We sat down with Tim Harper, founder of Harper Performance. We talked new projects, athlete's support and believing in sport to change lives. So let's dive in!
MSS: First of all, what is Harper Performance? Why and how has it been created? Who's behind it?
Tim: Harper Performance is a non-profit social enterprise that exists to support aspirational athletes and sports teams from disadvantaged, deprived and marginalised communities across the world, but with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
It was founded by myself; Tim Harper about 18 months ago. After spending almost a decade working in high performance sport in the UK, I had the opportunity to spend time with an Olympic Committee in Southern Africa and it woke me up to the realities of what the have’s and have not’s can access in elite sport.
I spent a bit of time volunteering my skills to various athletes and teams in the developing world, and from there the idea snowballed from passion project to fully fledged social enterprise.
Whilst I founded the organisation, really the people behind it are the people already working in the development of elite athletes in the communities across the developing world. The team at Harper Performance are merely complementing the work already being done with a level of expertise and experience that is nigh-on impossible for these athletes to access normally.
What's your philosophy? Why is it worth it to get involved in this field, the way your organisation does it?
Our philosophy is based around the concept of ‘kanju’ which is at the very core of everything we do at Harper Performance. Kanju, put simply, is a "specific form of creativity born from African difficulty”. It is a rule-breaking, informal and super-agile ethos that makes it possible to just get things done in the face of constant obstacles, headaches, failing infrastructure, corruption and a dogmatic and bureaucratic banking system. Our mission is to build capacity, not reliance, to complement, not take over and at the very core of that is to remember that the informal, rule-breaking, locally-driven hustle that is ‘kanju’ when combined with sound science holds the answers.
Ownership of the performance-support systems of those we work with remains in the locality, with our team there to plug skills-gaps, provide expertise in the same way we would with a client in the UK and help facilitate the development of a ‘Monrovian/Kenyan/Ugandan’ solution to performance-support for elite athletes. After all, the best solutions to problems, in elite sport or otherwise, are local, developed by the people closest to the problem, not solely by our team.
It’s worth getting into this field because like it or not, sport matters. Sport is an enormously powerful vehicle for change, socially, politically and economically and by creating leaders in these communities, by helping write incredible underdog stories through sport, we can inspire generations to carve out their own, self-determined future.
You help athletes, which are often not regarded as people that need help. The public has this vision of rich, highly-paid athletes. But it's often the case that they struggle in life, to live their dream. What's your take on that?
I think you’re right - that’s often the perception in the general public, that athletes are paid huge sums of money to do what they do, but thats a perception slightly skewed by some of the reported salaries of the top footballers in Europe.
You look at athletes outside of the top level of football, and it’s not the paradise that people imagine. I know of professional athletes in the UK, who are riding Deliveroo bikes in the evenings, stacking shelves in supermarkets and working as bar staff in the off-season to make ends meet.
Regarding the athletes we work with - yes, we work in sport, but really we’re working with disadvantaged communities as a whole. Sport is a vehicle of change, it wields far greater power than government policy in creating tangible social change, in empowering deprived communities and writing stories with the capacity to inspire generations.
Quite often, those we work with herald from areas in the world where, for large swathes of the population, daily survival is the top priority, and in that sense, our work, and sport itself may seem like a superficial event. But it is our belief, and the belief of those we work with in those communities, that sport serves as a marker of stability in an otherwise volatile and challenging existence. Sport allows these athletes, communities, and peoples to forge an identity, and draw international attention for reasons other than the conflict, poverty, famine and disease that fills our airwaves on a daily basis.
The other side of things is that, as a team of performance-support practitioners (sports scientists, physiologists, spots medicine practitioners, nutritionists and psychologists), we’ve spent years helping athletes get to the top of their sport or discipline - it doesn’t feel right that the opportunity to do that is governed by who you are, where you come from and your level of privilege. That should be an inherent right of everyone. We want to ensure that if you have the talent and the work ethic, that you have all the support to get to the start line that we’ve been giving athletes over the years, whether you’re born in Uganda, Liberia, the UK or anywhere else.
You've recently launched the Kanju Campaing, which got you a nomination to the #MSSWeeklyAwards ! What's it all about? Do you have an end goal?
Yes - it was great to get the nomination for the #MSSWeeklyAwards, thank you!!
The KANJU Campaign is our first major fundraising drive as a social enterprise. Up until now we’ve been totally self-funded by reinvesting the proceeds of our UK-based clients - that reinvestment model is scalable and we’re working hard to ensure that in the future we can generate the sustainable revenue we need to run our project work.
However, like in the evolution of any business, there comes a time when you need to inject some funding to allow you to grow into yourselves and break through the glass-ceiling in development that start-ups often themselves contending with. The KANJU Campaign is our way of injecting that investment - it’s a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising £30k, raising awareness of what we’re doing and how people can get behind us!
If anyone wants to get behind the campaign - it’s running until 28th March and all the details, including our 2-minute campaign video can be found at www.crowdfunder.co.uk/the-kanju-campaign
Our chairman Mel Young often says that our goal is to close! It would mean we are not needed anymore as our goal would have been achieved. Do you think you are in a similar situation? Or is your challenge an unsolvable one and you are focused on helping as much as you can?
Absolutely - I wrote a blog post recently on why our mission, both in the long term, but also with each of our individual projects is to make ourselves redundant - I think thats particularly important when we work in disadvantaged communities overseas, we’re there to build capacity, not reliance, complement and not take over - our role is to utilise the immense experience and scientific know-how of our team to plug major skills-gaps and in tight collaboration with our local partners, lay the performance foundations so that these teams, academies and sports organisations can evolve and grow in their own mould, their own way, long after we’ve gone home.
In the long term, we’re fully committed to the notion that we shouldn’t be needed! A country’s athletes, sports teams and their success belongs to that country alone - Liberian Football for instance belongs to Liberia, not to us, not to any foreign consultancy - in the long term, we are committed to the idea that Liberian football will be populated with Liberian sports scientists, physiotherapists, nutritionists and psychologists and we hope we can help get it there!
I don’t think I’d classify anything as unsolvable, but there is certainly a long way to go in making sport a level playing field - we want to focus on our projects - our goal is to move the needle a fraction at first, start building momentum and show the world that these disadvantaged communities can develop high performance sport their own way, sustainably efficiently and effectively. Then we’ll see what kind of noise we can create!!
We also nominated Monrovia FA, which does great things. How do you select a project that's worth helping?
The Monrovia Football Academy is a phenomenal organisation in a phenomenally resilient country. Will and Sekou have done such a fantastic job and it’s an honour to be working with them.
In terms of project selection, there aren’t any hard and fast rules - we need to ensure we can add value and build capacity and most importantly, there has to be enough infrastructure on the ground already that mean it can grow without relying on our team over the long term - simply because our work only works through collaboration with local partners driving the innovation.
So what's next? What's the big dream?
Right now we’re focusing on our projects in Liberia, Kenya and Uganda - and in the background we’re having some really exciting conversations for future projects but we’ll take one step at a time. We’re working really hard on securing our financial resilience in the longer term - like all non-profits, especially those working overseas, this is a big challenge, but we’re pulling together a group of brilliant partners, sponsors and supporters who share our passion for the underdog athlete - but we’re always looking out for more like-minded individuals and companies to join our mission!
The big dream? I think to see a project totally outgrow our services, evolve and come back to teach us and our team about how we can do things better, using their processes, methods and innovations. I think that full-circle journey would be the ultimate dream. That we become a cyclical and self-sustaining performance model in partnership with our project partners.