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Gambling craze sinking jobless youth into pit of hopelessness

Area chiefs and Kakamega Police officers led by Kakamega Central Deputy County Commissioner Galia Ndaiya, OCPD David Kabena and OCS Mohammed Godana confiscated 28 gambling machines worthy of over Sh28,000.  [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

As a fresh graduate, this writer joined a band of sports gamblers, football diehards who whiled time away predicting match outcomes. One evening, a random texter, one of the many hoping to accrue a following, presented odds for what they called fixed matches, and I hesitantly wagered Sh20. I won Sh10,420 from the bet.

That money would soon find its way back to the vicious betting circles that take no prisoners, with the issuer of the odd winning bet asking for thousands of shillings so that they could send an even bigger winning ticket. Takes and gives left this reformed gambler with barely anything. This is the story of many a gambler.

With Kenyans bombarded with sports gambling companies, the temptation to go for the jackpot has seen many enter a bottomless pit. Once in, they need counselling to get out. Some stagger back in as soon as they think they are out, and gambling companies know exactly how to make that happen.

Addictive and promising quick returns

“Dear customer, due to prolonged inactivity in your account, we will consider your account to be dormant unless you log in before 2022-04-10,” a message from a betting firm, sent in March to a gambler who had spent well over a year away from the betting platform, read. “Thereafter your account will incur an administrative fee of Sh10 per month. If you wish to keep transacting, please log in before the said date.”

This user looked for ways to opt out of the platform but was unable. The value of money gambled daily via mobile money hit Sh463 million daily in the financial year ended March 2022, Safaricom said. Safaricom disclosures showed that the total value of money that hit betting wallets through its M-Pesa platform grew by 23.8 per cent from Sh136.58 billion in the previous financial year to Sh169.1 billion during the period under review.

Addictive and promising quick returns, many have been drawn into the gambling craze by the success stories peddled on social media, or by corrupted winning slips. When two Kenyans won the over Sh200 million, Sportpesa Mega jackpot apiece, many gamblers may have thought it was possible for them to also aim for such an amount. It did not matter how many times they lost - they were going to pursue the Sh200 million until they struck it. This pursuit, which comes with incessant losses, scarce wins and untold frustration, has ruined many, with some even committing suicide.

The horror stories of losses are not as amplified as success stories. As such, the losers are kept in a loop they are unable to escape from as they seek the glory that only finds a few.

“From the frying pan into the fire (My tragic betting story),” wrote Chris Kim on Twitter on April 5. “When I stopped drinking in 2017, I thought one way to get back up quickly was through betting. Sportpesa was all the craze and so I got into the game slowly: Sh10 bets at Betika, Sh50 in Mozzart, then Sh1,000, then Sh10,000.

“By 2019 April, I was losing an average of Sh50,000 every month. And so I borrowed from everyone and everything (apps) while still hiding the habit. I changed numbers and it affected everything in my life. I’m lucky it didn’t get me back into booze,” he said.

Such are the stories that get muffled, and that bookmarkers do not want people to get know of.

Take a lifetime before you win

Blame has also been placed on radio stations, especially vernacular ones, for getting their listeners into betting addiction with huge promises and consistent insistence on wagering. This kind of betting is unlike the betting platforms’ model, where live games, whose performance is often independent of people involved in the betting process, determine who wins and loses. The kind of betting often promoted by the radio stations is dependent on algorithms that pick random winners. This means that it could take a daily gambler a lifetime to strike a win.

“I think that this betting is exploitative and especially to the old folks who are easily enticed by their favourite vernacular presenters,” says Louisa Wanjiru, an anti-gambling advocate.

“There should be a disclaimer, just like what we have for other addictive substances, of all harm that gambling causes, and not just age restrictions,” she said.

Youth seeking quick ways to make riches, many of who, according to the census 2019, suffer from unemployment, have found a reprieve in gambling. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), as at 2019, 5.3 million or 38.9 per cent of the 13.8 million young Kenyans are jobless.

Many authorities have spoken against gambling, with a focus on its addiction and its ability to fool the masses that it gives more than it takes, while the opposite has been proven to be true. But little has been done to combat it. According to audited reports of Pevans EA, gamblers in Kenya won Sh380.53 billion in betting payouts from SportPesa between November 2013 and June 2019 in a period when the company operated under Pevans East Africa. However, in the same period, they had staked Sh447.33 billion. The gambling company was, ultimately, the winner.

“Too many youths are being destroyed through the betting craze and homosexual content. It’s a well-choreographed agenda to ruin the moral fabric of the nation and create a generation of zombies and perverts. We must resist the greed of those who want to trade morals for money,” said Ezekiel Mutua, then the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB).

While some of the main gambling companies can pride themselves in having supported sporting activities in Kenya, a lot of the schemes that are ever-present on local airwaves have the look of a Ponzi scheme no one knows where to point fingers when things get out of hand.

“Betting has slowly infiltrated the media houses - our vernacular radio stations are driving it like the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) craze. Presenters keep asking people to ‘send Sh50 or Sh100’ and so on to increase their chances of winning from dawn to midnight,” a user named Janner posted on Twitter.

But even the mainstream sports gambling companies have had their brush with the law, including tussles of overpayment of taxes. A crackdown, at a time some of these companies had even established themselves across borders, placed them on their deathbeds.

By the time they started recovering, other players had taken over their place and, arguably, their market share. With the widespread outcry over a rising cost of living, it is likely that more Kenyans are going to get into any activities that can promise them some earnings.

Gambling is seen as an easy option, with some platforms allowing as little as a shilling to wager a bet. And with stories of lucky gamblers winning houses, millions of money and cars are given prominence, the country may be staring down a destructive abyss.