Make. Play. Live. At the center of life is play, and when people have access to play, their lives are changed for the better.

Frances Kyalo , a quietly intense Kenyan man with a mask covering the lower part of his face, leads me around the large, open room. Seated at various stations are men and women busy sewing leather soccer balls, the air full of music. At each station, the balls are in various states of finish. The pentagonal and hexagonal pieces of leather, hand cut on the other side of the room, steadily grow into soccer balls for kids and adults, each one conforming to FIFA standards.

Photo by Lars Bo Nielsen on Unsplash

Even with Covid, play must go on. If anything, it’s more important than ever. Even after serious cutbacks, play continues, and to play, you have to have a ball. Better, tens of thousands of them.

Alive and Kicking is the world’s only not-for-profit sports ball manufacturer. Since its inception in 2004, the organization has been making and delivering top quality leather balls to ensure three primary goals:

MAKE: The organization’s founder, James A. Cogan OBE, first imagined making play accessible to children who were using twine and plastic bags to make soccer balls. Today, those same kinds of kids, often just entering the world of work in a continent where unemployment ravages families, are fully employed producing top-quality balls to fuel the footy passion. This work allows them to rise out of poverty, even under Covid.

PLAY: The balls are bought by churches, corporations and many other organizations and donated to kids and adults everywhere, most especially disadvantaged communities where quality play items are scarce or non-existent.

LIVE: Kids learn life-saving health education through sport, which Alive and Kicking funds through sales and fundraising. A&K focuses on the triumvirate of African health challenges: HIV, malaria and mental health.

Play, and education through play, is one of life’s great answers to many of life’s greatest problems. Above all, play, access to pure unadulterated fun, allows people to relax, forget, laugh and be more creative. Which we all could use more of in our stressed-out, angry and anxious world.

The A7K facility sits behind a protective fence in Nairobi. Julia Hubbel

Alive and Kicking sits off a main road and down a rocky clay path. Inside, even as Covid continues to ravage the world, demand for top-quality leather soccer balls has finally begun to grow again. Stitchers are busy at their stations. Frances conducts quality control, and has been with A&K for sixteen years. He walks me through the process with the pride of a man who knows that he is doing good work.

Part of that good work is ensuring that in a world where far too many people try to exist on less than two dollars a day, they can gain top-notch skills, get paid a fair wage and even use those skills if out of work due to Covid.

It’s not just that. It’s health care, as well as opportunities to learn white collar skills from PR to finance to marketing.

A&K teaches that mental health is inextricably tied to play and physical health, a message as pertinent to the overworked, stressed Western world as well as struggling locals.

Some of these workers have mild disabilities, according to Jo Ryan, an Irish ex-pat who first welcomed me into the sprawling complex. Jo has been with Alive and Kicking for about five years and now sits on the board. Her energy is infectious as is her enthusiasm for the enterprise.

She told me that Cogan had been a UK school master, and brought rich kids to Africa as part of their education. That was when he noticed how the local children, in the inimitable way of the poverty-stricken, had to fashion their soccer balls out of the available materials.

At that point, Cogan and a friend, Charles Appleton, who was at the time with KPMG, got to work on the idea. While the idea began as an NGO, it was structured into a company and registered as a not-for-profit business.

While Alive and Kicking began with soccer balls, a quick walk through the open area and the displays of their products proves otherwise. From net balls to American gridiron footballs, A&K can make anything to spec. They can hand-screen logos, animals and all kinds of designs onto the hardy leather, which makes the balls last a very long time.

A worker cuts the hexagonal and pentagonal pieces for the balls. Julia Hubbel

From start to finish, the balls are made by hand. A&K sources their leather locally, then applies the internal canvas and external treatments to ensure long life and water resistance. Given that the soccer playing fields, especially where poor kids play, can be very rough, A&K’s balls last a very long time. They don’t split, crack and tear the way cheap synthetics do, albeit they are heavier because of the leather. Pro teams use them for practice, for that extra weight is actually beneficial for conditioning.

A worker sorting the leather pieces into piles for the stitchers. Julia Hubbel

There is painstaking quality control at each step. Frances walks me to each station, showing me the detailed work. A&K has trained women and people with mild disabilities to take on this work, which has multiple benefits. First, there are millions of single moms with kids in Kenya. Learning to stitch and repair balls means that each of these skilled workers can, and did, apply their work to other areas when Covid created layoffs. They can repair shoes, leather goods and other materials when there is a work slowdown. That keeps them employed even when A&K can’t keep them busy.

A worker pushes a needle through the leather as he starts to build a soccer ball. Julia Hubbel

When a new worker is trained in stitching, Frances explained that it takes some three months to teach them how to make a football by hand. Over time they get faster. The best workers, he said, can make four, even up to seven footballs a day, which is incredibly swift work for such a painstakingly detailed process.

In a normal year, A&K makes something like forty thousand balls a year. When Covid hit, the charities, churches, corporations and all the businesses who were their main customers stopped ordering balls. Soccer and other sports were banned to protect people’s lives, so the demand dropped. Employment did, too, but again, those trained people dispersed to their communities and continued either to stitch at home for the orders that did come in or they applied their skills elsewhere.

A local woman puts the finishing touches on a kid’s soccer ball. Julia Hubbel

A&K specializes in hand-stitched leather balls, which means that they cannot compete against massive manufactures of poorer-quality synthetic balls. However, their core product is of astounding quality, and they have a lot of fans. Women like the worker above can pay her children’s school fees with what she makes stitching balls, or doing repairs for her neighbors.

India, China and Malaysia all make cheaper synthetic balls. The problems with them are legion. While priced to sell, the synthetic material can’t stand up to the rough abuse and hard surfaces of many if not most kid’s play areas. In addition, A&K repairs theirs.

For free.

That’s not a feature you’re going to enjoy with a junk ball made of synthetics destined for a short-half life on Africa’s hard concrete or rocky playing fields. Frances explained that the good balls last some eight times longer, and they sell for KSH (Kenyan Shillings) 2000, or roughly two dollars.

Frances next to a display, showig off the wonderful variety of balls. Julia Hubbel

Some of the customers who buy A&K are large local WalMart-like retail chains, large corporations who give the balls as gifts and charities. Big corporations donate them, and by doing so gain additional gravitas for those donations because of A&K’s positive back story. For example, TOTAL, which is a petrol chain, sponsored 2000 branded balls (A&K hand screened their logos onto each ball) and donated them to Kenya.

The organization allows the sponsors to promote sport, play, happiness and healthcare, by highlighting important topics like HIV, malaria and mental health.

Jo told me that in the United Kingdom, libraries allow kids to rent balls out instead of books, which provides critically-needed opportunities for poor kids to stay on the ball if you will. She said that every ball comes back every single time. Books and balls, allowing for learning and life at the same time.

While it’s subtle, the connection of learning to play is important. The draw to the library may be for the ball. Those same kids might stay for the learning.

A&K donates their seconds to needy communities and kids as well.

Covid body-slammed their operations, forcing cutbacks and closures for much of the quarantine. Still, Jo said that their landlord allowed them a 50% reduction in rent, which was a godsend during a rough period.

Alive and Kicking almost died for three reasons, all driven by Covid:

  • School closures
  • Banned sports
  • Corporate profits plummeted, making giving and funding programs dry up

The worst of it is, just as the world so desperately needed play for mental health, one source among many was struggling to provide it. The good news is they did make it through.

Jo and Frances both said that they are coming back slowly. The local workers, while not yet back on contract until things sort out, are stitching again, and there are orders dripping in and creating demand.

A ball receives a hand-screened logo. Julia Hubbel

Alive and Kicking focuses on the one product: the ball. Their other focus is what Jo refers to as a “business in a box.” How to make a ball from start to finish, all the makings of a soccer ball-making business in one box.

The Kakuma refugee camp is one success story. A huge camp of refugees from war-torn countries like Sudan, Burundi and Somalia. A&K’s business in a box resulted in training refugees how to make quality, FIFA-regulation soccer balls in three months. Many of those people have gone on to build their own businesses as a result.

That kind of entrepreneurship not only changes lives but it also moves refugees into active and productive members of society.

In order to better compete with the synthetic market, A&K are moving towards making high-quality synthetic balls. They will be the first to produce hand-stitched synthetic balls, which will change the conversation, and their options to compete with other top quality synthetic ball manufacturers.

People who live in abject poverty have enough to juggle as it is. Alive & Kicking offers a number of ways out: high-quality skills adaptable to many other life areas when work slows down, payment for school fees for kids who need better options, and access to play all over Africa’s hard playgrounds where life is hard enough without a well-made, reasonably-priced ball to kick around.

And that is kicking it, indeed.

A selection of Alive & Kicking’s options. Julia Hubbel