SPECIAL REPORT: Nigerians are making a big bet

Zimbabwe betting shop - Photo credit: UN.org

by Mazi Emeka

The Bet9ja betting shop at Ojuelegba bus stop, Surulere, Lagos is a relatively small space made even smaller by the large number of people crammed into it. On one side of the shop, above the counter, on which a number of desktop computers are set and bookmakers take orders from customers, a virtual football game flickers across a flat screen television while a dog race is underway on another screen. About five or six young men stand, transfixed, as they watch the games on the television screens.

This is not an usual sight these days.

In recent years, such retail shops have sprung up in several locations across Nigeria (at Ogba market in Ojudu Local Government Area, for example, there are five different betting shops within less than four minutes walking distance from each other, each one packed with eager patrons.) These retail shops bridge the gap between punters and betting companies – basically serving as middle men for both parties.

This affiliate model – whereby betting companies license agents to collect bets on their behalf after meeting series of conditions, – adopted by local betting companies such as 1960Bet, Bet9ja, Nairabet, Surebet, UBC360 amongst several others, has not only bridged the gap between customers and service providers, it has also helped betting companies penetrate deeply into different parts of Nigeria at the grassroots level, stimulating the local economy in the process.

Accredited Shop owners (agents) make their money from the number of stakes placed through their outlet. The betting company pays them a pre-agreed commission based on the number of bets that emanate from the shop into the company’s server. These bets are then processed and calculated at the end of the week when a commission is paid to the agent.

Quite ironic that in the age of the Internet, brick and mortal retail shops are increasingly becoming popular among bettors and betting companies are investing heavily in their affiliate networks.

In addition to a potential chunky role in economic development, these retail shops have become community centres of sorts, as sports enthusiasts – willing to stake a few Nairas in other to win more, – gather to banter about football, joke about careless bets and generally forget about the sorrows of the larger society.

As pointed out by one shop manager, punters are not necessarily loyal to a particular brand or high odds (which roughly means higher winnings,) offered by a betting company. Instead, they gravitate towards shops that feel homely, rich with comfortable banter or where they enjoy familiarity with staffers. Safe to assume that punters gain socioeconomic rewards from betting at retail shops. These retail shops are also responsible for increased levels of trust that punters have in a particular betting company.

Small retail shops are perhaps the most crucial part in the online gambling industry and are rapidly becoming a huge – if not integral – part of our communities, much like the barbershops. They have also directly influenced the online gaming scene, still in its nascent stage, propelling it towards the rapid growth witnessed within the last five years. It is not uncommon to find tech savvy patrons at the retail shops joining the action live from their mobile phones.

Online gaming began to gain popularity in Nigeria early in the year 2010. In the years that followed, the gaming industry established itself as the most popular form of gambling in Nigeria, essentially displacing other gambling forms (including the once popular Baba Ijebu, Lotto, Pool, etc.) that existed long before the Internet of Things.

Adopting the retail model used widely in the United Kingdom, and boosted by the level of Internet penetration and availability of Internet payment systems, online betting companies in Nigeria began to claim a sharp edge over other forms of gambling.

An interesting observation is the steady popularity that sports betting seems to be enjoying despite the biting economic situation in Nigeria. Dotun Ajegbile is the chief executive of 1960bet, and in an interview with YNaija, he says that in the next few years, betting companies in Nigeria would feature prominently on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE). Ajegbile clearly points out that come what may, betting is a profitable venture, a legal, licensed one, and that online gaming has come to stay.

Perhaps Ajegbile is not wrong.

To directly observe the dynamics of these retail shops, YNaija.com visited ten retail shops within Lagos Mainland at different times of the day. Uncanny similarities existed across the different shops visited. At all hours of the day, depending on location and size of the shop, there are a minimum of six patrons – mostly young men – in any given shop.

Mrs. Oriola, owner of a Bet9ja retail betting shop at Ogba says that early mornings before she and her workers arrive, customers are already waiting and itching to go.

“Before we open our shops in the morning, most of them are already here waiting for us. And we open by 8am or some minutes after,” she says.

Oriola, alongside two other young girls, are the only female occupants of the shop as at the time YNaija.com arrived the shop at 04:40pm on a Thursday afternoon. Six men stand around the counter while three others are sitting on a bench watching a virtual football game.

