Sarah Hanffou wears many hats and wears them incredibly well. A native of France, she is a practicing attorney in Nice. Hanffou also is a 2-time Olympian in table tennis playing for Cameroon, the home country of her father. She is committed to doing what she can to make one more Olympics, next summer in Paris. And Hanffou, an EcoAthletes Champion is the founder of Ping Sans Frontières, an innovative nonprofit that uses table tennis to help the economic, social, and environmental prospects of Sub-Saharan Africa and now beyond.
“Two of the main goals of Ping Sans Frontières (PSF) are to redistribute table tennis equipment and to encourage table building in sub-Saharan Africa in an ecologically friendly and equitable way”
So says Sarah Hanffou, the organization’s indefatigable founder, Olympic table tennis player, attorney, and #ClimateComeback advocate.
Her drive to launch what would become PSF began at a 2005 competition in Niamey, the capital of Niger. She was invited to visit a local table tennis club and saw some kids playing on a battered table by the side of a road with cars buzzing by, a broken net, and a single ball. Hanffou was struck by both the poor conditions and the passion for table tennis.
Hanffou’s reaction was to turn this scene into an opportunity to promote both table tennis as well as social and sustainable development throughout sub-Saharan Africa. PSF was born in October 2006 and since then, the nonprofit has hosted numerous training and coaching camps and led campaigns for promotion of the sport in schools in Ghana, Burundi and more.
What about environmental sustainability, you ask?
PSF, especially through its new TAKO (‘The Patagonia of Ping’) brand, helps teach local carpenters — in Ghana at present, with plans to expand to other countries — how to hand-build table tennis tables.
Made with locally-sourced wood, TAKO, the first African table tennis brand, eliminates the need to import tables from China, thus significantly reducing carbon emissions, while also providing incremental income for the carpenters.
Talk about a win-win!
We spoke with Hanffou to learn more about Ping Sans Frontières, TAKO, and how she plans to scale her #ClimateComeback efforts.
Sarah Hanffou leads a table tennis clinic in Takoradi, Ghana (Photo credit: Ping Sans Frontières)
GreenSportsBlog: How do the carpenters, table tennis players and others in the Ping Sans Frontières/TAKO ecosystem react to the climate-environmental aspects of your work?
Sarah Hanffou: Our partners respond very favorably to this initiative.
The carpenters are delighted to participate in this project. It is a job opportunity for them and, I hope, that more opportunities will come our way as awareness of our brand grows. Players, especially our ambassadors, are on board. They want us to lead on environment. And it goes beyond the TAKO tables.
In particular, the collection of used ‘rubbers’ — the rubber covering of the racket — carried out through our “Rubbers for All” program, is something that speak to players and clubs.
This project was launched in partnership with my main sponsor, Cornilleau. The goal is to collect unwanted table tennis equipment (rubbers and rackets mainly) throughout France and distribute them for reuse all over the world.
Collection boxes for old rubbers and rackets are set up at the more than 350 clubs participating in the operation. Members throw their old equipment in the box and, through Cornilleau and Ping Sans Frontières, we give this equipment to people in parts of the world where the price is too high for new paddles and rubbers.
Indeed, to give you an idea: the rubbers cost between 20 and 80 euros. Professional players change them about 3 to 4 times per month and therefore some use almost 100 rubbers per year! An amateur can be expected to change 2-3 times a year. We collected 2,700 rubbers directly from partner clubs in 2022. Cornilleau also makes regular and significant donations so that we are at an average of collecting and donating 5,000 rubbers per year.
Cornilleau is also my main sponsor as an athlete. I must admit to being very proud to have a sponsor who supports me in my commitments and who, at their level, are also willing to make a difference. I need to feel aligned with my partners. This is completely the case with Cornilleau.
GSB: How did TAKO come to be?
Sarah: TAKO came about because I had the opportunity to be part of the Paris 2024/ Agence Française de Developpment (AFD) “Impact 2024 – athlete entrepreneurs” Incubator last year.. The program aims to drive positive change in France and Africa by helping athletes move onto their next challenge beyond their competitive sports careers. Specifically, they assist the athletes in putting their skills, values and commitment to good use by developing long-term projects with high social and/or environmental impact as part of the legacy of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
I was invited to be part of the first cohort. An initial group of 26 athlete entrepreneurs from France and Africa received training and support over a period of eight months. It was during the incubator, that I founded TAKO, the first table tennis company in Africa. It was created with the aim of answering this simple question:
Why import tables when you can manufacture them locally?
The savings in carbon emissions are significant when you consider the kilometers saved by switching from buying tables from China to buying locally.
