Benin is faced with one of the highest burdens of malaria in the world.
I’ve never been much of a soccer fan. (Tennis and pickleball are my favorite sports.) Still, seeing the athleticism and passion on display during the World Cup, I understand why soccer has earned the nickname “the beautiful game.” What makes soccer even more beautiful is the positive impact it can have off the field.
There may be no better example of this than the work of a unique non-profit organization called Grassroot Soccer, which was featured at a health innovation event where I spoke earlier this week.
For the last two decades, Grassroot Soccer has used the incredible popularity of the game to help young people across Africa navigate some of their toughest health challenges.
Despite significant progress in health and development in Africa, including a dramatic decline in child mortality, HIV/AIDS continues to be a leading cause of death among youth in Africa. Sexual violence threatens the health and safety of girls. A lack of access to contraceptives contributes to high rates of teen pregnancy. And mental health services are often unavailable.
Solving these challenges is difficult—and especially important given that 60 percent of Africans are under the age of 25. So, how can soccer make a difference?
Because it’s so popular, soccer offers a hook to capture the attention of young people. Grassroot Soccer uses the game to involve them in activities that encourage them to live healthier, more productive lives.
Here’s one simple example. In an activity called “Risk Field,” players are asked to dribble a soccer ball through cones labeled with some of the risky behaviors that young people often encounter, such as unprotected sex, HIV, multiple partners, and alcohol.
The local youth who serve as Grassroot Soccer coaches are a critical component of the program. Trained in basic counseling skills, the coaches play an important role as trusted mentors to the young participants.
The coaches also accompany adolescents to clinics where they can get HIV testing, contraceptives, and other services. (In some countries, young people might be turned away because of their age or criticized by health staff for seeking contraceptives and testing. The coaches serve as advocates to support their right to health services.) Coaches also conduct home visits to talk with parents and guardians about their programs and health services.
Founded in 2002 by Dr. Tommy Clark, a pediatrician and former professional soccer player, Grassroot Soccer initially focused on stopping the spread of HIV. (The Gates Foundation was an early funder of its work.) Today the organization works in more than 60 countries and has reached more than 18 million young people.
Studies have shown that its participants had better access to sexual and reproductive health services, were more likely to stick with their HIV treatment, and were less likely to experience depression.
That kind of impact gives everyone, even casual soccer fans like me, something to cheer about.