The game of football has been played since ancient times. The oldest stories told of a soccer-like game originate from the Chinese game of tsu-chu, but football as we know it was developed by the English.
The Chinese game invented by emperor Huang-Ti, was played with a leather ball stuffed with animal hair. However, the establishment of the Football Association in the 19th century led to the invention of the current soccer ball which is inflated by air.
Interestingly, the biggest soccer ball making industry is not found in England, but in the Pakistan city of Sialkot.
Sialkot is the biggest soccer ball making industry, with up to 135 firms with the capacity to produce 40-60 million balls annually (approx. 60% of the world’s total production).
Sialkot’s history with producing balls can be traced back to 1889 when a local saddle maker was asked to repair a British colonel’s leather soccer ball. Later the city became known for its ball repair and production.
The world-leading sports brands are using Sialkot or material from the city to produce balls and this includes the Brazucca and the Telstar which were used at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups respectively.
Like Sialkot’s 1889 saddle maker, Douglas Smith a local youth in rural Uganda, driven by his deep love for football and huge knowledge of craft making is using locally available material to produce soccer balls.
Under his Sportrise brand, Douglas and his colleagues produced their first ball in May 2020, and weeks later they had made a second one.
The first soccer ball made by Douglas Smith it has been labelled the first ball made in Uganda | Douglas Smith photo
Even still, Douglas did not know how huge his project start-up was. After producing the first two balls, he decided to celebrate it with a casual post on twitter, but the reaction he received was utterly awe-inspiring.
Did you know that 99% of footballs we use in Uganda are imported? I have been thinking & working hard to make sure Uganda produces its own balls. So I established a company called @SportRiseUg. And hey, I'm excited to present you our first product; locally made in Ibanda, Uganda pic.twitter.com/ejJPtOa2wN
— 𝐃𝐨𝐮𝐠 𝐒𝐦𝐢𝐭𝐡 (@DougSmithUg) June 17, 2020
Within hours of publishing the post, it had received hundreds of likes and retweets, before the whole thing was blown over by an order for 50 balls by a local politician who is seeking to run for a parliamentary seat in the area.
“My dream was to make as many balls in order to help the young ones have as many balls to play, because all the balls we play are imported and very expensive to buy.”
“I have been making research on how to create balls because in my community soccer balls are very expensive and the nature of our fields is not good for these balls as they get spoilt easily,” Douglas told Football256.
Douglas hails from Ibanda district, over 290 kilometres from Kampala, an area famous for two things; it’s in the area where British commissioner to Protectorate Uganda Harry George Galt was killed in 1905, and also because of its flourishing Agriculture.
Growing up on the farms and vast fields, Douglas did not hanker to become a farmer like many in his community. But the 25-year-old fostered the ‘wild dream’ of becoming a professional footballer.
It is hard to name a great footballer to have come from Ibanda, entrepreneur Patrick Bitature and academician Venansius Baryamureeba are the prominent people from the district.
It is easy to imagine why Douglas’ parents were quick to deny him the chance to play the game. Even when other kids in the neighbourhood were having a kick about, football was forbidden to him.
But the heart wants what it wants, and Douglas always found a way of sneaking from home to go and play football.
However, ironically it was not his quick feet as a winger or great crosses that made him so dear to his peers, but it was his Sialkot like talent in crafting the balls they would use to play; made from disposed empty plastic packets of milk and banana fibres a skill that will come in handy later in life.
Douglas Smith the knowledge behind Sportrise, a company that manufactures soccer balls in Ibanda
In the 90s, these kinds of balls were popular with the young kids unless you grew up from a well-to-do background. But in Ibanda Douglas was the master of that craft.
Douglas has played soccer up to the third division where he features part time for the Ibanda Warriors formerly Ibanda Municipal Council FC.
Upon realising that his career could not reach the level he dreamt of growing up, Douglas started The Smith Soccer Foundation in 2017 with the objective of helping young people by using the power of soccer to bring about a positive change in the community.
The project has received recognition from the Young Achievers Award for using the power of football to effect change in society in 2018. He has also been recognised by World Remit Future Stars Program in 2018 and the 2020 MTN for Good campaign.
The biggest challenge faced by the academy was the lack of proper equipment, soccer balls to be precise. He tried fundraising and was given a grant of 50 balls from Sunny foundation, but the process of delivery meant he received only 15 balls.
With balls costing UGX 100,000 minimum, Douglas did not have the funds to procure balls. Left with no option, he was compelled to build on his precious childhood knowledge to manufacture his own balls.
That’s when he decided to start researching how to make his own soccer balls, and initial findings proved that it was feasible. Not the same banana fibre balls, but where there is a will, there is a way.
“I started The Smith Foundation to help change lives of young people in my community through football. But initially we did not have enough balls and the funds we had were not enough to buy new balls because they are expensive.”
“We received a grant from a friend in Europe, but we received only 15 balls of the 50 he sent because 20 of those were taken by the person who received them in Rwanda, and then another 15 were picked by the guy who delivered them to us.”
“From the frustration, I decided to research on how I can make my own balls, I invested time and resources in learning the craft,” he narrated.
Operating from a site of three rooms and a 20-yard compound, the whole process of production happens there.
From one room they have the recycling process where they convert plastic waste into small pellets which are then melted and extruded into polyester from the second room.
The third room is used to stitch together with synthetic leather. 26 black and white panels shaped in a hexagon and pentagon shapes are stitched around the rubber-like bladder with a valve, backed together with a poly-cloth and held together by a latex adhesive.
From here, production moves to the yard where the final touches to the ball are done.
Currently, Douglas and his team have initiated the process of getting their product licensed and certified by FIFA, and they have huge hopes of getting positive feedback.
If it were not for the coronavirus pandemic that put a halt to international travel, officials from FIFA were scheduled to make a site visit to Sportrise site in Ibanda to look at the project and provide advice where necessary.
While there has not been support or input from FUFA or the government, Douglas hopes that when they achieve steady production he will engage both in order to get more support as he plans to increase their production over and beyond their current capacity.