 2021. Research by Gamble Aware shows a connection between problem gambling and poorer mental health with the most commonly reported harms being a loss of trust by friends and family, a lack of money for large costs and increased suicidal ideation— however very little has been done by African governments to address this growing issue. In their recent findings, Bitanihirwe et al. state that although a small number of services and campaigns have been created to help mitigate the harm and demonstrate promise, more research is needed. Furthermore, “legislation and policies designed to better regulate the gambling industry and redress these harms are needed.”

As mentioned, investing in Africa’s future means investing in its youth— we need to care about what happens to young people. Governments across the continent need that wakeup call across various sectors and social issues, sports betting and gambling are simply just representations of the larger, foundational issue on the continent which is poverty and unemployment. However, practical solutions to help address gambling’s effect on mental health include addiction services, cognitive behavioral therapy, providing access to online treatment courses for gambling, creating awareness about the increase in gambling addiction amongst health professionals and continuously improving policy, prevention and treatment surrounding gambling and sports betting.

Temi Ibirogba is an editor at The Africa Center.

This article is part of The Africa Center’s Policy Positions series, the recurring publications will offer thoughtful engagement with contemporary policy and governance issues related to the African continent. Policy Positions are submitted by members of The Africa Center’s community of thought leaders from across Africa and the African Diaspora. Follow @theafricacenter on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to stay informed of new posts and to submit an idea for consideration.