Like elsewhere in the world, the development of sport in Africa has been strongly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the whole sector remains mobilised for the well-being of the populations.

So far, Africa seems to be relatively spared by COVID-19 pandemic. The latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) show 4.6 million cases and 123,000 deaths from the disease on the continent. 1 This figure, which is much lower than that of Europe and the Americas, must be qualified, however, considering the heterogeneity of the epidemic’s dynamics and screening opportunities in the various African countries, as well as the fact that the registration of deaths is not systematic. 2

If the magnitude of the pandemic across the region is difficult to assess, indirect effects such as food insecurity, loss of livelihoods, lack of medical supplies, or the risk of school dropout could have a lasting impact on progresses made in human development. 3 This must be considered by African and external stakeholders as they manage the crisis.

Among the development strategies adopted by Africa, the one based on sport has been severely affected. Elite sport, amateur sport, sport for development and peace (SDP) – all parts of the sector have been impacted. Nevertheless, whether it is contributing to emergency measures or adapting their activities for the well-being of their beneficiaries, sport actors remain at the heart of response efforts.

Disruption of the African sports ecosystem

The development of the sport sector in Africa is essentially aimed at increasing the continent’s potential for sport diplomacy, financial opportunities, and socio-economic benefits. The pandemic has hampered these prospects for the time being. The postponement of numerous international sports competitions – some of which have never been held on African soil – remains equivocal for the time being. After two postponements, Rwanda is currently hosting the inaugural season of the Africa Basketball League until 31 May 2021, before being the scene of the Afrobasket 2021 tournament from 24 August to 5 September. These two notable events hope to position Kigali as a sports hub of reference in East Africa.

The Dakar 2022 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) are now scheduled for 2026. This postponement could be beneficial for Senegal by allowing the country to continue its preparations in better conditions and to avoid the overloaded international sports agenda looming for 2022. Indeed, in addition to the major sporting events scheduled for 2022, such as the Winter Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the FIFA World Cup, there will be the World Championships in Athletics, the African Cup of Nations and the Games of La Francophonie in Kinshasa. This “traffic jam” could potentially affect Africa’s international reach, both in terms of media coverage and availability for athletes.

The postponement of competitions and the stoppage of championships and qualifying matches since the spring of 2020 have also impacted federations, clubs, and athletes. The loss of ticketing revenue for major infrastructures, the loss of sponsors and the grants requisitioning for the fight against COVID-19 have jeopardised the already fragile financial health of sports structures. Furthermore, the suspension of training has altered the physical and mental preparation of athletes and this could have consequences on their future performances. Many high-level athletes have also suddenly lost their salaries. Unemployed, without salary in countries where social protection is often lacking, many footballers deprived of championships have had to consider a professional retraining in order to support themselves. For other athletes without annual contracts, the postponement of major sporting events such as the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games represents a significant loss, postponing, at best, the expected income from medals and participation bonuses.

Interruption of amateur sport: A loss for human development

The health crisis and the measures taken by African governments have also disrupted amateur sport. Total or partial confinements, curfews, prohibitions of public and private gatherings have affected the practice of leisure sports, both individual and collective, with an undeniable impact on physical and mental health, which remains difficult to measure. 

On the other hand, prolonged school closures combined with widespread economic hardship could compromise the aspirations and block the prospects of more than 330 million learners in sub-Saharan Africa. 4 Among the lessons of formal education, the acquisition through movement of a range of skills and understandings beyond physical activity (e.g. cooperating with others) achieved through Physical Education (PE) has effectively been interrupted. The same is true for school sport, which contributes to the democratisation of sport. Thus, young people can enjoy social and health benefits of sport.

The health crisis has also impacted the Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) sector. According to the 2020 State of the Sector Report published by Oaks Consultancy in January 2021, 52.9% of African organisations surveyed forecasted a loss of income for 2020/2021, compared to 2019. The same survey noted that 41.2% of the organisations surveyed in Africa were able to secure grants to counter the effects of COVID-19. However, these results do not consider the amount of funding nor do they reflect the relative severity of beneficiaries’ needs, and many SDP organisations remain pessimistic about their future. Vince Mehers, founder of World Parks World Cup (WPWC) South Africa-based, and his team say: “Our historic fundraising challenges are likely to continue to hinder us going forward, and this will be compounded by the fact that we have been unable to operate on the ground this year, thereby not having evidence of our impact and our programme”.

