Chinese smartphones and WhatsApp enable bettors in Zimbabwe

Online gambling is currently illegal in Zimbabwe, but with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar drawing to a close on Sunday, the East African nation is home to a growing gray market, which is attracting a range of clients – mainly unemployed young adults – to Internet betting open up platforms.

The combination of cheap Chinese smartphones, WhatsApp organization and offshore websites where people place bets helps Zimbabwean people to defy online betting rules and power outages and bet recklessly on the unpredictable results of the matches of this historic World Cup, where Morocco entered the semifinals with underdog status, the first African team to do so.

“My family needs to eat,” said Nathan Mlilo, 24, who lives in Mutare, the country’s third largest city. “It takes me $5 in a day to decently support my wife and two kids, [which is] not easy in Zimbabwe. Illegal sports betting on the internet is my salvation.”

According to a 2021 study by Delasport, Africa has the highest number of people betting on online sports between the ages of 15 and 24. Offline gambling and sports betting in physical rooms are nothing new to Zimbabwe’s culture. Betting shops in physical locations across Zimbabwe have been helping unemployed gamblers make ends meet in a country with one of the world’s most worrying rates of youth unemployment.

Firms like AfricaBet Zimbabwe and Regency Casino, which offer physical deals, have historically generated the lion’s share of profits from sports betting across Zimbabwe, leading some critics to blame them for the population’s worrying betting addiction.

As the frequency of desperate youngsters using mobile internet betting increases, historical offline betting agencies in Zimbabwe are finding their money’s worth as youngsters cross the legal gray area to place bets on offshore sites that are currently not legal on paper in Zimbabwe .

That could soon change: a report in iGaming Next quotes Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information, Monica Mutsvangwa, as saying: “The government is losing significant revenue to numerous leaks and legislative shortcomings that need to be addressed.”

However, with online gambling not yet legal, Zimbabwe’s youth are increasingly preferring web-based offshore betting, largely due to the country’s economic health. Zimbabwe’s Lotteries and Gaming Act 1998 requires 10% of all sports betting revenue and 15% of lottery winnings to be remitted to the government as taxes, notes Gregory Bande, a tax expert in the capital Harare.

“That 10%, that’s my family’s milk money, corn money, food money,” says Jardin Sekwa, 26, a qualified teacher who earns just $170 a month and is barely able to support his family of four for more than 10 days at a time feed is paid. “So to avoid punitive taxes, we’re heading to overseas web betting sites and scooping as much juice from the World Cup as we can.”

The ongoing effects of COVID-19

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns dealt another blow to physical betting shops in Zimbabwe. When the Covid curfew closed all street businesses like betting shops in early 2020, unemployed gamblers like Nathan (last name withheld on request) stared into the abyss.

“Of necessity, we quickly organized ourselves via WhatsApp groups,” he recalls. “We exchanged ideas on how to circumvent lockdowns and that’s how we found out which online betting houses weren’t restricted to Zimbabwe when we could just sign up and place bets – those based outside of Europe like Ladbrokes were attractive.”

He and his 20 other WhatsApp group members checked out global betting site Betway. “It’s illegal on paper in Zimbabwe to bet on a site like this,” Nathan observed, “but anyone can bet on the internet.”

Knowing that the World Cup in Qatar was coming up, young bettors like Nathan and Jardin (last name also withheld on request) stepped up their efforts on WhatsApp and looked for more offshore betting sites that weren’t blocking Zimbabwe payments. For Nathan’s group, that meant MegaBet+ from Cyprus and from Curacao.

Through these websites, they began to place online bets and engage in English Premier League football matches using their affordable Chinese smartphones.

“On a big day, I could win $50 in an online bet, and all I need is a smartphone and just 20 gigabytes of mobile broadband data,” revealed Jardin, praising the excellent battery performance of China-made Gtel phones, an active Gamer maintaining a shaky broadband connection in low-power Zimbabwe for eight hours.

Offshore betting is also more attractive to many in Zimbabwe because the legacy betting shops present so many hurdles for low-income bettors. “You have to hitchhike twice a day to get to the town where the old betting shops are,” Nathan pointed out. “That takes time and money up front, whether you win the World Cup with Qatar or fall [out] in [the] first round” – in relation to the group stage, from which Qatar actually failed to progress.

