Douglas Smith poses with a Lulu ball

Deep in Kijongo village in Rwenkobwa Town Council – Ibanda district, there existed a young child, Douglas Smith.

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

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

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

With friends, he would play and enjoy banana made footballs locally tagged as “Akareere”.

Apparently, it is Smith who minted these Akareere balls himself since they could not afford the expensive balls from the sports shops.

“The game of football united all of us from both humble & rich backgrounds, it gave us hope & a lot of courage in life. Most importantly the rules of the game taught us discipline & leadership.” he recalls.

Douglas Smith holds the Lulu ball

Deep in his heart, he had a dream of making sophisticated balls.

Like fate would dictate, Smith did not realize his earlier dream of playing professional football and at only 24 years, he ventured into making soccer balls.

He is the main brain behind Lulu; an eco-friendly durable African inspired soccer ball.

A Lulu ball lying on a bare ground

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

It is a fusion of contemporary African art and soccer where the African heritage meets the world’s loved sport.

Lulu was derived from what makes Africa as a continent unique, such a rarity and great worth. What stood out was culture and scenery (plants and animals). Culture focused on the Ndebele who are a South African tribe who are highly artistic in their dressing and general way of life.

Douglas Smith
Young boys plays the Lulu ball
A boy holds the Lulu soccer ball in one hand and a locally crafted ball in another

Growth of Sportrise:

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

This was a project of the then Smith Soccer Foundation and now Sportrise Foundation, a charity organization of the Sportrise company.

A Lulu ball being played during a Corporate tournament

I established Sportrise in 2020 because soccer balls we used in our program were expensive & not durable. And most of the times depended on donations of balls from friends. After making intensive research I learned that Uganda doesn’t have a football manufacturing company & only formal one in Africa. I then went on a journey to establish Uganda’s first football manufacturing company.

Douglas Smith
Young boys hold a Lulu ball during a domestic match
Some of the Lulu balls being made

Lulu Soccer ball production:

The Lulu soccer ball is made out of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE), the main raw material.

This is the commonest type of plastic in Uganda as it is derived from disposable plastic water and soda bottles. It takes around 100 plastic bottles to make one ball, which in a way is envisaged as a way to conserve the environment.

“We have up to 10 plastic collection centres in Ibanda. We employ some young people that do the collections. We are currently innovating a digital way of encouraging young people to earn as they collect and drop plastic at our collection centres,” he narrates.

The entire process undergoes four stages of tedious production.

These entail the lamination process, cutting of panels, printing process and hand stitching of the soccer balls.

The Lamination is for the Rexine (outer cover of the ball).

Rexine of the Lulu ball

Rexine is basically synthetic leather (Sportrise use pure leather from cow hides) which is usually used to make balls suited for the hard or bare ground (Kataka).

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

The process is repeated a further 3 times by pasting glue on the fabric & another layer of polyester fabric.

Manufacturing of the Lulu ball

Material thickness plays a vital part in the quality of a soccer ball especially hand stitched.

Match balls & training balls have 4 layers but cheaper usually have around 2-3 layers.

Some of our balls are made from recycled plastic waste. We partner with some of the powerful companies across the globe that recycle plastic waste (PET) into polyester fabric which we use during the lamination process. The polyester cloths give the ball strength, structure and bounce.

Douglas Smith
Douglas Smith with the Lulu balls

The second process is the cutting of panels. The commonest balls made at Sportrise have 32 panels.

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

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

The machine cuts and punches them. The small circle like spots are used as marks for stitches to sew the panels together.

Lulu ball for the rough terrain (Kataka)

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

They are then moved on to the screen print them the Lulu design or customer design specifications.

“High quality inks usually Butyl proof ink for its durability and clarity are used” Smith confirms.

Lulu water proof ball costs 80,000/= ($25)

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

The panels are stitched together and the bladder installed.

A complete size 5 ball has a total of 720 stitches using polyester threads.

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

A young boy plays the Lulu ball on artificial grass

We have made UGX12 million in sales from both Sportrise balls and Sportrise wear since May 2020 and have so far raised UGX120 million in seed funding. Whereas currently our sport wear is made of fabric, we are presently undertaking research on the feasibility of manufacturing sportswear (sportrise wear– including jerseys and footwear) from recycled plastic waste.

Douglas Smith
The process of manufacturing Lulu has employed over 100 jobs directly and indirectly

Employment avenue:

Smith, via the Sportrise project has created over 100 jobs both directly & indirectly.

These have lifted the families out of abject poverty as one of the foundation’s biggest objectives.

Profits from selling our sportrise balls are used to donate more balls to children in underserved communities.

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

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

Awards & Recognitions:

Smith has been domestically and internationally recognized.

He has thus earned various awards and recognitions as the first Ugandan to come up with a science of making soccer balls in the country.

Todate, Sportrise has been recognized as the fastest growing sports company in East Africa.

In 2018, he was a nominee for the Young Achievers’ Awards.

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

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

Douglas Smith holds the Lulu ball. He has earned local and international recognition

Role Model:

Smith’s role model in life is the grandmother.

The grand believed in him as a toddler and today, he has no regrets whatsoever.

My role model is my grandmother. She & my late grandfather believed in me since I was 1-year old. They taught me to be humble, kind and generous. And most importantly I’ve been mentored to work and leave a lasting impact in the world.

Douglas Smith
Young boys hold a Lulu ball while in action

Challenges:

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

“We need more funding to ease the cost of production and to make a bigger impact across Africa. We would also be grateful if the government supported our venture. This one of the projects I believe will sell Uganda across the world.” He speaks of the biggest challenge.

The other pitfall is the myth engraved by most Ugandans of failure to 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 plan to establish a manufacturing plant manufacturing all kinds of sports balls.

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

There is also a plan to raise money to construct Sportrise Academy Soccer School in Rwenkobwa Town Council to provide both education and soccer programs.

A hand holding onto the treasured Lulu ball

Lulu has hit the domestic market at several local football clubs, corporate organizations, schools and individuals.

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

Tit Bits About Smith:

  • Full Name: Smith Douglas
  • Parents: Major Stephen Barya & Beatrice Kirunga
  • Date of Birth: 14th April 1994
  • Place of Birth: Rwenkobwa Town 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 midfield, Wide-man)
  • Awards & Recognitions: Nominee for the Young Achievers’ Awards (2018), Winner World-Remit Future Stars (2020), UNDP Prize Winner (2020), MTN FOR GOOD Prize Winner (2020), Startup Community Prize Winner (2022)
  • Management: Director, Sportrise Football Academy

David Isabirye is a senior staff writer for Kawowo Sports where he covers most of the major events.

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