Betting in Kenya did not start yesterday.
It has been around most visibly as under the brand name Charity Sweepstake and less visibly under various gambling and casinos scattered around major towns in Kenya.
All these betting activities have been under the regulatory mandate of the Betting Control & Licensing Board instituted way back in 1966.
So what has changed to trigger actions from government that led to mobile companies blocking Paybill numbers of selected betting companies?
Technological advances have changed the betting reach, scope and habits.
When betting was mainly manual, one had to, for example, physically move to a casino or go to the Ngong Race Course in order to place a bet on their winning horse.
That in itself acted as a natural deterrent since not everyone in the social spectrum could afford the time and means to join such exclusive clubs whose membership was largely restricted by age, income and other constraints.
The harmful effects, if any, were thus restricted to a small elite group of Kenyans.
Today with technological developments, one only needs a mobile phone and a small amount of money to participate in gambling. Age, location, income levels are no longer a restriction.
Kenya has suddenly morphed from a working nation into a gambling nation, judging by the billions of shillings the betting companies are raking in from the youth and lower income groups.
The scope of betting has also moved beyond horses and includes practically anything that can be represented in digital form. One can bet on who will win a soccer match in Kenya, in England or in Kazakhstan at the touch of the button.
One can even place a bet on which digital teams will win in some online game that does not even exist in the physical world, but instead exists purely in the virtual realm. Online games that Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i and company do not even know exist. Games that are created and owned by virtual companies that are beyond the reach of any national tax regimes across the globe.
This is what technology can do to you if you are caught napping.
It gets into a sector, disrupts it and turns it upside down, rendering your existing regulatory frameworks null and void. You literally start playing catch-up well after the horse has already bolted.
The habits of Kenyan youths have over the last five to ten years have been changing right under our noses. In most cases, government has been more concerned about collecting tax from the betting companies than protecting the youth from the harmful side effects of this addictive behaviour.
The current knee-jerk reaction against betting companies is suspect at best, since it misses the point by being heavily focused on who has paid and who has not paid the necessary taxes.
Does it mean that once they clear their taxes, these betting companies will then resume their license to act as predators on the future of our youth and lower income groups?
Whereas we do appreciate the principle of willing seller willing buyer, we do need to develop digital mechanisms to restore the same level of restrictions and deterrence that existed during the manual betting regimes.
What is therefore needed is a total review of the existing 1966 Betting Act and its associated policies to bring them in line with the digital realities of the 21st century.
Anything less than that is likely to be seen as gate-keeping in terms of deciding which betting company remains shutdown and which one survives – while failing to address the fundamental plight facing the youth addicted to the digital betting craze.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu