Tim Jahnigen just got back from a month-long trip to Malawi and Kenya, where he helped deliver about 11,000 "futbols"—near-indestructible soccer balls that are bringing joy to many. Having distributed more than 200,000 in the last two-plus years, he’s quite used by now to watching kids run around with his invention. But he says Malawi was special. President Joyce Banda announced a new nationwide youth soccer tournament while he was there. And, he was struck anew by what a difference a few balls could make.
"The average cost of the soccer ball is four times more than the average family income for a month. So, this will have a profound impact on the entire country. That’s so humbling. It’s a form of alchemy that I can’t even describe."
The story of One World Futbol Project, the organization that Jahnigen started, is quite well known. In 2006, he was watching a report about kids in Darfur who had only rocks and trash to play with. He decided to create a product that could withstand any environment. Sting (the musician) stumped up $30,000 for a prototype. A deal with Chevrolet to distribute 1.5 million balls over three years followed, and then—well, the rest has been hard work.
The ball, which comes in several colors, is made of PopFoam, a rubbery material a lot like what Crocs shoes are produced from. It is flexible, yet strong, and most importantly, very durable. You can leave the futbol in sunlight, or water, or douse it in chlorine, and it won’t wrinkle, crack, or become heavy. Jahnigen calls it a technological feat: a way of turning soccer into an all-terrain activity, rather than something you need a pitch for.
One World Futbol isn’t happy with 200,000 balls, though. Jahnigen notes that there are 1.3 billion children under 12 in the world, many of whom cannot afford a ball of their own. So, there’s plenty of opportunity, even if he can distribute a million a year. After that, he wants to shift to other sports, potentially a whole load of them.
"Our technology can be applied to any current ball that requires a pump. Our long-term goal is to make every sports ball—basketball, volleyball, rugby, tetherball, American football, netball," he says.
In fact, the next ball in line never needed a pump: it is a cricket ball aimed particularly at children in South Asia. Jahrigen says five major cricket organizations asked him to make a ball using PopFoam, and he felt like he couldn’t resist. Besides, cricket is the world’s second most popular game (after soccer), so it makes sense to focus on it.
"We were told there are so many children that won’t come inside for food, or education, or health, because they are scrounging money to buy cricket balls that last only a day. They are so obsessed with this sport," he says.
The ball is lighter than a standard red cherry, but heavy enough to bowl with, or hit effectively. It has a hard center, but a soft, shock-absorbing outside. So, it won’t hurt kids, or others, easily.
One World Futbol is set up as a Benefit Corporation—a legal designation somewhere between charity and business, where the goal is as much the mission as making profit. When he was starting it, Jahrigen initially considered nonprofit status, but decided a business would offer more flexibility and opportunity.
Most of One World Futbol’s income at the moment comes from the Chevrolet contract. But about a quarter of the balls have been bought through its website. If you buy one for about $40, you are donating another to a kid somewhere (like the Toms Shoes model).
The only drawback with buy-one-donate-one, Jahnigen says, is that it effectively prices out other sales channels. To go wholesale, One World Futbol would have to charge at least $100 to accommodate mark-ups for distributors and retailers, and cover its own costs. "No matter how durable the ball is, nobody is gong to want to buy it at that price. We’re right on the upper reach of price at the moment," he says. Therefore, before selling in stores, One World Futbol either has to find partners willing to take a hit, or a new philanthropist willing to make up the difference. Jahnigen is optimistic it will happen eventually.
Meanwhile, Jahnigen and his team have more than a million balls to distribute, and new sports balls to develop. It’s unlikely that demand will dry up anytime soon.