Soccer balls from the One World Futbol Project stand up to life in a refugee camp.
Soccer is enduringly popular in many poor countries. Unfortunately, soccer balls are less enduring. One World Futbol Project, a for-profit based in Berkeley, California, is bringing a measure of joy to children in refugee camps, impoverished villages, and other places where balls expire quickly on harsh, rocky terrain. The company’s virtually indestructible balls were designed by Timothy Jahnigen, whose protean portfolio includes inventing an infrared warming system for hospitals and producing concerts for Sting. Mal Warwick, a One Futball co-founder, described the venture to Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan:
It was about six years ago when Timothy, who is an inventor and musician in Berkeley, California was watching a documentary on CNN about refugees from Darfur. There was some footage of children playing with a ball they had made themselves out of trash and twine. They were kicking it around on this rocky surface, which is typical of refugee camps. Timothy had traveled extensively around the world--even worked on a cruise ship for a number of years. So he was familiar with the terrain in poor communities and the problems facing poor people generally. He also knew about soccer and that soccer balls in rough terrain don’t last very long. He said we’ve got to be able to solve that problem for those kids.
So he stayed up two or three nights in a row, madly doing sketches and calculating how to use different materials to make a new kind of ball. He settled on something called pop foam, which is a cross-linked, closed-cell foam. It’s very similar to the material in Crocs shoes, which supposedly last a lifetime. And he came up with a solution: a soccer ball that would never go flat, that would never need a pump or needle, that even if you punctured it you could go on playing.
The problem was he didn’t have any money. He and his wife had just invested in another company that was selling one of his inventions. So the idea languished for two years until one day he had breakfast with Sting. Tim is one of the managers for Sting’s Concert for the Rainforest every two years at Carnegie Hall. Tim started describing his idea for the soccer ball to Sting, and Sting’s eyes lit up. He said, “You do it. I’ll pay for it.” He put up the money immediately for the R&D. After 11 months, after spending probably $30,000, Tim had a viable prototype.
Sting got another friend to come up with money to produce the first 10,000 balls to be field-tested. They were sent to a child-soldier rehabilitation camp in Rwanda and to rural areas in South Africa, Haiti, and Iraq. The balls performed marvelously. So by the end of 2009 the concept was solid and the manufacturing arrangements had been made. Tim and his wife, Lisa, reasoned that it would be impossible to raise enough money from philanthropists to finance millions and millions of balls around the world. They decided to launch a for-profit company that would put mission first and money second.
My primary business in the past was a fundraising consultancy for nonprofits. Lisa and I had done business through that earlier. She called me, and I was immediately intrigued. We brought in a fourth partner and launched the company on July 7, 2010. We began to spread the word among the sport-for-peace-and-development community, which is a term widely used in the United Nations network. NGOs and UN agencies use sports, especially soccer, as a teaching tool to introduce subjects like HIV/AIDS prevention, conflict resolution, and gender equity to children.
General Motors approached us and worked out a sponsorship deal, which we announced at the end of May. They are paying us to manufacture and distribute one and a half million soccer balls in both adult and child sizes to disadvantaged children around the world. The production line began operating in October at the rate of one container per week--that’s over 5,000 balls. We’re now operating at peak capacity of 11,000 balls per week. They are being shipped out as soon as they come off the line to Liberia, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Zanzibar, Vietnam, you name it. We are well on the way to meeting our goal of a minimum one million balls in our first three years.
The business model includes a number of different revenue streams. We sell the ball at retail online with a buy-one, donate-one model. The price online is $39.50 plus shipping. So it’s a little pricey, but given the long term ROI it’s a tremendous deal. We’ve sold thousands of balls that way. We are also experimenting with in-store retail sales. We have one store--ABC Carpet and Home, here in Manhattan--that is selling the ball. They sold it last Christmas and did fairly well and are hoping to do even better this year. We sell the balls at discount to nonprofit organizations and to companies that are going to donate them. Unicef has been a big customer. We have a number of other NGOs around the world buying the balls. And individual philanthropists will pay for a number of balls to be given away. We are also in talks with a couple of other big companies about possible sponsorship deals.
In July, at the end of the World Cup, we gave two balls to the biggest lion in the Johannesburg Zoo. Those balls are still in use there. The keeper told one of my colleagues that previously they had had to supply Triton, the lion, with six balls per hour because he tore them to shreds. On YouTube we have film of Triton trying to destroy the ball and finding out he couldn’t. Now he’s like a kitten with it.
Our objective is to bring the spirit of play to children for whom it is often denied.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan