Donating sports equipment to Africa

Similar to my poverty porn post, this blog post will be rehashing a fairly common theme that comes up in the development sector and the development blogosphere: donations-in-kind and the Buy One Give One concept. Donations-in-kind refer to donating goods such as clothing, shoes, food, etc, instead of giving cash. I believe this practice is fairly common in the sport for development field. Through various friends and newspaper articles I have come across a number of examples. The most common one I have encountered is volunteers for a programme called Hoops 4 Hope shipping containers of equipment to Africa (click here for one example).

Within the development sector this is heavily frowned upon. To read about the arguments I would recommend visiting the Good Intentions are Not Enough blog. The author has written extensively on the issue. She has even written a post specifically referencing the donating of sports equipment (click here). I would also recommend doing a google search on onemilliontshirts. Or check out the Good Intentions post here. The discussion/ debate/demolition of the onemilliontshirts idea serves as a good summation regarding the feelings towards donated goods and as development drama goes it was fairly entertaining.

I actually started writing this post a couple of weeks ago and I was going to use this logic to denounce donating sports equipment. However, after a couple of weeks of thinking on it, I am instead going to try and argue both sides.

There are many arguments against donating goods, but the main ones that are relevant to sports equipment relate to the economic impact and the relevance of the donated goods. Shipping a container of equipment that will be given away for free can suffocate local businesses selling similar products, or deter businesses from ever being started. Additionally, the cost of shipping containers to Africa can be enormous. For the cost of shipping equipment you could, in many cases, purchase new equipment locally. There is also a risk that the equipment might not be suitable for local conditions. Would it be helpful to donate a container full of football boots suitable for playing on grass in damp northern climates when local fields are a mixture of hard packed dirt - almost as hard as concrete - and occasional patches of grass?

All this makes perfect sense. The argument can be strengthened further with an example from my work in Lesotho. One of my volunteer coaches is currently not employed. He would like to set up a business in Lesotho to sell sports equipment. Currently, there is one small sports store in Maseru, but most people who need sports equipment will cross the border and purchase what they need in South Africa. It would appear that there is a need in Lesotho for a store that can supply sports equipment. Would this business be successful? If I had to wager on my friend's success I would place a cynical bet against him. The reason can be illustrated with two social enterprises that I came across during the World Cup: One World Futbol (All things aside I would recommend checking this out. They market their product as the most durable football in the world. It is made out of foam, never requires inflating,and cannot be punctured. It is also produced in Canada. Good for the Canadian economy, but maybe not so much for the economies of the communities where the balls will be donated) and Kick4Change. Both organizations operate on a Buy One Give One (BOGO) model. Part of the profits from your purchases will be used to send equipment to disadvantaged groups. To coincide with the World Cup, Kick4Change has implemented a Pledge my Seat campaign that aims to send large numbers of football boots to Africa. So, getting back to my friend, how successful would his sporting goods shop be if One World Futbol and Kick4Change dumped thousands of free footballs and boots into Lesotho. He would obviously struggle. In fact it would not make a lot of sense for him to even start the business. Another article that talks about the Buy One Give One philanthropy hurting African business can be read here.

The arguments make sense. For the most part I agree with them. They are hard to argue against. However, the problem I have is that there is often a knee jerk reaction to even the mere suggestion of shipping in equipment from an external source. Usually, this reaction limits discussion. I believe that debate is always good, so I will try to bring up a couple of points of exception.

An article I read that got me thinking more about this topic was written by Elizabeth Pisani. She is an epidemiologist who has worked with UNAIDS and has been involved in the HIV/AIDS sector for a while. Recently I read her book called 'Wisdom of Whores' and as a result of that I started to follow her blog by the same title. Her most recent article talks about the conflict between scientific evidence and political evidence. She argues that you cannot look to scientific evidence in isolation to impact policy. In her field, HIV/AIDS, evidence points to the effectiveness of offering services to injection drug users in dealing with the epidemic. The problem is that the evidence of politics demonstrates that politicians will not support these programmes because helping junkies does not go over well with the general electorate. I think the same conflict occurs in a lot of situations; a conflict between what you should do in theory and what actually works in reality.

A similar conflict occurs in the donation of goods. I would label this economic logic versus donor logic. I am avoiding the term evidence because as far as I know there are no scientific studies relating to the economic impact of donating sporting goods on developing economies. Also, some argue that treating the field of economics as a science is a bit of a stretch. We can ask a similar question that Pisani alludes to in her post: is it constructive to look at the donation of goods from an isolated idealism? Is it constructive for people to condemn the donation of equipment as poor practice without considering donor behavior? Looking at donor behaviour, are people likely to donate cash for an organization to buy equipment locally, or would they prefer to donate goods, or participate in a BOGO offer? I believe that if a programme were to refuse donated goods and instead ask for cash to buy equipment locally that they may struggle. They may end up diverting resources and time away from their programmes and towards educating the donors. Ultimately, you may end up in a situation where you are taking the right stance, but the beneficiaries of your project suffer because you lack the resources to implement your programmes. Instead of dismissing all forms of donated goods as evil based on economic logic, would it not make more sense to engage with the donating organizations and hope to create change over time?

