Company Karma: How football is bringing war torn societies together

Sportswear company hummels' calculated philanthropy is helping amputees in Sierra Leone to a women's team in Afghanistan

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The Independent Football

"This is Patrick," says Christian Stadil, brandishing a picture on his phone, "Patrick is an amputee of the civil war in Sierra Leone. He was born with one deformed foot, and when the rebels came across him, they cut off his one good foot. He got together with other amputees, and they formed the National Amputee football team of Sierra Leone. He is actually a baker, but he uses all the money he earns to fund the team."

Stadil is the owner and chairman of hummel, the Danish based sport and fashion manufacturer. Since taking over the company in 1999, he has transformed the company from a simple sports brand into one of the most socially responsible corporate entities on the planet. It was Stadil who founded "Company Karma", a business model which looks to promote change in some of the world's most disadvantaged communities, and it was under Stadil's leadership that the motto - "Change The World Through Sport" - came to epitomise the company's work.

Today, hummel can boast of a number of remarkable sponsorship deals, all driven by Company Karma. Sierra Leone's Amputee Team is just one of them. The company has worked with the Black Eyed Peas on a campaign to promote recycling, it sponsors the official national team of Sierra Leone, the men's and women's national teams of Afghanistan, and is partially responsible for the successful launch of the newly founded Afghan Premier League.

And Stadil likes pictures. He supplements almost every anecdote he tells with one. There is one of his Chief Marketing Officer Henning Nielsen hiding under a blanket while being driven through Kabul; one of a fake version of hummel's Sierra Leone replica shirt hanging on sale in a market stall, and of course, one of Patrick. With each image, his face breaks into a huge grin. Here is a man who enjoys his work, however dangerous it may be at times.

This month, hummel celebrated its 90 birthday. From humble roots in a town south of Hamburg, where founder Albert Messmer produced the world's first studded football boot, the company has morphed into a major international supplier of football and sports equipment. And while it may still trail the likes of Nike and adidas in terms of size, the Company Karma project marks it as unique among its competitors.

Company Karma, explains Stadil, does exactly what it says on the tin. It stems from his own interest in Buddhist philosophy, and is based on actions having consequences, even in the business world. It is also, says Stadil, an idea which roots the company to Denmark, where it has been based since 1980. 

"It is a very Danish idea. There is a great tradition of freedom of thought in Denmark. We have a high level of tax, so there is little difference between social classes. We were the first country in the world to allow homosexual partnerships in 1989 and we were the third country in the world to allow women to vote."

Many of hummel's community projects are indeed based in Denmark. The Copenhagen World Cup allows the international communities of the Danish capital to come together in an annual football tournament, while together with the Roskilde Music Festival, hummel run a women's street soccer tournament and sports involvement programs in the country's asylum centres.

It is internationally, however, that the idea of Company Karma has really proved a success. Since hummel took over the Sierra Leone national team in 2008, the country has soared up the Fifa world rankings, going from 167 to 59 place just in the last two years.

"I'd love to say their rise has been a direct result of our involvement," says Stadil, "maybe it had an effect in that they've had better equipment and things since we came in, but it's also down to them. Whatever the reason, it's a perfect example of Karma, when we put a lot of effort and resources into the team and they rise 100 places in the world rankings."

The involvement with the national team was what led hummel to Patrick and his amputee footballers, says Dan Bjerg, hummel's – and, as his boss is quick to point out, the world's only – "karma developer". "Christian and I were visiting Sierra Leone in 2011 a few years ago, just to check up on the national team. And then one of our contacts said you should meet this guy, his name is Patrick. So we drove down to the beach, which was where the first rebel attack on Freetown all started. It was a beautiful sight, but still visibly torn by war, and we met Patrick, and he told us his story. We signed the team on the spot."

In 2009, moreover, the company began work in the Football Festivals project in the country. Together with the sport based NGO Play31, hummel run festivals and football tournaments to work alongside workshops on human rights and conflict resolution. It is an ambitious but immensely successful project which has managed to involve over 50,000 people from around Sierra Leone.

"We had one amazing experience when me and Christian were there. We had a man who had been a member of a rebel force meeting a girl he had raped," Bjerg explains. "Years on, they were sitting down and talking through it, it was pretty amazing. Football is a way of bringing people who would normally oppose each other together."

