Ubuntu Football Academy kicks off success for talented Cape Town soccer players – Casey Prince

Boys and now more and more girls all over the world dream of becoming professional footballers, or soccer players as we call it in South Africa. However, for those in the poorer areas of South Africa, this dream can be particularly challenging to achieve. The Ubuntu Football Academy in Cape Town acts as a launch pad for these young talents, offering them the opportunity to develop both as players and as individuals. One of the founders, Casey Prince, spoke to Biznews about the success of their young players from deprived areas of Cape Town, who have become champions not only in South Africa but also across Africa and in other places in the world. Notably, one of their players, Munashe Garananga, has progressed to a club in Belgium, while another became an Olympian. Success at Ubuntu Football Academy extends beyond the pitch. Prince is particularly proud of the school’s academic achievements and the after-school careers of the boys, which include prestigious positions such as employment at BlackRock. This year, the academy has also started accepting girls, with an under-12 girls team already in place.

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Extended transcript of the interview

Linda van Tilburg (00:03.498)

Boys all over the world dream of becoming professional footballers or soccer players as we call them in South Africa. However, for those in poorer areas of South Africa, this dream can be particularly challenging to achieve. The Ubuntu Football Academy in Cape Town provides a beacon of hope for these young talents, allowing them to develop as players and individuals. One of the founders is Casey Prince who is going to tell us about the success of their young players.  

Linda van Tilburg (00:38.794)

So what inspired you to start the Ubuntu Football Academy?

Casey Prince (00:45.412)

We were here in 2008 for three months to have a mission experience and I thought to get it out of our system, but South Africa gets in you and it doesn’t let go very easily. So, we started working in communities and noticed that there were a lot of really talented people, across the spectrum of talents, but you realise that those people are going to have a really difficult time in ever seeing their full human potential realised. We wanted to see if there was something we could do about it.

In that same time of wrestling with what that meant, I met and got to know this guy named Michael Jenkins and he proposed this not so ludicrous idea of us investing in footballers in a way that could be transformative and profound for them and their families.

Through that process of our investment, they’d be prepared for and access opportunities to be the hope that their families and communities so desperately needed. So, fifteen months later, we arrived back on these beautiful shores for good with a chunky nine-month-old little girl and a mission to holistically develop elite footballers towards them becoming citizens of significance.

We set out to unleash their full potential in every possible area. We prepare them for platforms of influence in and out of football and then help them discover their purpose. By doing that for them, our vision is to see that through them, they will be the positive influence that leads to healthy and thriving families, communities, and society. It’s been an interesting journey since doing that in 2010, 2011 when we launched.

Linda van Tilburg (02:31.05)

So, apart from what you describe, what you offer them to become better individuals and good football players, what is the Ubuntu Football Academy? Is it an actual school?

Casey Prince (02:40.036)

Yes. So it’s very much evolved over the years from a group of 11- and 12- year olds in 2011, where we just did a football program, but we very quickly realise like, we’re not going to accomplish something significant in their lives if we just have an afternoon program. So, from that stage, it evolved and we now have roughly 140, 150 players in the program and 25 staff. 

We also have our independent no-fee school for grades seven through 12. We have a loving family-feeling boarding residence for those who come from too far away to travel every day and then a full formation program. So formation for us is defined as character, spiritual and leadership formation. It’s evolved into a very full-time and full-investing program.

Linda van Tilburg (03:34.186)

For people who might not know that area, can you describe what it looks like and what kind of candidate you get? 

Casey Prince (03:41.156)

It has evolved over the years of who we’re working with. In the early days, we recruited in the southern part of Cape Town. We live in the Southern peninsula. So, in the early days, it was those kids predominantly coming from black townships and coloured communities and it has grown as our network grew and as our ambitions grew.

Now we actually recruit throughout the whole city and region of Cape Town, but actually beyond that now. So, we have a player from Beaufort West. We have five from Port Elizabeth, we even have one from Botswana. So, occasionally, a foreign kid might sneak in, but, for the most part,  it’s predominantly Cape Town kids and almost predominantly from previously disadvantaged communities where they’re struggling with huge amounts of gang violence and drug abuse and unfathomable homes, all the sort of social ills and our kids are representative of those for the most part.

it’s been a real privilege to then invest in those kinds of kids where they can really make a difference and you’re seeing that already happen with our first group of graduates or our first generations of graduates

Linda van Tilburg (04:56.266)

Well, can you share some of your success stories?

