Lulu; the ugandan soccer ball skyrocketed the market

Deep in the village of Kijongo, in the town council of Rwenkobwa – district of Ibanda, existed a young child, Douglas Smith.

Smith had a big, bold dream in life, to play professional football.

A child walks on a local balloon and the Lulu product
A young boy plays Lulu ball

Like the rest of the other youngsters, Smith was very passionate about the beautiful game.

With friends, he played and had fun with banana-made footballs locally labeled “Akareere”.

Apparently it was Smith who hit those Akareere balls himself because they couldn’t afford the expensive balls from the sports shops.

“Football brought us all together, from humble and wealthy backgrounds, it gave us hope and a lot of courage in life. More importantly, the rules of the game taught us discipline and leadership.” he remember.

Douglas Smith holds the Lulu ball

Deep in his heart, he dreamed of making sophisticated balls.

As fate would dictate, Smith did not fulfill his earlier dream of playing professional football and at just 24 he ventured into football manufacturing.

He is the main mastermind behind Lulu; a durable and eco-friendly African-inspired soccer ball.

A Lulu ball lying on bare ground

Lulu is a Swahili dialect translated to mean pearl; a precious thing of great rarity and great value.

It’s a fusion of contemporary African art and football where African heritage meets the world’s beloved sport.

Lulu is derived from what makes Africa as a continent unique, such a rarity and a great value. What stood out was the culture and the landscape (plants and animals). Culture centered on the Ndebele who are a very artistic South African tribe in their dress and general way of life.

Douglas Smith

Young boys play Lulu ball
A boy holds the Lulu soccer ball in one hand and a locally made ball in the other

Growth of Sportrise:

For the past 5 years since 2017, Smith has used football as a powerful vehicle for social change under Sportrise Academy, formerly Ibanda Young Stars Soccer Academy.

It was a project of the Smith Soccer Foundation and now the Sportrise Foundation, a charity of the Sportrise company.

A Lulu ball played at a corporate tournament

I started Sportrise in 2020 because the soccer balls we used in our program were expensive and unsustainable. And most of the time depended on ball donations from friends. After doing intensive research, I learned that Uganda has no soccer ball manufacturing company and only a formal one in Africa. I then embarked on a journey to establish the first football manufacturing business in Uganda.

Douglas Smith

Young boys hold a Lulu ball during a national game
Some of the Lulu balls being made

Production of Lulu footballs:

The Lulu soccer ball is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PETE), the main raw material.

It is the most common type of plastic in Uganda as it is derived from disposable plastic water and soda bottles. It takes about 100 plastic bottles to make a ball, which is sort of seen as a way to save the environment.

“We have up to 10 plastic collection centers in Ibanda. We employ young people who do the collections. We are currently innovating a digital way to encourage young people to earn money by collecting and depositing plastic in our collection centers,” he says.

The whole process undergoes four tedious production steps.

These involve the lamination process, panel die-cutting, printing process, and hand stitching of soccer balls.

The lamination is for the Rexine (outer ball cover).

Lulu Ball Rexine

Rexine is basically synthetic leather (Sportrise uses pure leather from cow hides) which is generally used to make balls suitable for hard or bare ground (Kataka).

A layer of polyester fabric is applied in the same shape as the cut Rexine using latex glue, left to dry for a few hours, especially under natural sunlight.

The process is repeated 3 more times by sticking glue on the fabric and another layer of polyester fabric.

Manufacture of the Lulu balloon

The thickness of the material plays an essential role in the quality of a football, especially when sewn by hand.

Match balls and practice balls have 4 layers, but the cheaper ones usually have around 2-3 layers.

Some of our balls are made from recycled plastic waste. We partner with some of the most powerful companies in the world that recycle waste plastics (PET) into the polyester fabric we use during the lamination process. Polyester webs give the ball strength, structure and bounce.

Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith with the Lulu Balls

The second process is cutting the panels. The most common balls made at Sportrise have 32 panels.

There are also those with 18 and 12 panels. For 32-panel balls, there is a specialized machine that cuts the panels.

Special dyes are installed in the machine to cut the panels into the correct shape generally; hexagons and pentagons.

The machine cuts and punches them. The small circle-shaped spots are used as stitch marks for sewing the panels together.

Lulu ball for rough terrain (Kataka)

Process number three is the printing process. This is done once all the hexagons and pentagons are cut.

