Partnerships with Paris Saint-Germain and Zalando, collaborations with Edgar Davids and Robin Haase and a deal with one of the largest video games in the world. From the heart of Amsterdam, a company with a unique story: KLABU, is working on a special mission. A story that Adwise gets to be a part of. We visited founder Jan van Hövell in his KLABU store for an interview. A conversation about the power of sports, refugee camps, 'unbeatable spirit' and the cooperation with Adwise.
We meet founder Jan in the KLABU shop in Amsterdam. On the outside, the appearance of the store is not particularly striking, but that is different when you go in. Brightly painted walls, racks full of (sports) clothing with flashy prints and walls of photos; you literally enter the colorful world of KLABU. We are welcomed by Jan with a big smile, who immediately gives us a tour of the vibrant showroom. A great setting for an interview. It's time to ask some questions.
Founder Jan van Hövell in the KLABU store.
Let's start with an introduction. Who is Jan van Hövell?
"So, I'm Jan, and I've lived in different countries since I was a kid. My parents worked with refugees. When I was 18, I did an internship at a refugee camp in Ghana. After that, I went to law school and worked at the Zuidas in Amsterdam, where I focused on mergers and acquisitions. After 4.5 years, I felt that the time had come to spread my wings and do something I REALLY wanted to do. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and I want to make a difference."
And that's when you decided to found KLABU?
''That’s right! During my internship in Ghana, I saw with my own eyes that there were many young people who had very little to do. Everything is focused on survival and there is hardly any focus on sport and relaxation. I had a ball and I just started playing soccer. Pretty soon I was playing a game with refugees from all over the world. I could see it made them feel good. They didn't have to focus on survival for a while and they blossomed in front of my eyes. I wanted to give people in refugee camps back their positivity through sport and support and strengthen their 'unbeatable spirit'. Establishing KLABU felt like a natural choice."
Before we continue, why the name KLABU?
''KLABU means 'club' in Swahili (official language in Kenya and Tanzania ed.). Because we build clubhouses in refugee camps and we are, as it were, one big global sports club."
Was it immediately clear that your company had to have something to do with sports?
"Yes. Sport has always been an important part of my life. I took 18 months to prepare, because there are all kinds of routes to make sport possible for refugees. You can offer training, you can build fields, you name it. When I was invited by the United Nations to a refugee camp in Kenya, I found out that they're often lacking the basics: shoes, a ball, a whistle for the referee. The concept that I came up with together with local people is a sports library: a place where people can borrow things and bring them back.
And how did the KLABU clubhouse come about from that sports library concept?
"We put it to the test in the refugee camp in Kenya. Isaac, a refugee from the Congo, started the sports library from his cottage in the camp with sports equipment that I had bought in Nairobi. That was a big success. From my old iPhone, he sent me pictures via Whatsapp of lines of people in front of his cottage who came to borrow stuff. Because at one point Isaac didn't feel safe with all these valuables in his house, we decided to build a clubhouse. A place of positivity where people can come together.
Your website states that KLABU has a self-sufficient business model. Is that due to the sale of sports and leisure clothing?
"Partly! First of all, you need clothes to work out. And so that's what really kind of started it off. The people in Kalobei camp (Kenya) designed their own club uniform. By selling that club uniform to the rest of the world, we were able to raise money to offer them more help. We opened the first pop-up store and added more products. Our partners like PSG pay for the set-up of clubs, but we pay for the maintenance and running of the clubs from the profit of the clothing sales."
The Kalobei emblem (left) symbolizes the three villages in the refugee camp and the local community. The butterfly in the KLABU logo (right) represents the journey of the refugee and the transformation they go through. (Images: KLABU)
So if I buy a shirt, for example, I contribute directly to your projects?
"We believe in full transparency about how we work. Half of the profit on KLABU sportswear goes to the KLABU foundation and thus the projects, and the other half we reinvest in the KLABU brand to continue to grow. Every purchase therefore makes a real and concrete contribution to connecting refugees worldwide through sport. On average, per KLABU item sold five people can play sports for an entire year."
How many people are playing sports in refugee camps thanks to you?
"In Kenya, the club has 11,000 members. That's more than 25% of the entire refugee camp. We also have a project in Amsterdam that is currently accessed by 1000 people. We will now open clubs in Bangladesh (40,000 people) and Lesbos (5,000 people)."
And do you focus on certain sports or is everything available?
