DAKAR, MONROVIA, SENEGAL — Several international sports betting companies have set up shop in Liberia. Unemployed young people gather at these betting parlors to gamble on things like televised soccer matches. Some say it is a good source of income and occupation, but others are not so sure.
Here at this betting parlor in Monrovia run by the company Winner's Incorporated, young men watch soccer matches on flat-screen TVs. They place bets and wait for the results.
The company's marketing manager, Randall Kaybee, said sports betting is "transforming the lives of Liberians" for just a few LD, or Liberian dollars, per bet.
"As you just enter my office, as you can see from this evidence. This is a ticket. Somebody bet 50 LD and winning 233,275 Liberian dollars," said Kaybee.
Lucrative, legal lure
Fifty Liberian dollars, is about 60 cents in U.S. currency. That pay-out he quoted is just over $2,700. He said winnings can be as much as five times that.
Thirty-seven-year-old Harris Kokeh has a college degree, but could not find a job - so he started betting. "I really been living by it. It has been helping me a lot. The last time I won about 700 United States dollars. It was a great help to me," he said.
Kaybee of Winner's Incorporated said the company has been in Monrovia since 2010, but the industry really picked up in 2012 when other companies started setting up shop in the area. He insisted they are not preying on the poor.
"The game of sports betting is give and take. For example, if everybody should bet on Barcelona today and Barcelona loses, Winner's Incorporated benefits. If everybody should bet on Barcelona today and Barcelona wins, Winner's Incorporated loses. The customers benefit," said Kaybee.
He said they hire young people to work at their branches around the country, creating hundreds of jobs.
These sports betting operations are legal in Liberia and are regulated by the government.
An official at Liberia’s Ministry of Youth, Henry Coleman, said, "With the presence of these institutions, we are very excited and we are in agreement with their operation in the country. This will help to promote a government poverty reduction strategy."
But not everyone agrees this is a good thing, like 36-year-old Harrison Myers. "This gambling thing is bad for our society. Our youth are not going to school any longer," he said. "They spend the entire day at the gambling center."
Some say the expansion of legal sports betting is fueling more illegal street gambling, and also is sapping young people's motivation.
But back at the betting parlor, 28-year-old unemployed father of two, Theo Varney, said they do not have much choice. "We have no much facility to take care of our affairs, so what do you expect? We are not betting because we want to bet. We are betting because we want to make our living."
Winner's Incorporated says more than 7,000 Liberians bet at their locations around the country each week, and 300 to 400 of them walk away winners.
Prince Collins reported from Monrovia, Liberia.