Oriola reveals that she has seven employees and pays them a monthly salary of twenty thousand naira each. She argues that the betting industry is highly profitable but unpredictable. “Our earnings can go beyond or above any amount,” she adds. Her weekly earnings vary. Sometimes she takes home above N80, 000 while other times it is just below N80, 000. “It all depends on what you sell – your stack per week because it is a weekly commission not monthly.” She explains, before adding, “You don’t decide the amount you earn. You are paid based on commission, so you can’t decide what the commission will be. They do that from their head office.”

Qudus Babajide is the manager of a UBC360 betting shop at College Road, Ogba – his shop sits in front of Oriola’s. Babajide is short, walks with a slight limp and is wont to launch into long-winded narratives with effusive, if not overly dramatic gesticulations. His shop is much more spacious than the other betting shops visited. About 12 customers are sitting on the chairs scattered around the shop watching different virtual games and a replay of the Summer Olympics on televisions sets that hang on the wall.

Outside the shop is the best place to converse, absent the noise, but customers coming into the shop exchange pleasantries in Yoruba before heading inside to continue a familiar ritual of all-round hand shaking and exchange of banters laced with friendly insults and quips.

“I’m a street boy,” Babajide offers. “I grew up in this street, so most of them know me and they come here because of me. Some people can stay here for a whole day. At least it helps to prevent crime; those people that used to pickpocket will spend their day here instead of going out to pickpocket.”

Otherwise unlucky when it comes to betting and predicting matches, Babajide, an OND certificate holder, says he has worked in three other betting shops before coming to the shop where he now works but has never made a single win from betting.

Babajide is paid fifteen thousand naira monthly, certainly not enough to cater to his growing family of five.

Employed alongside Babajide at the shop are three other women, each earning between ten and fifteen thousand naira monthly. Babajide explains that his boss intends on employing more hands if the market picks up soon.

A short walk away from Babajide’s shop is another betting shop managed and owned by Bola Oluwakayode, a slightly potbellied man, who appears to be in his mid forties. Oluwakayode is suspicious at first – as are most of his customers – but he soon warms up to talk about his business.

He owns two betting shops that employ ten people. “We pay up to twenty thousand as salary.” Oluwakayode adds gaily.

“Based on the economy now, it is like people are not coming much again, as in money is not flowing for people again. So there is a reduction of people coming to play games. Now we have like fifty customers in a day.” Oluwakayode laments, before pointing out that the dip in patronage is because football season is yet to commence.

Oluwakayode’s gross weekly income isn’t static. He reveals, “It depends on the number of stakes we have in a week; it helps us to know what we have. But in a week, we make up to, maybe, eighty thousand as our own commission.”

“It is profitable but if it is in a better location where customers come in and go out, then it is much more profitable,” he adds.

On the other hand, Adebayo Rasheed, owner of a Bet9ja licensed retail betting shop at Ojuelegba, Surulere, owns eight shops across multiple locations and employs thirty-one persons.

“Look at my workers now. They don’t have any job but I employ thirty one of them. Now they’re okay, they’re fine,” Adebayo boasts.

Data from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistic (NBS) pegs the rate of unemployment at an all-time high, standing at 12.1 percent in the first quarter of 2016, with analysts predicting worse figures by the end of the second quarter. An estimated 26.6 million Nigerians are currently unemployed or underemployed whilst several other businesses are closing down and laying off workers.

It is pertinent to note that Nigeria has one of the highest populations of young people in the world – 15 to 35 year olds account for about 70 million of Nigeria’s 180 million strong population. Nigeria’s minimum wage is unfairly set at N18, 000. According to a 2006 Human Development Report, and over 70.8 percent of the population lives on less than one dollar a day while 92.4 percent survive on less than two dollars a day.

Nigeria is essentially slipping into a recession and is currently experiencing her worst economic crisis in thirty-years. More people are expected to be impoverished.

Due to a paucity of research data, little is known about the contribution of the betting industry to the Nigerian economy. However, it is estimated that the industry is worth between USD 700 billion to USD 1,000 billion, globally according to a BBC News 2013 report. A 2014 report by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) estimates that Nigerians spend around $11.3 million daily on bets.

These betting shops are making a direct impact on the economy at the grassroots level by providing flexible employment opportunities for young people, generating revenue for local governments and providing income to punters.

Maybe it is time they stopped getting a bum rap.

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