They are then transferred to screen printing of the Lulu design or customer specifications.

“High quality inks are generally used for their durability and clarity,” confirms Smith.

Lulu Waterproof Bullet is 80,000/= ($25)

The final process is the hand stitching of the soccer balls.

The panels are sewn together and the bladder installed.

A full size 5 ball has a total of 720 stitches using polyester yarn.

The ball bladder is glued to the air valve panel before sewing the balls together.

A young boy plays Lulu ball on artificial grass

Since May 2020, we have achieved UGX 12 million in sales for both Sportrise balls and Sportrise apparel and have so far raised UGX 120 million in seed funding. While currently our sportswear is fabric, we are currently undertaking research into the feasibility of manufacturing sportswear (sportswear – including jerseys and shoes) from recycled plastic waste.

Douglas Smith

Lulu’s manufacturing process has employed over 100 jobs directly and indirectly

Job track:

Smith, through the Sportrise project, has created over 100 jobs directly and indirectly.

These have lifted families out of abject poverty as one of the foundation’s greatest goals.

Proceeds from the sale of our sportrise balls are used to give more balls to children in underserved communities.

“We envision a future where every child has the chance to play. We aim to provide over 100,000 balls to children in underserved communities by 2025. We also use sportrise balls in our Sportrise Academy and Sportrise Community impact programs to promote health education,” adds Smith.

Douglas Smith’s first bullet he made
A player kicking a Lulu ball during the competitive match

Awards and recognitions:

Smith has been recognized nationally and internationally.

He has thus won various awards and accolades as the first Ugandan to bring a science of soccer ball making to the country.

To date, Sportrise has been recognized as the fastest growing sports business in East Africa.

In 2018 he was nominated for the Young Achievers’ Awards.

He won the World-Remit Future Stars Winner, UNDP Award 2020, MTN FOR GOOD Award 2020 and most recently Startup Community Award 2022.

Building sportrise has virtually connected Smith and his team to powerful global organizations such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and MTN Uganda.

Douglas Smith holds the Lulu ball. It has gained local and international recognition

Model:

Smith’s role model in life is the grandmother.

The big one believed in him when he was very young and today he has no regrets.

My role model is my grandmother. She and my late grandfather believed in me since I was 1 year old. They taught me to be humble, kind and generous. Most importantly, I was framed to work and leave a lasting impact in the world.

Douglas Smith

Young boys hold a Lulu ball in action

Challenges:

Smith acknowledges that one of the biggest challenges is access to finance.

“We need more funding to reduce production costs and have greater impact across Africa. We would also be grateful if the government supports our business. I believe this one of the projects will sell Uganda across the world. He talks about the biggest challenge.

The other stumbling block is the myth ingrained by most Ugandans that they don’t believe in locally made products.

Douglas Smith holds a Lulu ball on a dusty playground
Douglas Smith holds the Lulu soccer ball

Future prospects:

Sportrise has the dream and project to establish a manufacturing plant for sports balls of all kinds.

They also envision a future where the manufactured bullets will be used across Africa and parts of Europe.

There is also a fundraising plan to build the Sportrise Academy Football School within Rwenkobwa Town Council to provide both education and football programs.

A hand holding the precious Lulu ball

Lulu has entered the domestic market in several local football clubs, companies, schools and individuals.

Let’s buy and promote Lulu, let’s build Uganda, let’s all play the good game.

Tit Bits about Smith:

  • Full name: Smith Douglas
  • Parents: Major Stephen Barya & Beatrice Kirunga
  • Date of Birth: 14e April 1994
  • Place of birth: Rwenkobwa Municipal Council, Ibanda District
  • Education: Ibanda Town School (PLE), Kitagwenda High School (2009-2012UCE), Valley College HS (2013-2014 UACE), Diploma, Medical Laboratory Technology (Chemequip Medical School)
  • Attributes: Grandparents Late Steven Mbundira and Ruth Mbundira
  • Football career: Primary, Secondary, Ibanda Municipal, Ibanda Warriors (Attacking Midfielder, Wide-man)
  • Awards and Recognition: Young Achievers’ Awards Nominated (2018), World-Remit Future Stars Winner (2020), UNDP Award Winner (2020), MTN FOR GOOD Award Winner (2020), Startup Community Award Winner (2022)
  • Management: Director, Sportrise Football Academy