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Win or lose: Chinese smartphones and WhatsApp enable offshore betting, newfound income, and hope for young Zimbabweans

Young bettors in Zimbabwe are connecting on WhatsApp and betting on the World Cup — even though it's illegal.


Ray Mwareya


Deogracias Kalima


Posted on Dec 17, 2022   Updated on Dec 31, 2022, 10:54 am CST

Online gambling is currently illegal in Zimbabwe, but during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, concluding on Sunday, the East African nation is home to a growing grey market drawing a number of customers — mainly unemployed young adults — to tap into offshore international internet betting platforms.

The combination of cheap Chinese smartphones, WhatsApp organizing, and offshore websites where people place bets is helping people in Zimbabwe defy online betting rules and power outages, and wager ruthlessly on the unpredictable results of matches in this historic World Cup —  in which Morocco rode its underdog status to the semifinals, the first African team to do so. 

“My family needs to eat,” explained Nathan Mlilo, 24, who lives in Mutare, the country’s third biggest city. “In a day, l need $5 to decently survive my wife and two kids, [which is] not easy in Zimbabwe. Unlawful web sports betting is my salvation.” 

Africa has the largest number of people who engage in online sports betting between the age of 15 and 24, according to a study from Delasport in 2021. Gambling and sports betting offline in physical spaces is not something new in Zimbabwean culture. Betting houses in physical locations throughout Zimbabwe have helped jobless punters get by in a country with one of the world’s most concerning rates of youth joblessness.

Companies like AfricaBet Zimbabwe and Regency Casino which offer physical stores have historically earned the lion’s share of profits in sports betting across Zimbabwe, leading some critics to blame them for troubling betting addictions affecting the populace.

As the frequency of desperate youth taking advantage of cellphone internet betting increases, historical offline betting agencies in Zimbabwe are getting a run of their money as youth transcend the legal grey zone to place bets on offshore websites that, on paper, are currently not lawful in Zimbabwe. 

That could be changing soon: A report in iGaming Next quotes Zimbabwe information minister Monica Mutsvangwa as saying, “Government is losing substantial amounts of revenue through numerous leakages and legislative inadequacies that need to be plugged.” 

But with online gambling yet to be legal, Zimbabwe’s youth are increasingly favoring offshore web-based betting, largely because of the nation’s economics. Zimbabwe’s Lotteries and Gaming Act of 1998 demands that 10% of any sports betting revenues and 15% of lottery winnings must be paid off to the government as tax, notes, Gregory Bande a tax expert in the capital Harare.

“That 10%, that’s my family’s milk money, corn money, grocery money,” says Jardin Sekwa, 26, a graduate teacher who earns only $170 monthly and is hardly able to feed his family of four for more than 10 days each time he gets paid. “Hence, to dodge punitive taxes, we are decamping to overseas web betting platforms and squeezing the juice of the World Cup as much as possible.”   

The lasting effects of COVID-19

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and its related curfews dealt a further blow to the fortunes of physical betting houses in Zimbabwe. As Covid curfews shuttered all street businesses like betting houses in early 2020, jobless gamblers like Nathan (last name withheld by request) were left staring into the abyss. 

“We organized rapidly via WhatsApp groups out of necessity,” he recalled. “We exchanged ideas on how to get around curfews, and thus we figured out those online betting houses which were not restricted for Zimbabwe if we could just login and place bets — those based out of Europe like Ladbrokes were appealing.”

He and his 20 fellow WhatsApp group members looked at global betting site Betway. “On paper, it’s illegal in Zimbabwe to bet on such a site,” Nathan noted, “but via the ‘net, it’s anybody’s bet.”

Knowing the World Cup in Qatar was coming along, young bettors like Nathan and Jardin (last name also withheld by request) banded together on WhatsApp upped their efforts, seeking more offshore betting websites that didn’t block payments for Zimbabwe. For Nathan’s group, that meant Cyprus-based MegaBet+ and Curacao-based 

Through these websites, they started placing online bets via their affordable Chinese smartphones, delving into English Premier League soccer matches.

