Playing for Water

How does a soccer field in a primary school produce clean water for drinking, growing vegetables and more? ELMARI RAUTENBACH finds out from Marco Botha, CEO of the Open Play Foundation.

Rugby was at the core of Marco Botha’s idea for the first project the Open Play Foundation would take on until he realised that soccer was a far better fit for the township. For Kayamandi Primary School, a soccer field means outdoor recreation and entertainment and a chance for entrepreneurs to sell their wares.

It’s not hard to notice the views of a hazy blue Simonsberg and the majestic Twin Peaks when you’re standing in the grounds of Kayamandi Primary School outside Stellenbosch. But Marco Botha is not looking. Instead, he’s crouching down, peering at the push button of a fancy-looking outdoor tap. Taking a multitool from his pocket, he pokes around the rim before declaring, “Yup, some kid tried to force it open. It’s unstuck now.”

As we walk back he explains, “The school is in an elevated area, which gives it these views. Unfortunately, it’s also in one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of the township, where many households have no running water or ablution facilities.” Taking the steps up towards the school buildings two at a time, he stops outside the metal door of a white shipping container. Next to it is a brand-new soccer pitch, the paving around it still smelling of cement. On the other side are rows of prefab classrooms. Around us, the playground is quickly filling up with shrieking kids in blue uniforms on their morning break.

“All this is connected to the system housed here,” says Marco, clicking open the Master Lock to expose a softly purring row of cylinders sitting snugly beside squat machines, pipes crisscrossing, timers and diagrams against the wall. “And everything centres on water.”

The reservoir below the surface of the pitch is covered with interlocking palettes to harvest rainwater and then covered with soft artificial turf.

Marco is the CEO of the Open Play Foundation, responsible for building and installing the sophisticated water purification system in front of us. In an area such as this, it’s understandable that when he approached the acting headmistress, Bella Witbooi, at the beginning of last year with his plans not only to build a soccer field in their backyard, but to do that on top of a water reservoir, she was sceptical.

The 38-year-old may look like a boykie with his close-cropped hair, red golf shirt, chino shorts and sockless trainers, but once he sets his mind on something it’s impossible to stop him. And he takes nothing for granted. He constantly follows up and monitors, running a finger down a checklist and muttering, “Mmm, that’s good,” or “Yes, they’ve done this.”

Earlier, on our way to the outside tap (Marco noticed that it was dripping), he scooped out some rice grains blocking the drain underneath the row of drinking fountains. He runs through the function of each filter inside the container like it’s second nature: this one has thousands of fine membrane filters that look like spaghetti strings inside; here, activated carbon removes all impurities; on that side, UV light kills all living organisms …

A former under-19A Maties rugby player, Marco was a senior rugby journalist for Media24 for eight years (editor and publisher too), a rugby commentator for SuperSport and the communications manager of MyPlayers, the SA Rugby Players Organisation for three years. He has five books on his scorecard, two of which have rugby themes, and rugby even brought him to Kayamandi.

Today, however, he has a soccer pitch behind his name and ended up, as he says, in ‘the water management business’. But it’s not just any business, nor any sports field…

The new field at Kayamandi Primary boasts a world-class artificial turf pitch built on interlocking palettes to harvest rainwater, creating a reservoir below the surface.

From there, the water is joined by what a nearby borehole has extracted, then pumped through the four-phase, high-tech purification system, housed in its entirety in the shipping container. This is how it was designed and shipped to South Africa by a Dutch consortium of engineers as part of their innovative GreenSource solution, funded primarily by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

While the purified water supplies several drinking fountains in the schoolyard, the backwash and grey water are pumped back to fill a 10 000-litre JoJo tank at the playground’s edge.

Fitted with an irrigation pump, it provides water for the school vegetable garden, which supplies fresh produce for the 1 500 learners’ two hot meals daily. It also irrigates 30 ‘home gardens’ added for community members.

Finally, a sophisticated new reverse osmosis device – like ‘some heart–lung machine’ – has joined the other appliances in the container’s dim interior.

“This is an additional step the Dutch came up with and couriered to us this year,” Marco says. “It’s part of a system we’re testing to start bottling water and selling it for profit. We also installed a new basin, a cleaning and filling nozzle and a capping machine.

