This week Meet the Boss brings you Gambling Authority Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Thuli Johnson.
The charismatic leader is optimistic about plans for the regulatory body, which he says has the potential to improve the economy of the country as well as the life of an ordinary Motswana.
Excited about the national lottery and sports betting, Johnson explains the opportunities that lie ahead for Botswana.
What is your role as the CEO of Gambling Authority?
My role as CEO is to lead the organization towards the fulfillment of its mandate.
Every organisation must have a clear mandate of what it is established to achieve and in our case we are established to regulate gambling, commercial gambling of all sorts.
My role is largely to achieve that mandate that and to do so in a manner that has been set out in the policy and to support the economic development of the country.
I also make sure there is a liaison between the government, operators, the public, and the Gambling Authority board.
What would you say are some of the hurdles the Authority has had to overcome since its inception in 2017?
The first hurdle has to do with people understanding what gambling is.
Gambling is a game and it is entertainment.
We have just done a survey and people have a negative perception of gambling but it is born out of not understanding what gambling is.
One of the things we will do is start educating people.
Botswana is a developing country and its priorities.
From a funding point of view, we are at the bottom of the food chain.
One of the ways we have tried to mitigate that is through self-funding, with this we want to remove ourselves from reliance on Government funding.
And how soon do you expect this self-funding?
We are working on broadening licenses so we don’t find ourselves taxing a few people and becoming a burden on them.
We are also working on an amendment of the act but this will be a twin approach, hopefully in a few years or earlier, if I could have my wish, we would have the authority self-funding without overtaxing and overburdening operators.
The other thing is you must remember gambling is new in the country and therefore we had to build the skill base from zero.
The Authority has recently completed a survey, what was the outcome?
Our survey was a prevalence survey.
We wanted to understand how many people gamble, the population of the people that gamble, and what they are exposed to?
We are about to roll out the results of the survey so let’s wait for that.
But for me what was very clear was that we still need to define clearly for Batswana what gambling is, and this is for two reasons that if people don’t understand what gambling is, they would be cheated or people would think they are gambling whilst they are just participating in a fraudulent game.
You know there are pyramid schemes and all sorts of other things that people do to cheat others.
Why did the Gambling Authority stop SMS games?
One of the issues we had to address from the start was these SMS games.
We did not stop them, we wanted them fixed and the market perception is that we stopped them.
The issue we had is that every gambling game must have clear rules, which are published and made available to the player when they need them.
A gambling game by its nature must be fair.
In other words, if you think the winnings are randomized it should be true.
And this was not the case with SMS games; they used the games themselves to raise funds for the prices.
The algorithms must be stated from the onset.
The threshold for playing was that sometimes the first monies won’t get you the price, maybe airtime but not anything beyond that so we said before you have the game we need to see the prize, and we said that the first person to play the game must have an equal chance as the guy at the other end.
What we realized is that people did not know that this was gambling, they thought they were just playing a game, they thought they were just answering questions.
People need to know what gambling is, what betting is, and what it is they are getting themselves into.
What are some of your successes?
We have streamlined the operation of casinos; we have published very clear rules for them.
The rules govern for instance what happens within the casino.
One of the shortfalls we found when we started was the deductible when calculating the VAT.
We made clear rules on what are the deductibles and there are no more disputes around that.
Other key successes that we will see shortly are that we are increasing the number of casinos.
We issued an RFA for five new casinos, at this stage only one has been taken up.
We had wished the national lottery had moved faster because I believe there is a lot to benefit from the national lottery.
We are also keen on responsible gambling and so we have counselors that we work with that we refer cases to.
We now ban people on a universal basis as opposed to single casinos.
Before, when people over gambled they were banned on single casinos and they would simply move to the next casino but now we have a universal system that captures all of these.
We have established a complaint platform with families who complain about our customers but we investigate if the complaints are genuine.
Why is it important for a country to have a national lottery?
National lotteries worldwide have been used to fund projects that will not necessarily find space in the national budget.
Some countries have used the national lottery to boost their own budgets.
They have been used to fund projects in arts, sports, charities and that is what we will focus on as you can imagine the arts are important and represent opportunities for many young talented people.
It is very difficult to get sufficient allocation out of the national budget that also has to cater for national developments such as clinics, roads, schools, and dams and give people water, etc.
Speaking of the license, the issue has been a hot potato over the past year. What can you say about the issue?
The act requires that we issue an RFA, basically Tc and Cs of the project, and thereafter there are all sorts of vetting exercises. We received about five applications and sadly one of them came in late.
Then there was someone who we thought did not comply but they were of the view that they had complied, and there was a dispute.
The dispute took a long time to resolve because there were appeals.
We have learned lessons from the process and so in the future, we will have to see what to do about those so they don’t delay the process.
We eventually then had two applicants, and as you saw in the last few weeks we put out a notice that we have not reached an agreement with the preferred applicant and therefore we will be terminating their position and giving it to the reserve applicant.
We are currently waiting for the 30-day period of which they are entitled to appeal if they want to.
After this process is complete, they would have to show commitment to their contract over the 10 -year period.
But I don’t want to go into other nitty-gritty’s because I don’t want to anticipate anything.
What else can Batswana look forward to from the Gambling Authority?
Definitely, sports betting is on the cards.
We have held back on it because we wanted to give the lottery a chance to start and ground itself.
We want sports betting to benefit the country so that people don’t just bet on the international leagues; we want people to also bet on the local league.
Another project we are looking at is horse racing; globally, horse racing is an elite sport that employs a lot of people.
It requires a lot of infrastructures but we have started setting that up so those are some of the things to look forward to.