Keta Team Pic 1

Ghanaian Club Keta Sandlanders Showing How Football And Responsibility Can Co-Exist in Africa

Division 2 Ghanaian club Keta Sandlanders, based on the coast of Ghana’s Volta Region, is one of the more interesting clubs around, not necessarily because it has trophies busting through the clasp of some varnished trophy cabinet, or because the Sandlanders have produced Ghanaian talents that are now household names, but because of the club’s vision of what the Sandlanders could be.

Over the years, countless academies and clubs have set up shop across the African continent with the express purpose of developing young players, or so they say.  Some have been successful, while others are purely parasitic.  But even in the midst of the successes, it’s hard to ignore the rampant shadiness that hovers like a dark cloud over parts of African football.

At times, it’s hard to turn your head away from the legacy of resource mining in Africa.  Taking a look back, there’s an eerie parallel between the mineral mining that took place in Africa during colonialism (and still continues), and mining the continent for young football talent. Both practices exist, not necessarily because of some charitable desire, but rather because of a basic recognition that Africa is resource rich, and it’s resources are readily exploitable at low costs. Cynical, perhaps.  But there’s a track record to support some cynicism.  In 2008, the Guardian’s Dan McDougall reported the following:

There are an estimated 500 illegal football academies operating in Accra alone. Thousands more are spread across Ghana. Many are run by the roadside; most have no proper training facilities. With biblical names such as ‘Sons of Moses’ and ‘Lovers of Christ’, each will have its own tatty bibs or T-shirts to distinguish it from the others. At the children’s side, egging them on to run, pass, think quicker, will be a legion of unlicensed agents and coaches. Ninety per cent of the academies we visited in Accra and Abidjan – the principal city of Ivory Coast – were run by local men with limited experience of the game. Most described themselves as former footballers; but none was able to produce proof of his career. They are intent on finding one thing only: the next Essien or Didier Drogba. The next multi-million-pound golden ticket.

McDougall’s article highlights rampant abuse by a diverse cast of characters.  The culprits are foreign and African, rich and wannabe-rich, individuals and corporations, but all are tied together by one common goal: to uncover diamonds for monetary gain under the guise of helping the youth.  But all mining isn’t bad per se.  It just comes with some responsibility, or at least it should.

Miners extract valuable resources from communities.  Therefore, there’s a responsibility to give back to the community from which resources are being extracted, especially when the extraction is really just for monetary gain. However, responsibility has been an afterthought.  So what remains is a mining culture cloaked by sophisticated PR campaigns, duping passers-by into believing that everyone has the heart of Mother Teresa.

African youth academies and clubs are easily manipulated for personal gain and image development.  Nothing creates a more compassionate public profile than helping out poor African kids, right?  Have you ever asked yourself why everyone wants to put their hand into soccer academies in Africa?  Why not science academies or other academic academies that are likely to have a greater impact than soccer?  I’m not questioning the value of soccer academies, but the prevalence of academies does raise questions about why they exist and what they are doing.  In many ways, the African youth academies have become the football equivalent to African babies for celebrities.  Be rich, help Africans, take resources, and send out a press release about how compassionate you are. It’s brilliant stuff, really.  But what is really being done?

It is in this rough and tumble world of academy and club football that Keta Sandlanders stands out as an example of what could be. Exporting young talent and winning major trophies are not high on the Sandlanders’ immediate list of priorities given that the club has only been in action for a few years. Sure, like any club, the Sandlanders are fighting for promotion.  But the club’s greater focus is properly on creating a responsible, sustainable model based on a member-owned structure, community-oriented growth, technology, and a strategy to lead community development projects in Keta.

The Sandlanders have built community and development into their model.  The club will increasingly use its website to promote local industries in Keta and to give visitors a taste of daily life.  The area has a beautiful coast line and strong tourist potential. Keta occupies a sand spit between a lagoon and the sea (hence the Sandlanders name) and has suffered greatly through the impact of erosion, but a coastal defense scheme completed a few years ago has made the area viable for development once again.  The club has long term plans to develop these types of community projects.  In fact, one-fifth of the money raised is contributed to sustainable community development programs in Keta.  These aren’t side projects, but integral components of the club’s DNA.  That’s not just admirable; it’s also responsible.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

It is helpful to juxtapose Sandlanders with the Red Bull Soccer Academy as a comparison point.  No, not the one in New York, but the Red Bull Academy in Ghana’s Volta Region.  The mission of the Red Bull Academy, according to Hermann Kern, the Academy’s General Manager, is to provide “its products with all the academic requirements, so that they can express and make intelligent decisions as they strive to reach the top in both their soccer and academic pursuits.”  Members of the community around the Academy are allowed to use the Academy’s IT facilities, and Red Bull has provided a decent drinking water facility, which probably makes more sense than providing a Red Bull energy drink facility.