WPWC uses sport to bring together rural communities bordering the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Conservation area across South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which have high levels of school drop-out, no formal sporting facilities or activities, and few opportunities for girls to progress in education and in life”. Through a soccer-based “curriculum of purposeful play”, the organisation works primarily in schools to challenge gender stereotypes, foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and engage young people in conservation and community action.

In Africa, many structures are working through sport to help the most vulnerable. Beyond the health aspect, the continent could be severely affected by the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. In terms of human development, this would mean a reduction in the progress made in health, education, gender equality, peace building and an increased risk of social unrest. These are all issues where sport, as a cross-cutting and universal tool, can play a key role.

Sport actors at the heart of response efforts

Top African athletes have been mobilised since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Didier Drogba launched an awareness-raising campaign and donated 650 million CFA francs to the Côte d’Ivoire Government, in support of its efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The former Ivorian international footballer is also making the Laurent Pokou Hospital, part of his charitable foundation, available to the authorities. Through the “Stop COVID-19” campaign, former Cameroonian international footballer Samuel Eto’o is organising awareness-raising activities to promote regular handwashing and distributing hygiene kits and food to the most vulnerable households.

Géraldine Robert, former French-Gabonese professional basketball player and Sport Impact Leader, donated food and hygiene products to the orphanage “La Maison de l’Espérance” (House of Hope). The founder of the Yemaly non-profit organisation, which uses basketball as an educational tool for Gabonese youth, also took the opportunity to raise the children’s awareness of the preventive measures and responsible behaviours to adopt during the pandemic. In addition, members of the Senegalese national football team have made their contribution, following President Macky Sall’s call to establish an emergency fund of 1,000 billion CFA francs.

Beyond the support related to the health emergency, other actors have considered the potential of sport in the fight against coronavirus and its social impact. For example, the French Development Agency, in partnership with FIFA – which has already released a $1.5 billion aid fund for its federations5 – launched a call for “Sport & Health” projects in July 2020. 14 African projects promoting good health and well-being through soccer, multisports, basketball, rugby, boxing and wrestling, shared a total amount of €435,000, i.e. an average funding of €31,000 per project.

For those who use sport as a vehicle for social change, the challenges raised by the health crisis are multiple. They must adapt to the emergency measures, find a way to reallocate budgets and innovate so as not to abandon their beneficiaries. For instance, in an article published on the sportanddev platform, Steve Fleming, co-founder of Kick4Life, states that the organisation lost 25% of its regular revenue overnight, due to the immediate cessation of programs and the closure of its hospitality social enterprises. With the interruption of planned services, this football club, aimed at transforming the lives of vulnerable youth in Lesotho, also feared a cessation of payments from funders. In the summer of 2020, Kick4Life, in partnership with Common Goal, streetfootballworld, the Sport for Good Response Fund led by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and Beyond Sport, created a Response Analysis and Further Testing (RAFT) tool to support 14 SDP organisations around the world move from survival mode to diverse and robust long-term financial sustainability.

As another innovative example, TIBU Maroc has adapted its programming to meet the needs of its communities. The NGO produced the “Sa7ti Friyadti” capsule, a distance education program through sports that offers a variety of activities tailored to the motor and cognitive development of children. TIBU Maroc also launched a digital version of the Intilaqa initiative, a sports-based integration program that promotes the employability of young people in the neighbourhoods of Casablanca who are NEET.6

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken African sport and has had a significant impact on the sector and associated individuals. However, sports structures and SDP organisations are mobilising to address both the pandemic and its societal effects. The United Nations, which recognises the positive role of sport in people’s lives and in building resilience, reiterated its call for vaccine equity through the #OnlyTogether campaign on the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace 2021. Thanks to their heterogeneity, diversity of ability to act and international reach, sport stakeholders have more power than ever to contribute to the well-being of populations.

1ONU Info. (2021, May 6). Vaccins contre la Covid-19 dans le monde : la part de l’Afrique ne dépasse pas 1%, déplore l’OMS.


2The New York Times. (2021, January 2). A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted.


3United Nations. (2020, May 20). Policy Brief: Impact of COVID-19 in Africa.


3United Nations. (2020, May 20). Policy Brief: Impact of COVID-19 in Africa.
5FIFA. (2020, June 25). FIFA Council unanimously approves COVID-19 Relief Plan.
6The acronym NEET refers to people who are not employed, receiving an education or training (“not in employment, education or training”).