Spotlight on sport sustainability initiatives in Africa

November 02 2023

Africa, like many regions of the world, is facing huge economic, social, and environmental challenges.

Spotlight on sport sustainability initiatives in Africa

The continent is at the forefront of the battle with climate change. Changing rainfall patterns, extreme droughts, and widespread water and food insecurity are impacting vast areas of Africa, whilst other regions are suffering from severe flooding and storms.

Large areas of the continent’s lush forests are rapidly disappearing, deforestation for urbanisation and farming are impacting biodiversity and wildlife, and poaching and animal conflicts increase as the population continues to grow and wildlife numbers decline at exponential rates.

Political instability, corruption, war, famine, and disease are also having huge social impacts on the region, placing a huge strain on already fragile resources and infrastructure with millions of people facing starvation and displacement. 

Sport is a powerful tool with a long history of engaging communities on issues as diverse as climate change, health, leadership, and peace.

So how can sport help to tackle these issues and challenges facing the region?

GSS is putting the spotlight on three organisations in Africa that are using sport to tackle issues at the heart of their communities, driving the social and environmental side of sustainability.

The programmes span topics including sustainable development, youth engagement, public health, and environmental awareness, and are real-life examples of some of the seven sustainable pillars in action.

The three initiatives, which range from long-term international projects to a grassroots youth-led programme, show how sport can be tailored to address the specific needs of each community. Their work is evidence that the social and environmental sustainability agenda is connecting with the sport for development movement and continuing to drive change.

So how exactly are these organisations in Africa using sport to engage their communities, and what are some of the major issues on the agenda?

Sport for youth development: YALI Sports Africa

YALI Sports Africa is a non-profit headquartered in Cameroon that develops youth development programmes across the continent.

The organisation was founded by alumni of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a leadership programme for African youth leaders created by President Barack Obama in 2012.

YALI runs regional leadership centres that provide leadership training programmes across sub-Saharan Africa, and it was a group of alumni from these centres that came together to found YALI Sports three years ago.

‘We’re a group of young alumni who use sport to improve the wellbeing of our communities and raise awareness of climate issues,’ says Nkenglefac Tacha Foretia Divine, one of the founding members of YALI Sport Africa and an alumnus of the YALI regional centre in Ghana.

Divine, a former goalkeeper and avid football fan, knew that sport would be one way for him and his colleagues to engage young people with the leadership and life skills training that they’d received themselves at the YALI centres.

‘I was asking myself, how do we bring the kids the knowledge and experience we’ve gained? What is the easiest and most impactful approach you can use?’ Sport was the answer.

Divine and his colleagues founded YALI Sports in 2021. The organisation now runs a range of programmes and is an official member of UN initiative Football for the Goals.

Key programmes include a sport for development programme which uses sport-related activities like play, games, recreation, and dance to convey life skills to vulnerable youth; a sport entrepreneurship programme; and the YALI Sports Academy, which supports young aspiring athletes. YALI Sports is also a member of GSS’s Champions of Sustainability programme.

YALI Sports’ work isn’t confined to a single sport, and the team build on YALI’s regional network structure to provide support across several countries, including Cameroon, Uganda, and Zambia, working with local coordinators in each location.

Past activities include an ‘eco-jogging’ activity for World Environment Day, which raised awareness of plastic pollution; bringing together over 70 CAR refugees and local youth for a football match in Bertoua, Cameroon; and a tree-planting activity in Lusaka, Zambia, with National Olympic Committee of Zambia President Alfred Foloko.

The most important element of YALI Sport’s work is engaging communities where they’re at, and developing programmes to suit their needs.

While its focus is primarily youth development, YALI Sports also has environmental initiatives in the pipeline. The YALI Green Sport Initiative, due to launch in Uganda this month, will educate youth on climate action and promote local restoration efforts, with the overall aim of planting 10,000 trees.

The founders of YALI Sports are convinced by the potential for sport to promote youth development in all its forms, and have ambitious plans to continue to grow their programming.

‘We’re using sport to engage our community, to promote life skills training, entrepreneurship, community building and peace-making,’ says Divine. ‘That is what YALI Sport Africa is all about.’

Football for reproductive health: Africaid Whizzkids United

Africaid Whizzkids United was launched in 2005. The initiative uses football to educate youth in South Africa and Ghana on sexual and reproductive health.

A community-based non-profit, the organisation emerged from CEO & Founder Marcus McGilvray’s work on HIV prevention and treatment.

In his work, McGilvray realised that football could be a way of connecting and communicating with youth.

‘I was working with children every week for years, and I’d sit with them and talk about HIV and sexual health—but what kept them there was wanting to get out because we were going to play football afterwards,’ he says. ‘So that made me think, how can we use football to actually teach them about HIV and sexual health?’

Eighteen years on, Whizzkids United has now tested over 32,000 youth for HIV and/or TB, provided almost 20,000 young people with sexual and reproductive health services, and educated 67,000 youth through their ‘On the Ball’ life skills curriculum.

The organisation offers 40 programmes in total, which are aligned with the UN’s SDGs. Whizzkids United is supported by Common Goal and the FIFA Foundation.