"We focus locally on the top three sports. In Bangladesh, for example, cricket is very popular. Soccer is number one everywhere, but we also sell basketball shirts and we have running and yoga shirts for women. We also play volleyball and even mind games. So there's a lot of variety."
KLABU has a number of great partnerships with PSG, Robin Haase, and your shirts are even featured in the FIFA game. How did you manage that?
"Robin Haase was the first professional athlete to wear a KLABU-tenue in an international competition. So we got in touch with him. He thought it was a great initiative and became involved in our brand in various ways. Edgar Davids also joined us. Applications for collaborations came streaming in. PSG simply knocked on our door too. And EA Sports showed us a presentation about their vision of KLABU in FIFA. How cool is that?!
Collaboration between KLABU and PSG. (Image: KLABU)
Why do you think brands and athletes want to collaborate with KLABU?
''They see it as purpose marketing (marketing with an often social purpose ed.). And that's fine by me. I like building the club with others. I do want to steer clear from being a standard charity: donating money and letting them get on with it. I have a clear vision and want to move from reactive to more proactive. For example, I am looking for a collaboration in the clothing industry. We would like to create a collection with a leading brand, so that we can bring more attention to our clothing. We already have advanced plans to launch a clothing line with PSG."
You work with many wonderful parties and Adwise is one of them. How did this collaboration come about?
"In order to achieve our ambitions, we had to think big and look at teaming up with established names. That's how we came into contact with Adwise. And it's fantastic to get the support of a professional marketing party who wants to contribute to our mission on a non-profit basis. By working with you, we were able to make a great impact with online marketing and our website. Many people are still unfamiliar with KLABU and our collaboration with Adwise is important in order to change that."
And what does Adwise do for KLABU?
''Website optimization, for example. Our new website didn't work so well, so we went back to the old one. We learn a lot by just doing it. KLABU is still in the construction phase. It is important to introduce people to our brand through a feeling. Thanks in part to our collaboration with Adwise, we are increasingly loading our brand story by phase: see, think and do. This is reflected in our online advertisements, for example."
Adwise team members in Adwise X KLABU jerseys during a speed soccer match.
What has your collaboration with Adwise brought you so far?
"A whole new world opened up for us. A world with many opportunities. Because KLABU's market is very small, making people aware of our story is extremely important. This is now much more evident in our online communication. The messages on social media are aimed at sharing our story such as ‘Thanks to you, 5 people can now play sports and forget about their troubles for a moment’. We've also learned a lot about what doesn't work. Pushing sales too quickly, for example."
What is still to come for KLABU in terms of marketing and collaboration with Adwise?
'We want to take training courses at Adwise to increase our own marketing knowledge. There are still so many great steps we can take. And for the first time, we also have a job vacancy for a marketer (at the time of this interview ed.) who will be working closely with Adwise. We are also looking for a unique product that has a worldwide appeal, such as a unique sports shoe."
Are you still looking for ambassadors?
"Always. But a lot of athletes are probably committed to sports brands, especially the big names. They do not want the athletes to wear another brand, even if it is for a good cause. That is why we have sought out a collaboration with Nike, who will be running a campaign for our soccer clothing line. In terms of ambassadorship, upcoming soccer talents are who we are looking for or players just below the top. And former refugees. They will recognize themselves in our story. Did you know, for example, that Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich grew up in the camp where I did my internship in Ghana?"
And finally, looking at the future, where do you see the KLABU brand in about 10 years?
"We want to become the largest sports club in the world. Not only in refugee camps but everywhere where people have no place to play sports or come together, such as slums and favelas. We also see all kinds of other organizations joining our facilities to borrow materials or to use our clubhouse. A Cruyff Court has been built on Lesbos and we built a clubhouse next to it. And there are all kinds of sports programs run by other parties. Collaboration is the key to making this a real success."
Thank you for your time and the interview Jan!
"Thank you! I enjoyed it."
After almost an hour, the voice recorder is turned off. But we're not going home yet, because we also want to bring some nice KLABU clothing back to Adwise. It is difficult to choose between the beautifully printed collections, but after careful consideration we made our choice. Packed with Adwise-printed soccer shirts and balls for the office, we head home. It was very interesting to hear more about the story of KLABU and how the collaboration with Adwise contributes to the special mission of the colorful sports brand.
Want to learn more about KLABU and how you can contribute to their mission? Visit their website and webshop and #jointheklabu.
#1-3 Digital agency '21 '22 '23