Thuli Johnson’s contract as inaugural CEO of the Gambling Authority came to an end on 30th May 2022.
Impressed by his good work, the Board of Directors had recommended for his contract to be renewed, but the Ministry of Trade had other plans. “This is the longest I’ve ever stayed in any institution. My departure was long overdue,” said Johnson during an interview.
Post the Gambling Authority, Johnson intends to continue contributing to the country’s economic transformation and recovery through commercial farming, an enterprise he has been building over the years. Asked how he feels about his legacy, Johnson said he remains confident that he has built a firm foundation from which the Gambling Authority should be able to soar higher and deliver on its mandate. “From just two employees eight years ago, I leave behind a well-resourced institution with an outstanding master plan that only needs to be implemented so that Botswana can extract value from the gambling industry,” he said.
According to Johnson, the bedrock of gambling in Botswana was laid when he led formulation of the national lottery and sports betting. Despite his vast experience and expertise, Johnson knew nothing about the gambling industry when he was appointed in 2014. The Gambling Authority had just been established and mandated with regulating and controlling the operations of gambling establishments in Botswana. With the support of the Gambling Regulations and the Financial Intelligence Act, the Gambling Authority was also set up as a supervisory entity responsible for ensuring that none of its licensees partakes in any acts of money laundering.
“The Authority inherited nine casino licences and the regulatory responsibility from the Casino Control Board. Its establishment brought about significant changes that aligned Botswana with developed gambling markets across the world. During the formative years, we were more inward-looking, focused on setting up organisational structures, building capacity and capability, and formulating strategies,” said Johnson.
There was also intense engagement with gambling industry players to help them understand the new regulatory environment, and develop capabilities so as to ensure compliance with the new rules and regulations. Johnson had to establish and leverage networks with other local and international regulators to build capability and facilitate the training of staff.
“We were mostly citizen personnel with little or no experience in gambling licensing and regulation. Our training was very cost-effective as it relied heavily on the support of our regulatory counterparts. We also attended various conferences and workshops in South Africa, Europe and the USA. Our board members were also trained on corporate governance and the gambling industry,” Johnson explained.
The Authority also signed Memoranda of Understanding with other regulators such as the National Lotteries Commission of South Africa, as well as international gambling commissions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Locally, the Authority developed successful partnerships with organisations like the Financial Intelligence Agency (FIA), Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS), Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA), the Competition Authority (CA), the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) and the Botswana Police Service with the aim of assisting with licensing and best practices in compliance monitoring.
The Authority also acquired membership at the Gambling Regulators Africa Forum (GRAF) of which Botswana was until August 2019 the Chair, and the International Association of Gambling Regulators (IAGR). Additionally, Johnson himself became a member of the GRAF Technical Committee as well as the GRAF Training Sub-Committee. He was at some point elected a member of the IAGR Board of Trustees for a period of three years. “I was not alone in this process. I was with my team the entire time. I have to stress that what I have achieved was never going to be possible without the support of such a hardworking, supportive and dedicated team,” he said.
After the benchmarking exercise, Johnson focused on developing regulations and monetising the operations of Botswana’s gambling industry into a multi-million pula money-spinner. He was hunting on familiar territory. A financial services guru who had held executive positions in institutions like the National Development Bank (NDB), Metropolitan, ULC, Barclays Bank Botswana, Botswana Investment Fund Management (BIFM) and Botswana Development Corporation (BDC), monetising the Gambling Authority was a familiar stomping ground for Johnson. The first step toward monetisation was the regulation and licensing of casinos and other gambling operations. The Authority started issuing licences for casinos, bingos and bookmakers. Said Johnson: “The regulations tightened control measures for the sector and covered all land-based and virtual betting in Botswana.”
Under the new regulations, betting premises, gambling machines, and key personnel had to be scrutinised to curb illegal gambling. Stringent anti-money laundering and security monitoring measures were also put in place. With the regulations in place, the Authority was able to monitor the industry and ensure that taxes and levies due to the government were paid. For example, casino licence levies collected from the financial years 2016 to 2021 amounted to P86 million, of which P92 million was paid to the government inclusive of interest. The levy funds were used to finance responsible gambling programmes and other gambling matters in line with the Gambling Act.
From the onset, the Gambling Authority sought to re-energise and diversify the industry by introducing new technology and new licence types so as to increase investment and employment; enhance economic activity in the gambling space, and foster innovation and skills transfer. This deliberate focus on technology would come in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic. ’’Our virtual service culture has enabled us to monitor casinos online, implement online procurement and tendering and introduce virtual meetings,” said Johnson. The digitisation drive also enabled the Gambling Authority to assist its clients and operators to grow their digital footprint through Internet-based gambling and betting.
Going forward, new licences, lotteries and sports betting platforms will be largely Internet-based, given the anticipated customer base. Johnson also took special pride in ensuring that the gambler was always protected by rooting out illegal operations and ensuring that all gambling activities were carried out in a responsible and sustainable manner, including the mitigation of the effects of over-gambling. The Authority recently carried out a baseline survey on the prevalence of excessive and problem gambling in Botswana, with a view to designing interventions that combat gambling addiction.
THE NATIONAL LOTTERY
After putting in place proper regulations for the licensing and operations of the gambling industry, Johnson set his eyes on the National Lottery, a major gaming activity that he says has the potential to reap massive economic benefits for Botswana. Following successful negotiations with the preferred bidder, the National Lottery licence is expected to be awarded soon, notwithstanding unforeseen delays.
“The lottery is expected to create a lot of economic activity and thousands of jobs along its value chain. Funds raised from the lottery will also support a wide range of good causes in education, health, grassroots sports, and many others,” said Johnson. In Botswana, one percent of every P1 made from the national lottery will be collected into the Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and used to finance charity, youth empowerment, arts and culture as well as sports & recreation.
After the National Lottery, Johnson believes the Gambling Authority should introduce sports betting for football and horse racing. “A lot of groundwork has already been done in sports betting. We just want to roll out the National Lottery and allow it to gain pace,” said Johnson. However, he added, the Gambling Authority will issue a Request for Applications (RFA) as soon as the lotto licence agreement has been issued. To guard against cheating and match-fixing, the Authority has started engaging key stakeholders like Botswana National Sports Commission (BNSC).
While the Authority has made great strides since its inception, it still faces a number of challenges that often overshadow its achievements. According to Johnson, one of the biggest challenges that the gambling industry faces is a negative public perception on a global scale.
“Gambling was originally a Mafia industry before it was regulated. This stain has unfortunately stuck to people’s minds and many continue to view the industry as evil. This calls for a vigorous public education campaign,” he said. Asked about his succession plan on his way out, Johnson replied: “I groomed a solid and professional team, any of whom is capable of succeeding me. I believe they will do a good job because the Gambling Authority is now a well-oiled machine.”