The idea that football and sport can bring broken or war torn societies together is, it seems, a fundamental belief for hummel. At times, indeed, it seems too good to be true. For an international corporation should spend so much energy and money in attempting to revitalise some of the world's poorest and most unstable communities, there has to be some catch. For hummel, though, this is not  just charity work. Rather, it is an integral part of the company's drive for profit. They may only sell 400 or so Sierra Leone shirts a year, but the idea of Karma in which they believe dictates that community work will allow the brand to flourish.

"It's how we are competitive," says Nielsen, "we go where others won't go. For example, one of our most recent projects – with hummel Turkey – is a women's football tournament in which there is a Syrian team. No one else would touch them because of the trouble in Syria, but we signed them up."

That eagerness to do the unexpected is, in short, what marks them out as different to the likes of Nike and adidas, with whom they would not be able to compete otherwise. If it seems like calculated philanthropy, it's because that is exactly what it is.

"We are very open about the fact that we are also looking to make profit ourselves," Nielsen elaborates, "We believe very strongly that if you want to change the world, you have to engage companies, private entities. To engage them, you have to get something out of it. So you say how do we get something out of it? Not through selling shirts, but we hope that the company can gain a cultural resonance, through talking to journalists, through PR about the karma projects."

Perhaps that is why Stadil is so keen to show me so many pictures. Perhaps he is keen to demonstrate that this is not some marketing trick, but a genuine business model with genuine positive effect in the world.

Openness, though, brings up other issues. The company's work in Afghanistan is another huge success, with sponsorships of both the men's and women's national teams. In 2010, they organised a match between the newly formed women's team and a  team of NATO soldiers stationed in Kabul, which proved to be an impressive springboard for the project of women's football in the country. Such a high profile event, though, was never going to be entirely without its problems. In a country where football had been banned under the Taliban, and playing football – particularly if you were a woman – had often been punishable by death, the project was nothing if not a colossal risk on the part of all involved. While hummel are still to have any formal threat from the Taliban or other groups for their work in Afghanistan, support of women's football is, according to Nielsen, something which often requires an enormous leap of faith for ordinary Afghans.

"At the NATO match, we had a reporter from Al-Jazeera march directly up to Christian with a microphone and said 'Why are you doing this?' At that moment, we had this image of Osama in a mountain somewhere, watching this game on TV. We are happy to say, though, that we haven't had any formal threat. Did we expect it? Yes. Did we discuss it? Oh yes. But so far, there's been nothing."

Dan Bjerg has an idea why that might be the case. Although they are active in these countries, he says, hummel are keen not to be seen as paternalist. With the national teams, they provide equipment, but take a step back from active involvement such as coaching or player development.

"The tagline of changing the world through sport means that you have to take the cultural context into consideration. If we came with our western values, there would be more resistance, but we just come with sport. We will give people a platform with which they can live out their passion for sport – and that should be within the cultural context."

The notion of a platform is another of hummel's cornerstone ideals. In their promotional campaigns, they list "character" as one of their main values (and attribute it, rather tenuously, to another Danish influence in Søren Kierkegaard), saying that they give people the platform to step into character. A soundbite it may be, but as far as Company Karma is concerned, it is crucial. They offer a platform for change, not change itself. As Stadil is keen to assert, hummel remain an apolitical company.

"If somebody, anywhere, is deprived, we want to sponsor them. So we sponsored the Tibet national team, but if there is deprived Chinese children, we would equally sponsor them. It's about individuals, that can have an increased positive standard of living or positive experiences through sport."

This is certainly true of hummel's most recent project in Afghanistan - the Afghan Premier League. The country's first national league is now only a year old and already a roaring success. Hummel sponsor every single team, crossing political and cultural boundaries as they do so, and the league has come to represent one of the biggest unifying projects that the country has seen in recent years.

The APL's success is a testament to the unifying power of sport, and more specifically the universality of football. Just as in Sierra Leone, it is football – as promoted by hummel and their NGO partners – which has really managed to unify people, to inspire them, and, in the case of the amputees in Sierra Leone and the women's team in Afghanistan, to liberate them. As Stadil says, "what weapons couldn't do, football can."