Casey Prince (04:59.524)

Even some basic statistics reveal that the programme has worked and has been exciting. Our graduation rate is about 93%, which far exceeds the national average. 70% of our kids will qualify for university compared to 31% nationally. So, it’s something we take pride in,  is making sure that in this small school environment, we’re able to take kids places that they might not have gone otherwise.

Our NEET rate, which measures not in employment, education or training is about 4 % compared to about 34 % nationally, which is an incredible success. We even had a 100 % pass rate for all of our grades in 2023. But we’ve had a lot of football success as well. 

For the last eight years, we’ve had about 35 junior national team call-ups. Four of our graduates have been part of senior national team camps. We’ve even had an Olympian. Then about 25 players have been part of professional teams in South Africa and abroad, including one of them, Munashe Garananga has progressed to a club in Belgium called KV Mechelen, a top Belgian club and we think he’ll even move again in this transfer window. Last year for the first time, our school played school football and we won the national under-14 schools championship which then meant they got to play in Harare in December and win the Southern African Schools Championship.

Two weeks ago, we were in Zanzibar playing in the CAF Schools Championship. So, the six winners from around the continent. We did not win that one, but it was still an incredible experience for a kid from a township community to fly to Zimbabwe and to fly to Zanzibar and stay in fancy hotels and be treated almost like a pro already. 

It was a cool experience for them. We’ve ended up with about 22 of our graduates, studying and playing in the United States on bursaries where they’ve earned about R64 million worth of scholarship money just since 2017. Then another 15 or so have studied here in South Africa. We have had our first graduates from university in South Africa along with our first four university graduates in the U S and that is just a few of the stories. 

Casey Prince (07:23.524)

Some of the special ones, there’s a kid named Alex van Schalkwyk who did a post-grad high school year at a boarding school in America and then ended up at Dartmouth College, which is an Ivy League institution and since then has gone on to work for BlackRock Investments, the world’s largest asset manager in San Francisco. So he’s about a year into his first year of employment and an incredible young man who still has a deep, deep passion for changing things in South Africa and I think he will.  

Casey Prince (07:52.772)

He’ll probably work for two years and get an MBA for two years and then we’ll see kind of what happens from there, but he already has some big dreams and ideas of ways to change industries here with his education and experience.

So, that’s a neat story, but also we have one of my favourites as a kid named Carl van Rensburg, who was in our very first group and was very upset that we moved him to the school where we were sending them to. So in 2012, we started sending the first group of kids to a local private school and did that through 2017 when we started our school. But, Carl was very upset, he was so bummed to leave his community school and fast forward, Carl is now a Grade Seven teacher at that very school where he was so upset to go and now he has influence over 120 Grade Seven kids every day. It’s also the same school my children attend and so ironically, he now even coaches my son’s soccer team at the school. So it’s just a real treat to see the ways he’s grown, the impact he has, and the influence he has on those young people. So it’s been a really neat story. 

It’s not always just football stories. We have great football stories, but it’s also just the people that they’re becoming and the way they’re realising their fullest human potential because of the opportunities and the doors that opened because of their involvement here.

Linda van Tilburg (09:13.034)

So, do any of the big leagues ever come knocking? Does the Premier League know about the Ubuntu Academy?

Casey Prince (09:20.708)

I don’t think the Premier League knows yet, but I think it’s starting to get there. In the Premier Soccer League here in South Africa, we’ve had a lot of players at those clubs that are doing quite well. But yeah, so Munashe Garanang being our first European export is probably, hopefully, it will start to generate even more attention. 

We do think that we have, as our recruiting has grown and evolved and as our program has grown and evolved, we’re continuing to develop more and more players that we think can play at a high level. It’s a continual journey for us to figure out how we open up those doors as well so that they can explore, stretching themselves to the highest level as a footballer and not just settle for a career in the PSL, but stretching themselves to the fullest and we want to continue opening those doors to those that are the most ambitious, so we can see what they’re able to accomplish.

Linda van Tilburg (10:22.058)

If you look at women’s football, they’ve been more successful in South Africa than the men. So are you doing anything for girls?

