For children living in abject poverty, where basic necessities like food, water, and roofs are luxury items, a needle and a pump to inflate a soccer ball falls somewhere between "say wha—?" and "you really don't get it, do you pal?"
Even if the youngsters own a ball, that is.
Most days, because a traditional ball is unaffordable to inner-city and refugee-camp youths, they construct a homemade version from rocks, trash, string, or rags—their love for the world’s most popular game is that deep.
If only there was an indestructible, inexpensive ball that never goes flat and never needs a pump. This, and probably only this, would allow kids to play anywhere at anytime to their heart's content, not simply until the ball is destroyed.
Thanks to a renaissance man and rock legend, there is One World Futbol.
Invented by Timothy Jahnigen, a lyricist and music producer, and funded by Sting—yes, that one—more than 1,700 One World Futbols have been donated to 123 nonprofit organizations working in refugee camps, United Nation hot spots, and conflict zones in 113 countries. An additional 2,487 balls have been sold to nonprofit organizations.
TakePart caught up with Jahnigen at the Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey last month for a wide-ranging discussion on the ball's buy-one-give-one business model, how and why its undeniably sustainable, and Sting’s involvement.
TakePart: Walk us through the catalytic moment when you decided that this ball needed to be invented.
Timothy Jahnigen: Well, I had spent years of my life travelling around the world and seeing children playing in the streets with all kinds of improvised things like balls made out of trash. But it wasn’t until 2006 or so when I was watching a documentary about children in Darfur on CNN that it struck me that I had a solution to this global problem. And it wasn’t so much about solving—creating the ball—as it was providing a means to allow children in these harsh environments to be able to play.
Play being the main objective.
TP: What kind of material is the ball made of?
TJ: It’s made from what is known as cross-linked, closed-cell foam, which is a long way of saying that it is a molecularly altered form of plastic.
Most people are familiar with it already. Crocs shoes are made out of a similar material. They have their own proprietary formula, and I just want to be clear about that.
TP: Can the ball be recycled?
TJ: Yes, it can.
TP: Make the case to environmentalists that a ball like this is better, in terms of sustainability, than a stitch ball.
TJ: It’s a very important question.
This is a petroleum-based product, and right off the bat red flags go up. However, this ball is engineered in such a way that it provides—it never needs—a pump.
Even though it can withstand thousands of punctures and be driven over by a truck, it will continue to be used as a ball for play for ten, twenty, possibly thirty years, or more.
We actually don’t even know how long it will last.
But as long as it is used as a ball, and as long as it is round, it will always be used for its intended purpose.
What that translates to, is the majority of traditional soccer balls, they are designed for grass and turf. So when they go into a harsh, sharp-edged environment—war zones, refugee camps, developing world environments—they last anywhere from a few hours, and maybe a couple of weeks. So every time this ball bounces off a piece of barbed wire and comes back, it is actually recycling itself.
And I have a ball that has a couple hundred punctures in it, and if you equate that with a five-dollar ball, every one of those punctures being five bucks, there’s more than a thousand dollars worth of balls in that ball, and that’s just from common play.
So in its lifetime, our ball keeps thousands of balls out of the trash, and it saves money to the organization, or the group that has it.
Reduce, reuse, recycle is embodied in the very design.
TP: Why is this ball the perfect sphere—microphone, even—for developmental organizations that use soccer to teach conflict resolution and life skills to youth and disadvantaged communities?
TJ: The most important factor is that we recognize that soccer, or futbol, as it’s known, is the most played sport on the planet.
Soccer has captured the vast majority of humans, the population’s imagination, and the largest population of the largest sport lives below poverty in horrendous conditions—what we call horrendous.
Soccer is used as a delivery system within the movement of Sport for Peace and Development, which is a well-developed movement under the United Nations and several other organizations.
And they use that to educate children about AIDS prevention, about landmine awareness, there are groups that teach children about gender equality issues and women’s rights in the Islamic world, where they are bringing Israeli and Palestinian children together on teams.
For all of this incredible work with all these dedicated, intelligent people, solving all of these problems on a social level, and on a physical and education level, the weakest link is always the ball that goes flat.
This is the perfect ball for that environment.
