Franco Silva has played soccer ever since he learnt to walk. Originally from Mexico, he moved to Houston at the age of 8. Growing up, he played for several club teams in Houston, as well as for his school. After graduating high school he attended Tufts University and played on the varsity team during his 4 years there. He also travelled to Spain and played with an international team of select players.Although he always loved soccer, his objective was to build a career in medicine as a surgeon. He adds, “I have felt a calling to help people since I was young, and medicine allowed me to do so while also enjoying the intellectually challenging nature of the field. For many years, up until my graduation from Tufts, this was my mission and I worked hard every day to attain it.”
But life had other plans in store.
One month before graduation at Tufts, he walked into the library to study for an organic chemistry exam. His friend gave him a call to check if he wanted to play in a pick-up game that afternoon. “Regardless of how committed I was to my studies, the opportunity to play soccer on a beautiful Boston spring day was unbeatable, and obviously I agreed to join”, reminisces Franco.
That day, after 15 years of playing the game, his biggest fear on the field came true. “I destroyed my knee. I say ’destroyed’ because even my doctor, familiar with sports-related knee injuries, acknowledged that it was one of the worst injuries she had seen.” That day, he tore his ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament), MCL, LCL, strained his PCL (Posterior Cruciate ligament), dislocated his knee, and tore his meniscus. In layman terms, he busted his knee forever.
“For both internal and external reasons, that moment spun my life into chaos and redefined my life. Externally, the injury caused me to miss my application cycle to medical school, by delaying my course completion and thus graduation from Tufts due to painkillers and intense recovery therapy. I would have to wait another year until I could apply to medical school. Internally, I faced the fear of never playing the game that I love again. This may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but for my whole life I closely tied my identity and happiness with the game, and the possibility of not playing again caused some serious confusion and distress.”
In the two months that followed, he had a surgery, finished his coursework, and graduated. Now he had to wait nearly a year before his application. “During that time, I read a wide variety of books and spoke to many great people. On the inside, I made several self-discoveries, such as my desire to test my potential and to live with a mission, not just a career. On the outside, I discovered the world of social entrepreneurship, using business to create positive change. The two worlds were a perfect marriage, and I discovered my calling to use social entrepreneurship to help the world. “
And then came the idea. He decided to channel the world’s passion for soccer to fight world poverty. “I would mobilize one of the world’s largest communities, a game with 3.5 billion fans, to fight one of the world largest crises, world poverty: I would fight a giant with a giant.”
Franco talks about another interesting fact about soccer. Many of his idols in the game have come from extremely humble backgrounds. These players have seen poverty and other issues from close quarters and hence, understand the problem well.
Franco founded ‘Kizazi’. Kizazi translates to “generation” in Swahili. “This name is symbolic, because Kizazi stands for a new generation of players, a new generation of soccer. Furthermore, we chose Swahili in order to convey the worldly core of the company “, he adds.
Initially, Franco wanted to use soccer as a way to help poor children around the world by providing soccer balls to help them cope with difficult situations. For every ball that they sold, they would donate a second ball to children in need.
At the start of 2015, they came across some research shedding light on the ineffectiveness of using “goods” to fight poverty.
“More specifically, after weeks of deeper research, we learned that the traditional aid model of giving people things (clothing, food, etc…) only truly works for emergency situations, but is inadequate for fighting a systemic issue like poverty. This approach merely addresses the symptoms of the problem, but falls completely short in addressing its roots. In fact, in many cases giving people goods can actually be detrimental, causing more harm than good in the long run by issues such as creating dependency,” says Franco.
Franco spent a lot of time researching the many alternatives to fighting poverty, and came across Mohd. Yunus and his model of economic empowerment through micro credit. Franco adds, “This approach allowed us to empower individuals in poverty to create their own wealth and thus raise themselves out of poverty. It is the creation of opportunity, the first step in progress. Economic inclusion is critical to fighting poverty, and microloans are a major step in empowering individuals financially.”This mutual problem solving is the beauty of Kizazi. Soccer must be refocused on its ability for positive change, and poverty needs an intelligently crafted and united movement to fight its roots. Kizazi bridges the two worlds, and uses them to solve each other’s problem.
“For every Kizazi product that is sold, we will use a portion of the profits to fund microloans around the world. In this way, we redefine the game by giving it purpose/meaning through the story behind the products, and address the roots of poverty through microfinance. Each time we sell a product, we put a portion of the profits into the Kizazi Fund – the pool of money from which we make the loans. Each time a loan is repaid, we loan it out to a new person, time and time again. In this way, the money that goes into the fund is never spent, but recycled, and so the fund only gets bigger with every sale.”
The model is designed to become more powerful with every sale and every new product launched. To attain the goal, it is critical that Kizazi continues to flourish as a brand.
Kizazi has started lending already. Microloans have already been distributed to individuals in the Philippines, Kenya, Bolivia, India, El Salvador, Mali, and Azerbaijan.
Kizazi is a Fairtrade certified company, ensuring ethical production of their soccer ball.
Social entrepreneurship is not for the weak spirited. With hurdles galore, it takes undeterred focus to stay on the path. Franco says that the first challenge is having a true positive impact in any area and that is never simple. He adds, “Each issue is the result of a dense intertwining of factors that make the problem complex, and so the truly impactful methods of aid are difficult to convey in today’s market with the short attention span of potential consumers. When sharing the mission of a social venture, we only have a few seconds to convey the message before consumers lose interest. I have found it particularly difficult to convey the strategic approach behind our model in such a short time.”
The second challenge and this is one that all social entrepreneurs face is financial decisions, the constant balance between increasing profit and increasing impact. Franco shares his thoughts, “My focus, at the core, absolutely lies on maximizing our impact. That is why I built Kizazi. However, in order to do so, we need to grow and thus have a successful business running. Finding the right balance between maximizing our impact now (in the present) versus increasing profitability to maximize our impact down the road is a constant battle in social entrepreneurship.”
Franco says that they do not want to project themselves as just another “charity” asking for help. He says, “On the contrary, we want to establish ourselves as a brand where players get the products they want to enjoy the game, but feel intelligent and rewarded because the brand that they play with is focused on the beauty and not the greed of the game. In order to do so, we must tell a story. We do not sell a ball, we sell an experience, a brand. “
Franco has a ginormous dream for Kizazi. More than a dream, it’s a revolution he hopes for. He firmly believes that the key to unleashing one’s potential is to believe that they have it, “My inspiration comes from a wide variety of places, but all are stories or thoughts on how every great success began as an idea. Every beautiful and powerful thing that humanity has done once started as a thought, and so the vision that Kizazi is the seedling of a though that can grow into a tree that nurtures the world fuels me every day. This mentality that all great things start in the mind and are made reality through hard work and perseverance, inspires me every day”, says Franco on a parting note.