Click here to watch and hear Sarah Hanffou describe her vision for TAKO in a two minute video produced during her time at the AFD incubator.
GSB: C’est magnifique, Sarah! How are you using the learnings from the incubator to build the TAKO brand?
Sarah: The incubator helped us go from an idea to a prototype to actually selling our 100 percent African-made tables! We started manufacturing and selling in the city of Takoradi, Ghana…
GSB: Hence the name, TAKO!…
Sarah: …Then I went to Côte d’Ivoire and we started building and selling tables there. We are looking next at Senegal, especially since the 2026 Youth Olympic Games will be held in the capital city of Dakar.
GSB: PSF and TAKO are on a fast track, indeed! If we were to speak five years from now, what would you like to be able to say that PSF accomplished between 2023-28 from climate-environmental perspective and then more broadly? More new countries and continents getting involved? Measuring carbon emissions avoided/reduced? Others?
Sarah: First of all, there are more than 3,000 clubs here in France; I would love to see all the clubs participating in Rubbers for All. Also, I would love to see others countries and the International table Tennis Federation (ITTF) participating in such an effort. I think that giving table tennis equipment second and third lives is a must in the coming years – it’s high profile and it’s doable!
And, as you mentioned, we need to have data. To know where we are starting from and what actions we need take to improve. To do that, the table tennis community, players and clubs, should demand that:
- Table tennis clubs and federations to measure their carbon footprints, including transportation-related emissions, waste, reuse of rubbers, and much more. to know the data of the clubs and federation (means of transport, use of plastic etc.),
- Subsidies to clubs from federations and other governing bodies should be allocated according to their sustainability commitments and, even more importantly, their eco-friendly actions. We should make these subsidies based on positive achievements; they should not be punitive.
So, as soon as possible, I would love to see the ITTF and World Table Tennis (WTT) disclose this information. Will they measure the ecological footprint of the world championship in Durban, South Africa that is happening this week, the WTT events organized all year long, and the daily operations of the ITFF and the WTT? I don’t believe this is happening and that needs to change, not by your time line of 2028 but now. This is not hard!
I have begun to apply this to myself. I began in 2022 to track my ecological footprint, both from table tennis and personal perspectives.
So, I guess I would love to see in the coming years, transparency on the ecological footprint of the entire sport of table tennis, from athletes, to clubs, to federations.
Last but not least, I would love to be able to tell you that TAKO has been able to create more jobs, and finance more social and environmental projects.
With TAKO, we want to make table tennis accessible to everyone. It is one of the most popular sports in the world and that popularity is growing in Africa. We build and sell our tables in Africa, and we reinvest the benefits in Africa. It is a virtuous cycle.
Sarah Hanffou (r) makes table tennis equipment donation at an event in Kenya in 2019 (Photo credit: Jermoe Chinedu)
GSB: Those are all challenging yet achievable goals, in my opinion. What has been the biggest accomplishments for PSF and TAKO so far? And what is the most important lesson you’ve learned?
Sarah: We do not pretend to change the world. However, if we can even change the life trajectory of a group of children and adults in Africa through table tennis, then we’re on the right path.
I am really convinced that the values of sport, the soft skills that we learn, can allow children to become responsible and fulfilled adults. It can also open the field of possibilities and allow them to live unforgettable life experiences.
So, I would say that the greatest achievement is the messages received from these children, the trained coaches, the athlete ambassadors, and our partners on site regarding the impact of our project in their lives.
What matters to us is above all to have a positive and concrete impact through our actions, from new jobs created, to carbon emissions reduced, to lives positively impacted.
Personally, I also aim to fight to change the business model of table tennis. In this sense, the implementation of Rubbers for All with Cornilleau is something we are proud of at PSF. There is still a long way to go, but it is a start.
What we’ve learned is that you do not have to have millions of euros to make an impact. You do not have to have thousands of followers. You do have to be famous to make an impact. At the end of the day, we can all make a difference. And that is what PSF and TAKO try to do every day!
GSB: What has been the biggest challenge for PSF and TAKO? What would help you overcome it?
Financing our programs and projects is our key challenge. We are all volunteers at PSF. So, we need more partners to finance our project and to scale up our key programs: Rubbers for All and TAKO. I have to manage to convince more people, more companies to come on board with us.
What you learn as an Olympian is that you can’t do it alone. You need others to make it and to make a difference on social issues, including on the environment and climate. I believe that with collective awareness, the emergence of impact investing and the construction of CSR policies, we can impact more people around the world and scale
Allons Y! LET’S GO!
Credit for photo at top: Remy Gros