FINANCE - 02 JUL 2018

Baba Ijebu - Lagos' Red Boxes and the Women Who Man Them

Baba Ijebu - Lagos' Red Boxes and the Women Who Man Them
A red box used by a Baba Ijebu agent

*Omolara’s son plays loudly in the sand nearby. From the umbrella under which she sits, she shouts at him to stop making so much noise; her customer is trying to concentrate and pick a good game to predict for the day.

“Which game dey play?” the male customer asks, his voice deep and gruff.

“Lucky,” she replies him.

It’s 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. The sun is blazing hot, and the usually busy Ahmadu Bello Way in Victoria Island is light with traffic. Empty stalls line the street, with their owners cooling off at the weekend.

But for Omolara, Sunday rest is a luxury she can’t afford. Off the road, her money-making machine sits with her on a wooden bench. It is red, scratched and has started to let go of some of its parts.

Tattered as it may be, Omolara’s red box performs its essential function; it predicts the games for the day. Later in the evening, when the games have closed, it also churns out the list of winning numbers, so Omolara can pay off her customers and get her commission.

The name of the game? Baba Ijebu.

 

An old, traditional way of betting remains popular

Omolara is one of the hundreds of women joining the fold of Baba Ijebu agents in Lagos State. Baba Ijebu, or Premier lotto, as it is known online, is one of the most popular gambling enterprises among low-income earners in the city.

Established in 2001 and after its founder, Chief Adebutu Kensington's alias, Baba Ijebu pre-dates the recent rise in sports betting in Nigeria. Many of its competitors are pure sports betting firms and are more popular among a younger demographic because of a high mobile penetration among this group. A 2017 survey estimated that over 70% of Nigerian youths bet on sports at least once a month.

However, Baba Ijebu retains its niche, standing out due to its affordability. Unlike on other platforms, players can stake as little as ₦5 on a game and win up to 240 times that amount. 

Baba Ijebu is also loved for its simple and varied options. Bimpe, a female agent operating on Lagos island, explains in impeccable English, “There’s 1 banker, 2 Sure, 3 direct, 4 direct and 5 direct. Think of them as network packages where you can choose which works for you based on how much money you’re willing to gamble.”

At Bimpe’s kiosk, 2 Sure is the most popular game; you choose two numbers from a pool of 1-90 and win if you’re able to correctly predict the 2 winning numbers. For 3 Direct, you have to get all 3 numbers correct to win. Same goes for 4 and 5 Direct.

It seems like a hard task and winning seems based purely on luck, but Baba Ijebu’s customers remain undaunted. “Everyone plays it”, says Bimpe. Baba Ijebu players range from keke and danfo drivers to police officers on duty.

 

Offline access still holds appeal

The gaming giant has both online and offline audiences, allowing it to cater to two different sets of people. Young, internet savvy players can easily stake on their mobile phones or laptops, and proceed to the cash centres for payment, thanks to Baba Ijebu’s partnership with telecom companies like MTN.

Lower-income earners, most of which Omolara and other agents serve, play offline. “People sometimes say they want to play the game online and I tell them I cannot do that,” Omolara shares with an embarrassed laugh. Omolara cannot help as she does not have an internet-enabled device and cannot even navigate the internet.

She is not alone. A good number of her customers also do not use internet-enabled phones. And perhaps, for this crowd, that is what makes Baba Ijebu so great – the fact that the red terminal machine runs on telefax technology and can function without the hassles of poor internet connection.

For both player and agent, the game is seamless, and money is earned without stress. It is this ease that continues to tempt many women into becoming gambling agents. Picture the ease with which recharge card retailers trade and you’ll understand how being a Baba Ijebu agent works. *Olaitan, a 23-year-old agent who operates at Lagos’s Tafawa Balewa Square, affirms that it’s, in fact, an ideal job for anyone, especially women. “It’s not stressful for women at all. What we do is sit and input numbers into the terminal.”

 

A chance to blow

Baba Ijebu holds the appeal of the best gambles – the possibility of staking little and earning so much more. It’s the Nigerian dream in numbers: work a little, get rich fast.  ‘‘One person has won ₦4 million here’’, Omolara says conspiringly, and it is difficult to tell if the story is true.

The larger the amount staked, the larger the prize the punter can win, and the higher the amount won, the higher the commission agents get. For women like Omolara, who lost her job as a cleaner five years ago, and who now has a son to take care of, the 25% commissions on winning tickets are a sole means of survival. “The earnings are not always a lot, but they are regular,” the petite 35-year-old points out.