“The extra filtering is necessary because the water in the area has quite a pronounced salty, brackish taste, resulting from high concentrations of sodium and chloride in the hornfels rock formation. We must reduce that by rerouting some filtered water through this machine.”

He adds that if you were to reroute all the water through this filter, you would end up with ‘pure H2O’, which tastes like ‘absolutely nothing’. “You want some minerals for taste and nutrition.”

Marco is as hands-on as they come, removing rice grains from the drinking fountains on the side of the shipping container; The compact container inside, with the sophisticated four‑phase purification system the way it was designed and shipped from the Netherlands. An additional bottling system has been added since.

Marco’s master’s degree in management at Harvard University, where his last course focused on non-profit leadership, motivated him to consider using sport as a source of hope, engagement, recreation and, where possible, income in a disadvantaged community. “One of our class’s practical assignments reminded me that a solution is only viable if you address the underlying problem.”

He initially had an idea with rugby at its centre. Remgro’s Faffa Knoetze, chairman of MyPlayers at the time, was Marco’s sounding board for such ideas. “My working relationship with Faffa started in 2018, when I was freelancing at SuperSport and someone from Remgro called to ask if I would be interested in writing a research report on ownership and control structures in sport in general and professional rugby in particular.

“So when I was ready to present my pitch for the Open Play Foundation, Remgro was the obvious choice to approach. They agreed to come on board. By then I had identified Kayamandi as the location for our first project and realised soccer would be a better fit.”

The soccer field has been at the centre of PT activities, while the water harvested underneath the surface irrigates the school garden, providing fresh produce for the kids’ two daily meals cooked by the school kitchen.

In January 2023, Remgro partnered with the Stellenbosch Football Club (SFC) to establish Open Play. “Jean de Villiers, the former Bok captain and Faffa’s successor at MyPlayers, then pointed me towards GreenSource.”

During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Dutch engineers noticed South Africa’s water scarcity and the nation’s passion for soccer. That led to their groundbreaking GreenSource Sports for Water integrated system, which combines state-of-the-art technology to store and purify up to 17 million litres of clean drinking water annually with a six‑a‑side artificial soccer field.

“Kayamandi Primary is GreenSource’s most comprehensive project yet. It has a 2 000-litre per hour water purification capacity, and the bottling system was included from the start, even though it isn’t a standard feature and arrived only at the beginning of this year.”

One aspect of the Kayamandi development that Marco deemed non-negotiable was that it would be built for and by the community.

“Eight Kayamandi residents, four fathers here, were involved in the construction job.
One of the school’s cleaners was eager to join, but I had to disappoint her. Zukiswa
Galelekile is now in charge of the upgraded community vegetable garden, the Kayamandi- based Love To Give, which supports her and the 30 beneficiaries,” Marco continues.

“Siya Nobaza, the bright young man over‑seeing security at the entrance gate, took all administrative responsibility unrelated to education upon himself when he joined the school.

“Today, he is one of my most valuable school contacts. The greater Stellenbosch community also volunteered to help with various aspects of our development, usually without being asked.”

He shows off the paving and fencing around the soccer pitch – ‘done by a local contractor’ – and hopes aloud that a parent will volunteer to turn the bottling project into a small business on behalf of the school.

In his opening speech, Marco – as CEO of Open Play – emphasised the project’s aim as one by the community, for the community. Sand is brushed through the bristles to lift them slightly, making the turf feel softer and thicker when playing.

Managing the GreenSource system is a shared job between Marco, who still carries the main burden, and the 12 teachers trained by the Dutch when they came to install everything.

“Unfortunately, load shedding started in earnest after they had left and I had to figure out how to troubleshoot myself. But every step is marked and the checklists and diagrams are easy to follow.

“I still know more than the trainees, but I encourage the three primary caretakers to do as much as possible so they will know more than me one day! After all, we’re not managing a sports field. This is a water- management exercise.”

He remembers a few hairy moments getting there, though.

“Naturally, logistics were a challenge, as was GreenSource’s November deadline last year – and negotiating for the go‑ahead from the different government departments. “The morning our tractors broke ground, I was in the municipal office, pleading, ‘You have to say yes; we’ve already started!’” V