‘The main focus is using football as a means to engage and bring young people through to the clinic,’ says McGilvray.

Whizzkid United runs its own health academies in Edendale, South Africa, and Jisonayilli, Ghana. The academies are youth-friendly sexual health clinics that work with local health workers and within existing infrastructure to make sure that at-risk youth can access testing, treatment, support, and education. Using football to engage and communicate helps encourage young people to attend the clinics.

Programmes include the ‘On the Ball’ life skills curriculum; ‘Game Changers’, which targets unemployed disadvantaged youth; and ‘Girls on the Ball’, which develops football skills for girls.

One major focus for the team is gender equality, particularly in the context of sexual and reproductive health. The ‘Girls on the Ball’ programme not only increases the number of girls playing football, but opens up channels for girls to learn about their own sexual and reproductive rights.

‘Working with girls really helps to challenge stereotypes,’ says McGilvray.

The work has made an impact: the team saw a marked decrease in HIV prevalence over fifteen years of running the Whizzkid United Health Academy in Edendale.

Like the founders of YALI Sports, McGilvray has seen first-hand how sport can be a relatively simple way of opening up topics for discussion, leading to meaningful, real-world change.

Playing football can develop life skills that can be applied to the rest of a young person’s life.

‘Football is a very easy way in which to relay lessons that you can apply to life,’ says McGilvray. ‘For us, there’s never been any doubt as to how much football can help young people.’

Cricket for the community: Cricket2Nurture

While YALI Sports and Whizzkids United emerged from longer-running, larger-scale programmes, Cricket2Nurture emerged three years ago when founder Lennox Mugumira, based in Jinja City, Uganda, found himself playing cricket to a captive audience of children from his community.

Mugumira was supported through his education and had the opportunity to play cricket and meet other cricketers and coaches. In 2020 he decided he wanted to do something to give back to his community.

While practicing for an upcoming game, Mugumira found himself surrounded by girls and boys who wanted to join in.

‘As we hit the ball, the kids kept returning it. They were like, what is this game that these guys are playing?!’ he says. ‘They really wanted to get involved.’

So Mugumira formed a small cricket team to teach the children the basic skills.

‘We had around thirty kids, and we were using bricks as stumps—we had one bat,’ says Mugumira. ‘They really loved it.’

After seeing the children’s enthusiasm for the game, Mugumira realised the potential to use cricket to educate and engage the children in his community. From there, he came up with a plan.

‘We thought that, through cricket, we could teach life skills, and really change their lives,’ he says. ‘We expanded to other communities, and thirty kids became ninety kids.’

Now, Cricket2Nurture are working with children in four local communities, and have developed an approach which combines cricket skills with education. Mugumira and his colleague Tim provide training sessions for children of all ages, working with local schools.

‘Our vision is to prepare the young and the general community for the challenges of living,’ says Mugumira.

The organisation’s areas of focus include education on basic life skills, promoting knowledge about safe and clean drinking water, and emphasising respect for the environment.

The team work with children and young people from the ages of 7 onwards. They aim to engage with any young person who wants to learn and play cricket.

‘If a teenager comes to us and wants to learn the game, we’ll teach him,’ Mugumira says. ‘We want to see everyone gain from our sessions.’

Cricket2Nurture also emphasises gender equality. Around sixty of the ninety children now receiving training are girls. ‘For us, inclusion is important,’ says Mugumira.

Now, Cricket2Nurture are developing their plans for the future. This means creating a website, expanding their projects, and announcing trustees, ambassadors, and patrons. Mugumira and the team have connected with athletes and cricket enthusiasts from across the world to raise awareness of their work.

A team of trustees based in the UK are helping to organise a drive for donations of cricket kit from local clubs to be shipped to Uganda.

‘For cricket you need the pitches, you need the coaches, you need the equipment,’ says Mugumira. ‘So while we have lots of plans, the biggest is just to maintain our programmes.’ In coming years, the team hope to be able to create dedicated ground where children can play.

Echoing YALI Sports and Whizzkids United, Mugumira is clear about the power of cricket. ‘I think cricket is a game for the smart, a game for the caring,’ he says. ‘That makes it the game for us.’

Addressing the challenges ahead

Each of these three initiatives are strong examples of how sport can address the specific needs of each community, as well as the wider economic, social, and environmental challenges facing the African continent.

They are also examples of some of the GSS Sustainable Pillars of Sport in action.

Partnerships with local organisations keep the work connected to local priorities. Driving Participation improves physical wellbeing, and focusing on People educates on equality & diversity.

A focus on entrepreneurship helps drive Prosperity, and each programme builds on the global Profile and popularity of sport.

These initiatives are also beginning to address environmental issues, showing how the climate crisis is increasingly on the agenda. This will be critical for a continent that’s facing some of the most serious effects of the changing climate.

YALI Sports, Whizzkids United and Cricket2Nurture are just three examples out of thousands of sport-based programmes that are driving sustainability across the continent. Partnerships to support these initiatives will be key to Africa’s success in dealing with these economic, social and environmental challenges.

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