Twenty million balls a year on average are just going into landfills, or not even landfills, just being thrown away in places like Africa. This ball allows these organizations to focus on their mission, on their message, and on their work.
TP: What are some of the groups that you’re working with?
TJ: We’ve been very privileged to establish relationships with two major organizations out of Africa.
One is Grassroot Soccer, founded by Dr. Tommy Clark and Ethan Zohn, who is the winner of Survivor, Africa.
And we’ve also been blessed to work with Right To Play, which is another successful organization. We also work with Play Soccer International and with Spirit of Soccer. They do landmine awareness education in Afghanistan and Cambodia. I can go on and on, but we have been very fortunate to have high visibility in that world of sport for peace and development.
TP: Have you gotten feedback on the playability of the ball? Do kids like it?
TJ: It depends on how you frame the question, and where in the world you are when you present this opportunity.
For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where kids play with rocks, bottles, cans, boxes—anything they can improvise with—this ball is light-years ahead of that, and they love it.
Whereas if you don’t explain what it’s actually for—it is meant to be better than a rock, or a bottle, or a can; it is not supposed to be a World Cup ball—then here is a little bit of cultural education that still has to happen in the western world.
When we tell our western children that this ball is ultra-durable, they’re going to prove you wrong, and they’re going to go out and they’re going to do everything they can to destroy it because in their world, they can go down the street and get another one. Just like that. Whereas in a place like Africa, having access to a good ball is so important that they would never dream of destroying it.
TP: What is the market cost of the ball?
TJ: We retail it at $40, and that allows us to give one away for every one we sell.
TP: Talk about the business model.
TJ: We feel very fortunate at this time to be one of the first 350 American Benefit Corporations. We are a for-profit business but we have a socially responsible mission. And we subscribe to this philosophy of triply bottom line, which is people first, then planet, and then profit, instead of the other way around.
TP: How does the “give one away” aspect of the business model work?
TJ: We are networked with the organizations that are already vetted and investigated by United Nations and by FIFA’s Street Football world organization, and so you can throw a dart on the map on the planet and we know of an organization there that is a good, legitimate recipient for the ball.
But, let’s say there’s a group that wants the ball to go to a very specific place (an orphanage or a company; it’s doing CSR and they want to support a specific school or something).
What they do is they register with us, and we give them a special code. Then when they encourage everybody in their database to go to our website and buy a ball for themselves and put in the code, then the give ball specifically goes to that entity.
TP: Talk to me about Sting’s involvement in the project.
TJ: My preferred profession is a lyricist. That creative process has led me to being a producer of large, live events. And through my relationship with my main songwriting partner, a gentleman named Narada Michael Walden, who is the musical director for Sting’s rainforest concert, I became involved in the production team of that event.
Over a period of years, Sting and I got to know each other, and through a set of circumstances that allowed us to be having a random conversation, we were sharing ideas and just thinking outloud and wishing of things that we could do to help the world—as if he hasn’t already done enough with his Rainforest Foundation and other things.
I mentioned my vision of using this material to make a ball for these children in war zones and refugee camps, and he just stopped me and said "It’s very important for you to pursue the research and development." And I said "I know how to do it." And he said, "If you’ll do it, I’ll pay for it."
His ability to perceive, process, and validate not only my idea, but the need was quite profound. To me, it’s as significant as being blessed to have the insight of how to solve that problem in the first place.
TakePart: For this problem—which, as I understand it, is simply kids being being able to act like kids in a conflict zone or abject poverty—what’s one thing that a person can do to solve it for under five dollars or that takes less than five minutes?
TJ: What I would say is that just five dollars in the hands of an organization like Spirit of Soccer, or a child soldier rehabilitation camp in Rwanda—find them. Go to UNICEF. There are organizations doing sport for peace and development in this environment that need every five dollar bill that they can get—that allows them to focus on improving their program and possibly buying things like the One World Futbol.
While the ball is a technological breakthrough and we are honored that we have a patent pending on it—it’s only a vehicle. It is only a delivery system that allows the magic of the game, the comradery, and all of those life lessons that come out of that communal thing, that interaction that happens. It’s not the ball that solves the problem; it is enabling those things to happen indefinitely in that environment that is the goal and the beautiful outcome of the beautiful game.