In recent years, gaming and betting bars have become an omnipresent feature in the typical compilation of commercial and residential areas in Cologne. The shady bars and studios even tend to replace well running restaurants and other businesses and sometimes one might wonder how the inflationary increase of businesses is profitable. Nevertheless, in the last 15 years, licenses for running slot machines have almost doubled from 137 to 248 whilst turnovers three folded. This statistic is excluding the boom of pure sport betting bars. In that sense, I am quite used to the urban landscape of formalized gambling and betting opportunities in my home town.
A surprising find: Gambling in Ghana
However, my recent field trip to Ghana started with an unexpected and unsettling discovery: Already at the airport exit, a gaming studio offering different casino games for waiting passengers caught my attention. During manifold visits to countries of the Global South in the recent years, I have never seen gaming and betting advertised and promoted as aggressively as in Ghana. In all of Ghana’s major cities (Accra, Kumasi, Tamale), studios are prevalent, as well as in smaller cities like Techiman and Ho. Those studios stand out in Ghana’s urban environments. Huge billboards promising fun and wealth and the bright colors of roulette tables, one-armed bandits and soccer bets attract predominantly young men to wager some of their money. Surprisingly, those businesses are not necessarily found in the CBD of those cities. For instance, in Tamale, the Northern major town of Ghana, a highly-professionalized studio is sited in the middle of an impoverished neighborhood. Next to small leather and clothing businesses, as well as slum like residential buildings, a Safaribet studio sets a bright contrast to its surrounding environment: eight flat screen TVs broadcast English Premier League games and roulette tables. Behind a spacious counter, five employees accept the bets by the tensed audience of roughly 40 people. Every bet is rewarded by the attention of all the other customers, who are not betting and there is a constant flow of young men addressing an employee at the counter to make a small or big bet.
The business was launched less than six month ago, and experiences quite some attention in the local neighborhood. Whilst some people are only enjoying the atmosphere and watching the games, others spend a lot of money. Even after specifically asking about the danger of gambling addiction, no one seemed to be aware or interested in this potential pitfall. A friendly viewer, walked me to another studio less than one kilometer away. This premise was equipped with the exact same interior by Safaribet. The manager told me, that he was approached by a district manager from Accra whether he wanted to start the gaming studio on a franchise basis. The major investors are from Turkey and currently conquering the Ghanaian market massively. Looking at the news, Safaribet ran around 200 studios by the end of 2016 in all 10 states of Ghana. A total of 80 cities had been explored. The entrepreneurship by the Turkish company is expected to create 4,000 direct and 15,000 indirect jobs in the Ghanaian economy. Some reports euphorically link the new business directly to ‘making Ghanian millionaires’.
Gambling industry in Ghana: An anti-poor economy
I find this development quite disturbing. Sure, there is the opportunity of creating jobs and obviously, there might be a need to formalize betting and gambling to prevent an illegal sector. Nevertheless, my limited perception, which is based on a two weeks’ field trip, is the following: Safaribet and similar companies are invading Ghana with a business model, which is anti-poor and not at all beneficiary for the country. Setting up the studios in impoverished neighborhoods, shows – just like in Cologne – that the expansion aims at creating a market targeting the most vulnerable population. Regardless how much tax income will be created and how many jobs are connected to the industry, I argue that this industry is built on the back of the ones who are or will be addicted to gambling. Ghanaian regulations on gambling and betting seem to be insufficient: Underage customers are playing despite the minimum age of 18 years, press articles are not mentioning the pitfalls of addiction, whilst selling the dream of becoming a millionaire and the statements on measures to prevent addictive behavior on the Safaribet website seems to be much more ‘wishful thinking’ than effective.
Furthermore, one must wonder where the winnings are going. In the best case, the different companies are organized domestically, binding a high share of turnover and winnings in Ghana. In the worst case – and considering the involved actors quite likely – the companies are extracting wealth from the Ghanaian economy. I am painting a dark picture here. Still, I think it is a necessary picture. The current narrative of a gambling industry creating employment and millionaires in Ghana , should be challenged by the picture, which I just outlined. In a simplified and most drastic emphasis, this is the picture of the poorest of the poor being exposed to the highly-underestimated threat of addiction and the consequences to the already challenged livelihoods of many Ghanaian people.