Paul Wasswa has been sat at the counter for seven hours, his eyes darting between a virtual roulette screen above and betting slips in front. The university student hopes his Saturday spent in one of Kampala’s many betting outlets brings big rewards.
“This is my work. I wake up early and I just come to betting, it is enjoyable,” the 25-year-old says. “The betting helps me pay my tuition fees and next month I will go back to school.”
Wasswa is among millions of Ugandans gripped by gambling. But it wasn’t always so.
While betting on people playing pool and games of Ludo, for example, have long been popular activities in almost every Ugandan town it was the emergence of casino operators and creation of a national lottery in 2004 which saw betting’s appeal rocket, according to locals.
Back in 2007, Sports Betting Africa opened the first licensed sports betting outlet in the country, capitalizing on the rising popularity of the top soccer markets such as the English Premier League. There are now more than 200 such betting shops, with a recent report estimating 150 billion Ugandan shillings ($42 million) is now spent on gambling annually.
Similar to many African countries, Uganda’s population is young—of its 37.6 million citizens, 78% are below the age of 30. This demographic imbalance has left many youth jobless with more than 22% aged 15-24 unemployed, and an increasing number turning to gambling.
“I’ve almost spent two years betting,” Wasswa, who spends around 10,000 Ugandan shillings a day gambling, says. “The youth have turned betting to their business and I live with my aunt so I find some little money here to help me.”
Kabalagala Road is the gambling epicenter in Uganda’s capital, home to an array of betting shops, with virtual games and slot machines supplementing wildly popular sports betting.
Peter Arach, manager at Paragon Bet on Kabalagala Road, one of Uganda’s 40 mainly foreign-owned firms, says it is easy to see why gambling is taking ahold. “Look here, the street is full of betting companies,” Arach says. “There is nowhere you can hang out without gambling.”
Arach says the biggest win he has seen is a 6,000 Ugandan shillings bet which delivered 70 million Ugandan shillings. “Here in Uganda, it is more an individual fight—you have to try your luck,” he says. “There is no money, so people resort to gambling.”
“On a good day with sports betting we can make 10 million Ugandan shillings,” Arach adds. “Everyone here is born knowing football.”
The Ugandan government, which earns around $5 million in taxes a year from gambling, is making efforts to regulate the sector. Its Lotteries and Gaming Regulatory Board has increased operations and in Nov. 2015 passed new legislation but it will be this year when many regulations take effect.
And ultimately the national law controls the sector and issues the licenses.
The board’s corporate and public affairs manager says there are plans to launch a responsible gambling program and counseling services from this summer.
“We realize we have so many people who are being affected by gambling and they get addicted,” Jonathan Kyeyune says. “If you ban an activity it will go underground to the black market. When that happens such individuals are hard to identify and so it is better to have this in place and be able to help those individuals who are having problems.”
Leaving the early evening crowds on Kabalagala Road and Paul Wasswa remains hunched over the counter, hoping the next spin will help him get ahead.
“If I get a job after my studies I won’t come back,” he says. “I would rather have a job but since I don’t, I find myself here.”