“On a big day, I could reap $50 winning from one online bet and I just need a smartphone and as little as 20 gigabytes of mobile broadband data,” Jardin revealed, praising the superb battery power-holding features of Chinese-made Gtel phones, sustaining an active bettor ion a wobbly broadband connection in electricity-poor Zimbabwe for eight hours.  

Offshore betting is also more appealing to many in Zimbabwe because the legacy betting houses present so many hurdles for low-income bettors. “You need to hitch transport twice daily to go into the city where legacy betting houses are located,” Nathan pointed out. “That’s an upfront cost in time and money whether your punt on Qatar winning the World Cup or crashing [out] in [the] first round” — referring to the group stages, from which indeed Qatar failed to advance. 

“After curfews were loosened, there was a shift,” he added. “We got hooked [on] online betting – the money is better.”

A shift to digital betting

Zimbabwe has roughly 15 million inhabitants; Zimstats, the government’s official statistics agency, reports 13.64 million active mobile connections and 4.65 million active internet users. According to The Herald, that means 87 percent of Zim households are connected. Those connections happen mostly through inexpensive Chinese smartphone brands like Xiaomi, Huawei, Gtel, and ZTE. 

Benji Garikai, 23, in the online World Cup betting WhatsApp group headed by Nathan, revealed that placing wagers on offshore sites could become his career for a long time despite graduating with an accountancy diploma three years ago.

“If my online World Cup bets are a foretaste of what’s to come,” he observed, “I look forward to earning enough money to sustain myself as an online sports bettor and dump my accountancy diploma, which has never gifted me a job.”

Garikai is saying this six years after a troubling trend in Harare, in which Zimbabwean graduates wore graduation gowns while working as street vendors. He says, of his decision to purchase an Itel A56 for $35 to enable his offshore betting, “I don’t regret making that decision. I wish I made it sooner.”

For aggressive betters like Nathan, the 2022 World Cup’s 64 matches have provided 64 different opportunities to bet online — reasoning that there’s rarely an opportunity to place so many bets within such a relatively short window of time. 

And it’s been a lucrative World Cup for both Nathan and Jardin, who have brought in $340 and $210 respectively during this tournament, which they both consider to be good sums. But they’re each planning to go big during tomorrow’s final, prepared to bet up to $250 to expand their winnings. 

Zimbabwe’s challenges

Online betting in many countries is a matter of simply signing up one’s account and linking to a PayPal or MasterCard account.

In Zimbabwe, though, online checkout options like PayPal are geoblocked, creating an obstacle for gamblers to easily move money digitally. 

“It’s to do with U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe,” Jardin noted, adding that for online gambling, “I need to use a currency recognized in global markets. The main currency used in Zimbabwe is not at all recognized in the international market, so punters like me end up using the PayPal accounts of friends abroad in Europe or South Africa.”

“Win or lose,” he adds, “I have to pay the owner of an account a small ‘facilitation fee’ for using their PayPal account.”

Due to this lack of structural adaptation, there are no systems in place for Zimbabweans to place online bets using websites with servers located in Zimbabwe.

If Zimbabwe’s rules about online betting were clear and there were massive investments to place servers inside the country, there would have been immense benefits for domestic gamblers, digital betting websites and the taxman, argues Daryl Nota, an economic analyst at Rusitu Theological College in eastern Zimbabwe. 

‘Crowd-sourced’ betting

WhatsApp plays a huge role in online sports betting in Zimbabwe thanks to the cheap, instant connections that the globally-utilized app creates. As Jardin explained, WhatsApp has given him increased access to potentially high-rewarding World Cup bets and has allowed him to confer a circle of bettors before moving forward with a wager.

For instance, Jardin thought a bet on France crashing out of the World Cup semifinals was a pot of gold waiting to be struck. Before deciding whether to place the bet — which would have lost 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 in a position 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 this bet. It is a cyclic system of real-time, peer-to-peer gambling advice.” 

Ray Mwareya, reporting from Chimoio, is a freelancer contributing on technology to 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, exploring the spaces where soccer, the internet and identity intersect. Pixel Pitch is a joint project partnering The Daily Dot with The Striker, a soccer-centric online publication “where every day is a soccer news day.”

See more stories from Presser – examining the intersection of race and sports online.

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*First Published: Dec 17, 2022, 9:03 am CST