Casey Prince (10:29.508)

It’s something we’ve wrestled with for a long time and they’re part of our struggles, always asking what else is happening around the country. Is there anything we can plug into, especially in Cape Town that wasn’t happening? I think things have developed in Johannesburg much quicker, but it’s starting to happen here. And so we’re finally getting our feet wet, so to speak. In 2024,  we launched our pilot girls program which included adding an under-12 girls team. So we have an under-12, under-9 up through under-12 boys teams that aren’t part of the full academy. So, we’ve now done the same and started an under-12 girls team. As a pathway,  we also have admitted our first five girls into the school environment. There are three in grade seven and two in grade eight. They are very brave young ladies to be in a school full of smelly and annoying boys. 

They’ve done tremendously well and they’re great players and solid students.  It’s been really exciting to have that mix. I think it’s going to help us develop better men as well. But, it’s been really neat to just give opportunities to these young ladies who are very talented and need the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. I think it’s going to be exciting to see what doors we can open for them as well, whether that’s using their football talent to get an education or using their football talent to potentially keep playing football for those that want to, I think it’ll be cool. 

So far, even within the first few months, they’ve made a few finals of tournaments and have just done well. So, those five in school train with the boys in their age group. You can imagine they’re not just training with any boys, they’re training with the very best boys. Their growth is going to accelerate so fast. It’s exciting and the hope is that next year we may add  So the hope is next year we may add four to six in the grade seven group and start to grow it as well. 

Linda van Tilburg (12:26.122)

Do you think the girls are keen on football? Or soccer? 

Casey Prince (12:29.38)

I think it’s starting to change and develop.  I think there seems to be a lot of interest. There are not nearly as many girls playing and often they have to play with boys up until around 12, or 13. There are more and more clubs starting to have girls teams and more leagues and that was kind of the encouragement for us. Once more other girls were playing, once there were leagues and stuff that we could participate in, then we sort of felt like, all right, it’s time. We can’t say we’re about empowering talented individuals and then leaving out half the population. So it’s time and I think it’s proven to be a good decision so far, hopefully, they will continue to agree, those five young ladies, especially.

Linda van Tilburg (13:12.874)

Can we talk about funding? What kind of support do you get? Where does your funding come from?

Casey Prince (13:18.756)

It’s always a journey and struggle for a nonprofit. So, we’re registered as a trust here in South Africa and then we’re also registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in the United States. Being American, that was kind of how I knew how to raise money at first and when we got here, we didn’t have anything to raise money for. We were doing it in the back of our vehicles. But slowly that’s had to evolve once we started sending them to school and now running your program and having all this staff.

In America, it predominantly comes from individuals. We call them teammates. So, anyone who’s a monthly donor who gives $10 or more is a teammate. In South Africa, it comes mostly through corporate donations and foundations.  Companies like Allan Gray have been generous. We’ve been part of their program. So their programme is employee nominated and voted. We had a three-year grant, it ended, and then we were recently reelected-  we’re very thankful to be part of their program. We get funding from the Clicks Helping Hand Trust, from Emergence Investments, so from a growing range of corporate sponsors here in South Africa, and it’s something we want to grow. 

 We’re learning, we are hopefully giving you great stories and really clear metrics. We do a really good job of tracking things and both the success we have while they’re with us, but also graduate success and how their lives are changed and different. So, you’re getting some great metrics, some great stories of life change but also, you know, really clean financials and a well-run organisation that you can be proud of. We continue to try to grow that. One of the areas that we’ve recently in the last year finally learned about, I don’t know how it took us 13 years to learn it, but just through the BEE mechanisms and scorecard as an educational institution, all of our kids are basically on a bursary. We don’t charge a fee to be at Ubuntu so that bursary can be funded by an external company that wants to grow or who needs to grow its skills development spend for its scorecard. 

So, that’s been something we’re trying to get to the point where at least all their academic costs, more than half of what we spend every year, are purely academic costs that are covered by an external company and it’s mutually beneficial. They get the points on their scorecard and we get the funding we need. So, that’s been a growing thing. We got to nine bursaries covered last year and are hoping to slowly increase that each year or quickly increase that each year, but keep growing it to where all 60 students or more as we had more girls are all covered, at least academic costs are covered by an external bursary. So, it’s been a journey, but we’re thankful for those South African companies, especially those that have joined us and have been generous with their time and their funds.

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