Baba Ijebu is an easy game, perhaps too easy, a younger Olaitan says, her face squeezing into a frown. A rise in players has caused a corresponding rise in agents to serve them, and the business has become less profitable, she complains. In the little stretch of land in front Tafawa Balewa Square where she operates, there are about five agents, 2 of them female. The same picture manifests on other busy Lagos streets where you can find Baba Ijebu agents coddling their red boxes.

Indeed, a recent poll points to a growing love for gambling in Nigeria. This may be unintentional: Nigeria’s weak economy is still recovering from a hard-hitting recession, jobs remain scarce, and people, naturally, are doing whatever is necessary to make money.

Victor, a 47-year-old driver who has been playing Baba Ijebu for ten years, says he and his peers rely on the game because of the government’s failure to provide economic opportunities for the average citizen. “Some people will go to school, higher institution, after finishing there is no work...it’s only Baba Ijebu that can help us, the government cannot help us.”

Nonso Obikili, an economist and writer in Lagos, suggests that technology, rather than poverty, is responsible for Baba Ijebu’s renewed popularity. “Because of a high mobile phone penetration in these parts, more people can be reached, more people can play, and the winnings are way more enticing,” he explains in an emailed response.

 

The women who man the red boxes

But the rising number of players should also bode well for Baba Ijebu agents. Because there are so many people playing, principal agents (the people who get the red boxes from the Baba Ijebu headquarters and, in turn, give the boxes out to others to man them) are increasing the numbers of agents they employ. And while there are no official statistics, principal agents are beginning to favour women in particular. (The ratio of male to female agents is about six to twenty)

At the Baba Ijebu Headquarters in Ojuelegba, both agents and principal agents come and go in a steady rhythm. The white five-story building sits in a spacious compound dotted with smaller spaces branded ‘Premier Lotto’. Here, an unidentified male staff member reveals that women are preferred as agents because of their natural trustworthiness. “Most guys will take their employer's money and run away, but women are different.”

Obikili agrees. “Women have always dominated marketplaces in Lagos, and with the popularisation of Baba Ijebu, it is only natural that they dominate that space too.” For the women involved, it’s certainly a welcome development; more than 21% of women in Nigeria’s labour force are unemployed, compared to a 16% unemployment rate among their male counterparts.

Still, for women who choose to become Baba Ijebu agents, it is not all rosy. There are many risks, with the most common being bad loans. Most players are male and often promise to pay for tickets later. (“Which responsible woman will leave her home to play Baba Ijebu?” a puzzled Omolara asks rhetorically). But these men rarely settle their debts, especially when they lose.

Female agents also find problems in the neighbourhoods they work. Fewer women work in neighbourhoods like Ojuelegba where gang violence is rife. The female agents here are tough – as they must be to thrive in these areas.

Besides gang violence, female agents like Olaitan who are not lucky enough to own their own terminals are at the mercy of their employers, most of whom are again, male. “I don’t have a fixed earning; I take whatever I am given for the day,” she says. In her case, her employer is also her brother.

Added to these hazards are the moral lenses through which gambling is viewed in conservative Nigeria. Although it is legal in all 37 states, gambling is perceived to be an addictive vice, and as such, there’s a stigma that comes with being an agent. (Some of the women interviewed for this story adamantly requested for their identities to be hidden)

Meanwhile, the sector has been ignored and remains underdeveloped. Data is generally unavailable: it is nearly impossible to get precise figures for Baba Ijebu players or agents, and staff at the Baba Ijebu headquarters are tight-lipped.

Part of this may be because the government has overlooked the tax-generating potential of the industry. A PwC report suggests that this non-taxation may have held back regulation. For Obikili, the possibility of gambling emerging as a significant revenue source is something of a daze for a government that lacks innovative ways of sourcing revenue and that has focused too long on the oil sector. “I don't think policymakers fully understand what is going on,” he opines.  

Moral posturing aside, we cannot ignore the fact that Baba Ijebu is providing opportunities for women. Perhaps, incorporating Nigeria’s gambling economy into the formal sector with regulation and sin taxation will scale the opportunities for female agents even further.

Although gambling is essentially a transfer from one party to another, where no real value is being created, there are opportunities for governments to extract tax revenue from it, Obikili points out. In developed countries, revenue from the gambling sector is used to fund development initiatives like healthcare and provide employment. In a country where opportunities for women are less than sufficient, that is enough.

*Name changed to protect their identities

Shola Lawal

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