“After the curfews were eased, there was a postponement,” he added. “We’ve become addicted [on] Online betting – the money is better.”

A switch to digital betting

Zimbabwe has around 15 million inhabitants; Zimstats, the government’s official statistics office, reports 13.64 million active mobile connections and 4.65 million active internet users. Corresponding The Herald, meaning 87 percent of Zim households are connected. These connections are mainly made through cheap Chinese smartphone brands such as Xiaomi, Huawei, Gtel and ZTE.

Benji Garikai, 23, on the online World Cup betting WhatsApp group led by Nathan, revealed that placing bets on offshore sites could become his career for a long time to come, despite graduating as a accountant had done.

“If my online World Cup betting is a taste of what’s to come,” he remarked, “I look forward to making enough money to sustain myself as an online sports bettor and giving up my accounting diploma, which gave me.” never got a job.”

Garikai says this six years after a worrying trend in Harare of Zimbabwean graduates wearing graduation gowns while working as street vendors. Speaking of his decision to buy an Itel A56 for $35 to power his offshore betting, he says, “I have no regrets about that decision. I wish I could have done it sooner.”

For aggressive players like Nathan, the 64 matches of the 2022 World Cup have offered 64 different opportunities to bet online – suggesting that there is rarely an opportunity to place so many bets in such a relatively short window of time.

And it was a lucrative World Championship for Nathan and Jardin, who brought in $340 and $210 respectively during this tournament, which they both think are good sums. But they all plan on making it big in tomorrow’s finals, ready to bet up to $250 to increase their winnings.

Zimbabwe’s challenges

Online betting in many countries is as simple as opening an account and linking it to a PayPal or MasterCard account.

However, in Zimbabwe, online checkout options like PayPal are geo-blocked, creating an obstacle for players to easily move money digitally.

“This has to do with US sanctions against Zimbabwe,” Jardin noted, adding that to gamble online I must use a currency that is recognized in global markets. The main currency used in Zimbabwe is not recognized at all in the international market, so players like me end up using friends’ PayPal accounts abroad in Europe or South Africa.”

“Win or lose,” he adds, “I have to pay an account holder a small ‘facilitation fee’ to use their PayPal account.”

Due to this lack of structural adjustment, there are no systems in place for Zimbabweans to place online bets through sites with servers in Zimbabwe.

If Zimbabwe’s online betting rules were clear and there had been massive investment to place servers within the country, there would have been immense benefits for local gamblers, digital betting sites and the tax official, argues Daryl Nota, an economics analyst at Rusitu Theological College in eastern Zimbabwe.

Crowd Sourcing Betting

WhatsApp plays a huge role in online sports betting in Zimbabwe thanks to the cheap, instant connections that the app, which is used worldwide, makes. As Jardin explained, WhatsApp has given him better access to potentially high-reward World Cup betting and allowed him to confer with a panel of bettors before proceeding with a bet.

For example, Jardin held a bet on France failing in the semi-finals of the World Cup for a pot of gold waiting to be hit. Before deciding whether to place the bet – which would have cost him money – Jardin was able to make a crowd-sourced decision on whether or not to take the plunge.

“Nathan can see a bet online but not be able to place it,” Jardin added. “He can forward it to the WhatsApp group chat where another person who has the required deposits can then place that bet. It is a cyclical system of real-time peer-to-peer gambling advice.”

Ray Mwareya, reporting from Chimoio, is a freelancer who contributes to technology for Fast Company, The Daily Dot, Rest of World and Newsweek. Deogracias Kalima, reporting from Mutare, is a freelance journalist working in Zimbabwe and Malawi. His work on sustainability has been published in The Africa Report, Earth Island Journal, WE Forum, Africa Renewal, Rural Africa Reporters and Unsustainable Magazine.

This story is part of the Pixel Pitch series, which explores the areas where football, internet and identity intersect. Pixel Pitch is a collaboration between The Daily Dot and The Striker, a football-centric online publication “where every day is football news day”.

Watch more stories from Presser – exploring the intersection of racing and sport online. Chinese smartphones and WhatsApp enable bettors in Zimbabwe

Jaclyn Diaz

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