Downsizing Development: How a Soccer Ball Could Change the World

Lauren Barra, KF16 Kenya

What’s the biggest killer in Kenya? It’s not what you think. One disease is responsible for more deaths than HIV, malaria and measles COMBINED. Diarrhea. That’s right, a troubling inconvenience in the states, diarrhea is a deadly menace in Africa. While victims don’t die from diarrhea directly, the severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances it causes can be lethal. The most effective way to combat this preventable loss of life is also the simplest – wash your hands.

Only 1 in 10 Kenyan children wash their hands before each meal. Educating children and parents about this easy precaution could potentially save hundreds, if not thousands of lives. A successful education campaign may accomplish more than the billions poured into AIDS research and other high-profile development aid at a fraction of the cost.

So why is traditional development aid still focused on large-scale, sweeping reforms? In Building Social Business, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus explains,

Most of us are very impatient by nature. We want to fix things quickly. It’s especially true with huge, global problems that have burdened humankind for centuries: poverty, disease, hunger, homelessness, oppression …But for practical reasons its sometimes better to reduce a problem to a manageable size rather than trying to fix it all at once. Giant plans designed to help millions of people often get out of control. Unless we prepare step-by-step, “thinking big” can be a recipe for disaster.

As several of my colleagues have outlined here, here and here the power of simplicity is particularly evident in microfinance. These borrowers’ success makes me wonder – how else can “thinking small” translate to big changes in international development?

Playing soccer on the beaches of Mombasa

A few weeks ago I got my answer. My roommate Amy emailed with exciting news – “I got the internship!!” After weeks of cover letters, interviews, and language proficiency tests, Amy secured a marketing internship with sOccket, an innovative new social business focused on bringing renewable energy to the developing world. As one reporter noted,

Every great once in a while, you come across something that makes you slap your head and say, “That’s…just…brilliant.”

sOccket is a soccer ball that captures and stores energy during normal game play to be used to later charge batteries and LEDs in developing countries. Invented by four women from Harvard, sOccket attempts to address the compelling energy needs of 1.5 billion people living without electricity. Every 15 minutes of play with the ball generates enough power to light up an LED lamp for 3 hours. This simple concept is picking up speed and was recently highlighted by the Clinton Global Initiative.

Football club in Swahili village

Whether you’re traveling in Europe, South America, or Africa one theme is consistent – people are obsessed with soccer. In Mombasa, children play with soccer balls made from dozens of plastic grocery bags. You can’t walk along the beach without someone passing you a ball and inviting you to join their game. Even remote Swahili villages proudly boast their own “football clubs.” sOccket taps into this global enthusiasm and at the right price, it should easily find a large customer base.

But can this really work? Will sOccket actually create substantial changes in the developing world? In a New York Times interview sOccket co-founder Jessica Lin responds,

We’ve received some comments about how this ball isn’t going to solve the energy problems of the developing world. And, of course, we realize that. We are trying to make a bigger statement about energy needs. Even if our project just starts people thinking about different ways to bring energy access to places like Africa, that’s really important.

The importance of “thinking small” certainly isn’t a new concept, but it’s gaining momentum in the international development community. Kiva, sOccket, Grameen Bank…each of these organizations is playing a much larger role in redefining the world’s approach to development aid. Downsizing our efforts won’t change the world over night. But in time, its collective impact could be greater than we ever imagined.


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Lauren Barra is serving as a Kiva Fellow with Yehu Microfinance Trust in Mombasa, Kenya and Tujijenge Tanzania in Dar es Salaam.

About the author

Lauren Barra