If an organization in Lesotho partners with social enterprises such as One World Futbol or Kick4Change then they may receive free publicity, increase their exposure, and possibly attract more funding. With more funding they can expand programmes, hire more local staff, offer stipends to volunteers, and contribute more money to the local economy. Would these economic inputs offset putting my friend out of business? Would the economic impact of a strengthened local programme be more significant then helping a single businessman sell sporting equipment? This argument could also be extended to donation campaigns. As volunteers canvas their community in search of donations they are publicizing and promoting organizations. This promotion could lead to increased funding and strengthening programmes.

Additionally engaging with social enterprise presents opportunities to expand to local markets in the future. I sent a couple of emails to Kick4Change to find out where their equipment is manufactured. I received a reply from one of their founders who was very open and approachable. He mentioned that their ultimate goal is to move towards local manufacturing, so that the sports equipment they provide to disadvantaged groups in Africa is manufactured locally. For an example, an organization already doing this is Alive and Kicking. They have stitching centres in Kenya and Zambia. They produce footballs locally and provide jobs for people in their programmes. If these social enterprises are engaged with and supported, regardless of where their equipment is initially coming from, then over time local economic opportunities can be created. If these organizations are immediately dismissed because they are perceived to be doing damage to the local economy then future opportunities may be missed.

July 24, 2010


  1. This was an intriguing post. I'd never really given a lot of thought to what these donations might do to the economies they're supposed to be helping. I mean, I did stand back and shake my head when Canada donated winter jackets to the Tsunami victims a few years back, but hadn't thought about what something outside of an emergency situation might do to an economy. If it weren't so late I'd say more, but my mind is mush... love the posts though :)

  2. Thank you for the positive coverage of Alive & Kicking Shawn.

    We have summed up our views on 'buy one, give one' donation models in a recent blog post:

  3. This very thoughtful post deserves a more thorough and in-depth response than I now have the time for. Instead, I’d like to answer purely from the perspective of the One World Futbol Project, of which I am the managing director.

    First, the One World Futbol was expressly designed to withstand the harsh conditions found in refugee camps, war zones, inner cities, and poor villages. In fact, its inspiration was a TV documentary about refugees in Darfur. In our field testing, which began last year in southern Africa, an NGO received 100 One World Futbols. One of my colleagues encountered the NGO’s director at the World Cup this year and asked how the balls had fared. He was told that every single ball was still in active use, and that if the project had been using standard soccer balls instead, they would have gone through at least 1,000 balls in the course of the year. (Based on what we’ve seen elsewhere, we believe that was an extremely conservative estimate.) In other words, the One World Futbol eliminates the need for replacement balls. We’re convinced that our ball will last for decades if it’s used as intended, as a ball for recreation and practice. There is NO comparable soccer ball anywhere.

    Second, all of us in the One World Futbol Project would love to produce the ball in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, where we expect the ball to be most extensively used. We explored this possibility and concluded that it’s simply not practical to do so. The production process is capital-intensive, not labor-intensive. A factory to produce, say, 200,000 One World Futbols per year might employ only 10 to 12 people but would cost a million dollars to capitalize. The arithmetic doesn’t work well.

    Third, we deliberately chose the Buy One Give One model because we know that the public finds it extremely attractive. To sustain our business – a social enterprise that consists of both a for-profit company and a nonprofit entity – we know we have to sell enough One World Futbols to keep the lights on, as it were. We also know that the Buy One Give One model gives us a steady stream of balls we can donate to NGOs engaged in sports for peace and development – and thus allows us to fulfill our mission. The biggest factor, however, is that there appears to be an element of marketing magic in the model. It works well.

    On a personal note, I’ll add that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in developing countries. My impression is that the greatest problem with in-kind donations is that, sometimes, the goods donated are simply inferior: used clothing, obsolete equipment, expired drugs, and the like. While this is not frequently the case, it happens just often enough that in-kind donations get a poor reputation they don’t deserve.

    There’s a lot more to say, but this is already a long comment, so I’ll leave it here. All I can say is, please do check us out at

    By the way, we appreciate your supportive remarks in the post, even though they were parenthetical. We’ll take support wherever we can get it!

    Mal Warwick
    Managing Director
    One World Futbol Project
    Berkeley, California

  4. Hi Mal,

    Thanks for your post. In my blog I tried to argue both sides. As you said there is a tendency to criticize any initiative that resembles donations-in-kind and I do not think this is productive. From my brief experience in Lesotho I think I have learned that there are always exceptions and interventions that are a disaster in one context might be very successful in another. I didn't intend to highlight One World Fubol for criticism. From my work in Lesotho, I do think it is a very innovative and relevant product.

  5. The Shipping a container of equipment that will be given away for free can suffocate local businesses selling similar products. Additionally, the cost of shipping containers to Africa can be enormous. For the cost of shipping equipment you could, in many cases, purchase new equipment locally. There is also a risk that the equipment might not be suitable for local conditions. I am delight to see this nice post. Thank you very much.