Governments across Sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to keep pace with the mass expansion of gambling, brought about through online technologies and smartphone apps, say the authors of a new study funded by the British Academy and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

An international team, coordinated by the universities of Ghana, Bath, and Glasgow, in partnership with the Malawi Epidemiology and Intervention Research Unit (MEIRU), comprehensively reviewed existing policies in place to regulate the gambling industry across 49 countries.

They found that in 41 countries where gambling was legal (of 49 in total), only two published annual reports about its impacts. In 36, no public reporting was accessible.

This lack of transparency and general lack of coherence about gambling regulation suggests that as the industry grows, governments are increasingly unaware of the scale of the problem; namely, the negative effects gambling is having on users’ finances and their mental health.

With the advent of digital technologies fuelling the expansion of the industry, the researchers argue that regulation is outdated and ill-equipped for a digital age. At present, many territories lack explicit regulation for online gambling, or protections against the deluge of advertising that has become commonplace in more established gambling markets, like the UK.

What’s more, smartphones are allowing more and more users to access sports gambling 24/7 via a range of apps for both domestic and international fixtures. Whilst there is growing concern about the industry’s expansion in the Global North, little attention has so far been paid to gambling growth across Africa.

There, the review argues gambling has fast become ubiquitous across daily life from billboard to TV advertising. Young people are particularly exposed to this. Two separate recent studies found that up to 10% of urban Ethiopian teenagers were compulsive gamblers; in Uganda, over 90% of urban young people had at least one gambling problem.

Overall, limited information was available from governments about the size of the gambling market, participation, harms, and prevention. Only in Malawi and South Africa was market size reported. Botswana’s regulatory authority was the only one to offer participation statistics. Rates of harmful gambling were only reported in Botswana and South Africa.

First author on the paper, Junious Sichali of the Malawi Epidemiology and Intervention Unit (MEIRU), explained: “We’re witnessing an exponential growth of gambling across Africa. In Malawi alone, exposure to gambling, either via street vendors and betting shops, or the deluge of adverts across billboards, TV, live sport and social media, is everywhere.

“What is most concerning is that weak regulation means that many people don’t understand the risks of harm; some even see gambling as a way to earn a living in hard times. Urgent action cannot come soon enough.”

Co-Investigator from the University of Ghana, Dr Joana Salifu Yendork added: “The findings will come as no surprise to many in Ghana, where existing regulation has not been effective in either curbing the rapid growth of gambling or protecting against its potentially harmful effects.

“What is most concerning is that for unemployed youth in particular, gambling is not just a leisure form but a potential source of income and wealth. Robust policymaking is essential to prevent further harms.”

Principal Investigator on the project, Dr Darragh McGee at the University of Bath said: “The findings point to a lack of regulation, transparency, and protection from gambling harms across Sub-Saharan Africa, despite evidence that the industry is rapidly expanding. The need to address this regulatory void and prioritise a public health approach is urgent.

“Decisive action by policymakers across Africa can safeguard against the kind of runaway excess and harms that have been an avoidable by-product of gambling in markets such as the UK.”

Professor Gerda Reith, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow, added: “The rapid expansion of the gambling industry into Sub-Saharan Africa is especially worrying when the regulatory frameworks that might control them are often weak or poorly enforced, as this research has found.

“This trend raises serious concerns about the potential impacts of harm on the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations, many of whom live in conditions of poverty and unemployment. Urgent, joined up action by national and international policymakers is badly needed in response.”

Previous work from Darragh McGee has focused on the impacts of football gambling apps in the UK context. His 2019 qualitative study showed the direct negative effects gambling on the game was having, with young men increasingly unable to watch football matches without placing a bet. Read about this work in The Guardian.

To access the latest paper ‘Regulating of gambling in Sub-Saharan Africa: findings from a comparative policy analysis is accessible via the Journal of Public Health see