As wonderful as Red Bull’s initiative is, it simply serves to highlight why the Sandlanders approach is so admirable.  Although providing a service for the community is all well and good, we shouldn’t conflate a development academy’s side projects with the desire to really invest in community transformation. Being a neighbor is a nice gesture, but it isn’t always enough.

But is it a club’s responsibility, especially one headed by major foreign investors, to develop communities?  In my opinion, yes.  Over the past few decades, I’ve seen too many examples of wealthy investors moving into neighborhoods thinking that their presence is good enough.  But every new footprint in these communities comes at a cost.  If clubs think responsibly and truly want to make a long-term difference, clubs can be uniquely placed to lead development projects.

Even though the Sandlanders are not yet on the level of major African clubs such as Ghana’s Hearts of Oak and Egypt’s Al Ahly, clubs around the world could learn a thing or two from the Sandlanders.  In an era marred by financial mismanagement and quick-fixes, the Sandlanders approach can go a long way to proving that success doesn’t necessarily have to come from corporate greed or resource manipulation. There are other models to explore how success and responsibility can co-exist.

We caught up with the Sandlanders team, specifically Sandlanders Chairman and Founder Frank Cole and Vice-Chairman Paul Jones, to talk, well, Sandlanders, of course.  Tomorrow, we’ll share a few highlights from our exchange.

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  • owura kwabena.

    nice to know, keep it up!

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  • Andrew

    Thanks for these two pieces on Sandlanders; it’s great to read about the diverse examples of how African clubs can work. You also raise an interesting question as to why outsiders seem more likely to invest in soccer academies than, say, science academies (though certainly investing in schools, as per Oprah, is a common enough tact).

    I do worry a bit that making broad criticisms of most African youth academies is problematic–it seems to me that a lot of the media wants to go with salacious expose story lines about soccer academies as exploitation. And while that is sometimes true, it is also sometimes true that these programs are (like Africa itself) diverse and some actually seem to work–particularly when connected to education. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve come across any of Paul Darby’s academic work on Ghanian academies (which he’s doing as part of a project that also includes Alan Klein looking at Caribbean baseball academies as a parallel thing)? Darby notes a few places that before he started the research he was all ready to critique the whole system as exploitation, but when he actually started looking he realized that was too simple. Sandlanders supports that, but others do too–and I just hope as the inevitable stories start coming out of the hype around the World Cup that there is some appreciation for the nuances (I wrote about this some on pitchinvasion a while back, but don’t mean to grandstand–I really do just think it’s a thought-provoking issue).

    Thanks again for the very good read.

  • Miriti Murungi

    Andrew – Thanks for your comment. Great points. I completely agree on the nuance points. Most of the time, for every bad apple, there are a corresponding goods apples and a variety of apples in between. But the question is how to tell the stories giving proper weight to both sides of the story. I don’t necessarily think that it’s simply a matter of numbers, meaning that a story that is 50% bad should necessarily result in a story that gives equal weight to the good vs. bad. Perhaps stories should be weighted using a slightly more complicated algorithm, like the influence/effect that the good and bad have on communities rather than whether an organization is doing good or bad work.

    Critiques shouldn’t solely focus on the bad, but also on how the good can do good more efficiently. At the end of the day, these stories are best told through individual case studies, which is something that Paul Darby has done well.

    I’m often interested in the nuance in the good stories that are worth exploring. An organization that is in theory doing good work on the surface, might have a great mission and really be helping people, but at what cost? The answer really requires defining what we’re talking about when we call something exploitation. Clearly, we know what exploitation looks like at its worst. But is not doing enough also exploitation? And what is enough?

    This all comes back to your point re: nuance. How we tell the stories matters. That’s my biggest fear with the upcoming World Cup. I hope we get less sensational stories, but we got a taste what we might be in for down in Cabinda during the CAN when the media largely lost sight of the fact that Cabinda is not South Africa. We’ll be heading to SA and will try to do our best to write stories as we see it. It’s hard to compete with major outlets of course, but every piece that can add some nuance helps. That’s why we thoroughly enjoy your pieces over at Pitch Invasion. Great stuff.