We chat to Alive and Kicking’s CEO Ben Sadler.

When football makes the news, it’s rarely on a positive note. Usually it’s on the front page of a tabloid that’s emblazoned with headlines of the hedonistic escapades of an over-paid footballer. It can be easy to forget that football can have a positive impact on society.

Shoreditch based charity Alive and Kicking [A&K] are at the forefront of doing just that. Founded in 2004 by Jim Cogan, their aim is to “give young people access to a high-quality durable football” whilst creating “social and economic impact”. Through football they aim to help young people in countries on the African continent such as Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. A continent that once made the headlines regularly, but has now all but been removed from the nation’s consciousness, thanks to Brexit and the Royal Family.

“through my experience I began to realise that sport [has] the power to do so much more.”

CEO Ben Sadler has a long history in the field of sport having worked in Sport for Development as well as a previous incarnation as a professional football coach. He says that the light bulb moment came when he realised that perhaps the skills on the pitch could be used for good off the pitch. “I’ve always loved the game,” he tells us from his office in Shoreditch. “But through my experience I began to realise that sport [has] the power to do so much more.”

With sport at the very core of the countries that A&K work with, founder Jim Cogan chose not to go down a so-called ‘traditional’ route of simply donating footballs. Instead, he had the rather brilliant idea to set up a football manufacturer. To date, they’re still the only formal football manufacturer in Africa.

Employing people in an African factory making footballs could conjure up negative connotations of underpaid and overworked locals, and perhaps children. But Ben assures us that the jobs they provide are only available to those who have reached the legal age to work. He says that “they’ve provided over 1,000 employment opportunities….Across [our centres in] Ghana, Zambia and Kenya we have 152 people in ethical employment”.

Ben tells us of one young man who A&K have given a helping hand to. Bernard Obeney was born and raised in one of the poorest communities in Accra, the capital of Ghana and along the coast of West Africa. With dreams of being an electrical engineer, he joined the factory in Ghana back in 2014 as a stitcher to enable him to further his studies. Bernard started his course last year and now works part-time to support his studies. Being an integral part of the up-cycling leather programme Bernard says” “Since I’ve known Alive and Kicking it’s been very, very supportive. The managers are cool. If you need something you go to them…and they are willing to help.”

Rather than the profits from the sales of these balls lining the pockets of those at the top of the company, as has been found to the case with some of the world’s leading charities, the profits go directly back into their three not-for-profit centres, thus allowing more materials to be purchased, more balls to be made and more jobs to be created.

“Overall, about 95% of our balls are in Africa and the rest are gradually being kicked around right across the globe.”

To date, they’ve made a staggering 848,912 balls and created over 1,000 employment opportunities. At present they have 152 people in ethical employment in these centres.  These balls are far stronger than your average football. They’re made to last. Even on the arid terrain of Africa they stand to last eight times longer than your usual football.

“We receive a mixture of local, leather off-cuts and up cycled leather,” Ben tells us, explaining the process of making the balls. The leather is backed with latex and canvas to give them their strength and shape and then they’re given a foil coating so they’re waterproof.” Each ball has its own unique design, which is screen-printed directly onto the leather, then passed to their “skilled stitchers who hand stitch the panels together to create a beautiful, durable, high-quality ball” Ben tells us. Once the cutting and screen printing is done, it takes around three hours to hand stitch each ball.

The balls are all made with a variety of designs. Much of the inspiration comes from the colourful patterns of the local communities where they’re made. “We have a range of animal face balls that were made in partnership with a wildlife conservation charity,” Ben explains.

These balls have rolled their way all around the African continent as well as out of Africa, making their way to football games in Europe and South America. “We’re starting to get more orders from abroad,” Ben goes on. “We’ve been shipping to the USA, Canada and Australia recently too. Overall, about 95% of our balls are in Africa and the rest are gradually being kicked around right across the globe.”

“If you’re passionate about something it will help drive you forward, but make sure there is a need before you begin.”

But it’s not just the making of the balls and providing job opportunities that A&K are bringing to the field. They host regular sports tournaments  where their balls are used, remember that they have their own unique design? Well, often these designs are messages, making the balls an educational tool; “use soap”, “wash your hands” and “malaria kills” amongst others. Of these tournaments Ben tells us that “they are an opportunity for the communities we work with to come together and generate strong ties”.

Instilling a strong sense of community plays a pivotal role in bringing them together for the educational programmes that Ben and his team run. In countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Zambia it’s well documented that Malaria and AIDS are rife. Through these educational programmes they’re able to give people a greater awareness and help them to understand how they can prevent the spread of these often fatal diseases. They’ve checked the HIV status of more than 4,800 people and provided them with the much needed follow up support. Their health education coaches have provided over 30,000 young people with the information and help they need to prevent ill health.

Alive and Kicking’s health and well-being programmes are supported by a mixture of global charities and local community organisations, who can get right to the core of each community on the ground, those who understand the needs of the communities that A&K work with. Ben tells us: “Sport is used as the key communication tool with the majority of our key educational message delivered directly through play.”

There are a number of other countries that spring to mind that would greatly benefit from a similar educational programme. Do they have plans to expand? “As a long-term strategy, absolutely,” Ben insists. “But we’re always very careful to make sure our current centres are self-sustainable before we expand. We want to provide as many ethical jobs as possible and reach thousands of young people, but we don’t want to spread ourselves to thinly so that our quality and impact weakens.”

Running a not-for-profit business can be hard. Just what is that keeps people like Ben going in such an organisation? It’s probably obvious. The social impact that you can make when you’re a part of a charity such as Alive and Kicking will far outweigh any negatives. Says Ben: “The number of opportunities to make a positive impact is immense. There are so many great organisations and initiatives to work with, all of which are aiming to do good. That said, with so many opportunities comes capacity challenges. You have to be clued into your charity’s mission so you can prioritise exactly what you should be focussing on.”

What pearls of wisdom can Ben impart to those who may be considering setting up their own not-for-profit business? “Find something you’re interested in, respond to need, add value and think about your impact. If you’re passionate about something it will help drive you forward, but make sure there is a need before you begin.” Ben also stresses the need to see who else is working in that market as well as asking others for their opinion- just because you think you have an amazing idea, doesn’t mean it necessarily is. “Ask experts for their opinions.”

For now, Ben and his small team plan to grow A&K in a sustainable manner and to get everyone playing with their balls. “We’d love to provide more and more ethical jobs,” Ben enthuses “and to reach hundreds of thousands of young people with effective health and well-being education and give every child the opportunity to exercise their right to play.”

Words By Jennifer Wallis