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Skateistan Launches Product Line, Abandons Foreign Aid

Afghanistan’s only skateboarding NGO, Skateistan, is launching products in more than 70 countries, with all proceeds going back to the NGO.

Skateistan Go Skate Day

Skateistan will
soon be a household brand in over 70 countries. The Afghanistan NGO
founded by Oliver Percovich is making its entrance in selling
Skateistan-branded products to fund its charitable activities and remain
self-sustainable.

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With their own logo branded on all the products, the humble NGO will
now have its namesake plastered across the world, generating proceeds
that will go entirely back to the organization. “We don’t want to be
reliant on foreign aid,” Percovich tells Fast Company.

The inspiration to start the NGO came after Percovich, originally from Australia, followed his then-girlfriend to Kabul, where he saw child after child
on the street with no other alternative than to sniff glue.

Skateistan then began with the intention, in light of Percovich’s views
on the inefficiencies and damaging effects of aid, of building
trust–between locals and foreigners and between local Afghan tribes.
68% of Afghanistan’s population is under 25 years old and 60% are under
16, Percovich says. Percovich wanted desperately to help connect the
youth–not only to each other in something productive, but also to
something meaningful that would keep them engaged, away from violence
and drugs.

In the beginning, Percovich, a veteran skateboarder for 30 years,
started skateboarding on the street with neighborhood kids.

Two years later, his non-profit Skateistan uses the sport as a catalyst to bring together young Afghan boys and girls who often come from disparate classes and ethnic groups that wouldn’t normally speak to each other.

“The youth needed to be engaged immediately. They needed a voice,” Percovich says of Skateistan’s beginnings. With a social science background and having worked in the aid industry for years, watching billions of dollars pour in and go to waste, the 36-year old had fallen in love with Afghanistan, but wanted out of the industry. He had grown “quite disgusted with development,” he tells Fast Company.

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Skateistan now focuses on two things–skateboarding and education. A hundred ten girls come to class for two hours every week. Recently, the classes focused on analyzing the Millennium Development Goals. A “regular school” would only be for three hours per day in Kabul, and about half the Skateistan kids don’t attend normal schools. And while there are outcomes that can be measured–such as educational attainment–Percovich says one of the most rewarding outcomes is watching a rich girl and a poor girl kiss each other goodbye after the Skateistan classes. (See more images from Skateistan in our Fast Company slideshow).

 

Soon, they’ll all have state-of-the-art branded gear, to boot. The new helmet will be manufactured by the world-renowned Swiss company, TSG, and the apparel and shoes–out in 2011–are being developed with Fallen Footwear, “one of the hottest brands in skateboarding,” Percovich says.

He wants the Skateistan brand to be a purely social brand and completely transparent, with 100% of the proceeds going back to Skateistan. And he runs the NGO with that same philosophy. He calls his approach “ultra flexible.”

“We do what the kids ask us to do. Every day is different and we grow organically.”

“It’s really important to be consulting with the people you’re working with,” says Percovich. “It’s important to ask people what they want.” That may sound simple, but in the heavily bureaucratic and hierarchical industry of foreign aid, the ability to consult and stay in touch with people on the ground is admirable.

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As for life in Kabul for the entrepreneur? “We do things as normal as possible. We receive security reports and we know that most attacks occur between 7-9 a.m. We don’t go out at that time and we don’t attract attention to ourselves.”

“We do get worn out–we work six or seven days per week. We work hard, long hours.” But, he says, “Kabul is a great place to work, because it’s so challenging.”

Skateistan now has 30 staff and 300 students. They’re considering expanding to Mazar-i-Sharif, but, “If I don’t know how I can run it and run it really well, I don’t want to do it,” says Percovich. While the option to expand is always there, it’s clear that Percovich wants to make sure the social outcomes are sustainable. “We’re also starting to build something up in Pakistan,” he says, which is just in its infancy right now.

With its entrance into product sales, the focus for Skateistan then is figuring out a hybrid business model. From there–once they have the nuts and bolts worked out–the world is open, as the model, the focus, and the need of the NGO is highly replicable to places like Nepal, Haiti, Cambodia, and just about any of the world’s least developed countries. But as it is, resources such as the Internet Percovich used for our Skype call was being donated by a local telecom company at a cost of $2,200 per month at 512 speed. In a resource-constrained environment, costs soar, and that’s what Percovich will have to manage when he cuts off the aid. In the meantime, he’s certainly making his dent–both in the lives of Afghan children and in the international aid industry.

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Follow me, Jenara Nerenberg, on Twitter.

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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.

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