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How Prince Harry uses polo to relieve HIV/Aids epidemic in Lesotho

Playing polo in Florida to help educate kids in Lesotho about HIV might seem curious, but with Prince Harry’s help it’s paying off 

For dinner we boarded JFK’s presidential yacht and sailed to his fallout shelter, where the Duke of Argyll made us stand on our chairs and drink whisky. This was probably one of the more unusual events that many of the attendees had been to — this trip aboard the now post-presidential Honey Fitz took place earlier this year off the coast of Florida, during a tremendous thunderstorm, and served as a window on the world of luxury whisky, high society, and corporate philanthropy.

After the Duke’s upstanding toast, a second speaker took the podium. Dr Tsitsi Chawatama is a London-based paediatrician and Aids expert, and it is her moving and revealing speech that underpins the real reason for this event and the charity polo match it is paired with. ‘Lesotho has the world’s second-highest HIV rate and over 20,000 young people between the ages of ten and nineteen live with HIV,’ she says. ‘Only one third of these young people take life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and even less have a full knowledge of their condition and its implications for their health.’

Sentebale, on whose board Dr Chawatama sits as a trustee, was set up ten years ago by Prince Harry and his Lesothan counterpart Prince Seeiso to help the most vulnerable children in Lesotho, specifically those affected by, and often infected with, the Aids virus. The struggle to reach out to, provide for, include, and educate young individuals in rural and remote country is epitomised by the situation of many of Lesotho’s ‘herd boys’. Typically spending their childhoods tending their family flocks in the hills rather than in school, many must cover for a sick parent affected with HIV or they carry the virus themselves, uneducated and unaware of how best to avoid passing it on and of the medical treatment they might be able to receive. Too often their understanding of HIV is framed entirely within the social stigma they carry.

Sentebale aims not only to teach the importance of taking medication and practising sexual hygiene but also, crucially, to provide the bedrock of social support and community building. This is essential in a country where a third of children are orphans due to HIV, as it gives them not only a stake in their own future but also a trajectory to secondary education and a normalised life.

This is a crucial year. ‘Death rates are going down in the under-fives, death rates are going down in the adult population in sub-Saharan Africa,’ says Cathy Ferrier, CEO of Sentebale. ‘The group that are bucking the trend, sadly, are adolescents. It is a group that needs a special amount of attention. That’s not just from a Sentebale perspective but from UNAIDS, USAID and all these groups which have been funding HIV prevention for decades. That is the age group that now needs the attention in order to turn the tide on the epidemic. Lesotho is a microcosm of that.’

In the past three years Ferrier has overseen a quadrupling of the number of ten- to nineteen-year-olds the charity reaches, establishing the £2 million Mamohato Centre of Excellence residential camp (the first of its kind in southern Africa) and 50 network clubs, in conjunction with the Lesothan health ministry, where children can understand their situation, know how to stay healthy and not feel isolated. The intention is to expand: ‘We’re opening in Botswana this year, hopefully Malawi next year and we’ll go to two or three other sub-Saharan countries by 2020.’ Such traction makes the UN’s goal of ending the Aids epidemic by 2030 more than a paper statement.

So how does a polo cup sponsored by Royal Salute luxury whisky play a part, beyond being a glamorous fundraiser? ‘One thing I would say about that relationship, and why it is really strong and really valuable to a small charity, is that they’ve been working with us for years. It’s not a one-off relationship where they gave us some sponsorship money and they get a lot of brand awareness; they’ve been with us for six, maybe seven, years,’ says Ferrier.

‘That long-term partnership gives the charity some visibility of income, it gives us stability, you don’t have to go out and find new corporate partners every two minutes. They can see the growth in the charity, [that] means they can increase their donations year on year, which they do.’ Royal Salute’s recent donations have helped facilitate care-giver days across Lesotho, allowing family members to attend camps and learn more about prevention and support.

The day after Dr Chawatama’s speech, Valiente Polo Farm in Palm Beach hosts the annual Sentebale Polo Cup. Again there is a spectacular thunderstorm after which the Sentebale team, featuring Prince Harry, do battle against two invitational sides, eventually defeating them both to lift the trophy. It’s a well-attended and, thanks to Royal Salute’s generous support, well-enjoyed event, despite the frequent tropical downpours. Afterwards, the farm’s clubhouse hosts an official dinner at which Prince Harry details his empathy with the children of Lesotho, so many of whom have lost parents to the epidemic, and reveals that Sentebale means ‘forget me not’, his late mother’s favourite flower.

He credits the Mamohato Children’s centre: ‘The opportunities this centre affords us go beyond Lesotho. This will become a centre of excellence for the region, allowing us to share our valuable knowledge and experience of psychosocial support with partners in other countries. We are confident that, in partnership with others and by maximising our use of the new centre, we will provide one million hours of support to children and young people living with HIV and Aids across the region by 2020.’

His speech is followed by a polo-themed charity auction. Captain of the winning side and Royal Salute world polo ambassador Malcolm Borwick credits the Sentebale Polo Cup’s sense of a marriage: ‘What has polo got to offer? For luxury brands that unique association — heritage, tradition, nobility. What can we do with that? We can take a cause and link the two worlds. The sport is nothing other than the bridge between what the luxury brands have as a philanthropic budget and what someone like Prince Harry wants to do for Sentebale.’

For Royal Salute, partnership with Sentebale doesn’t mean overbearing or badged patronage. ‘We need to be quite humble, we are not the experts here,’ says Sophie Gallois, global marketing director of Chivas Brothers, the maker of Royal Salute. Their expertise in bringing in interest and funds by hosting and sponsoring events is definitely appreciated, though. Gallois suggests there is a selfish motive, but not in terms of traditional brand promotion: ‘It’s very motivating internally — it gives us meaning.’

It will be a long-term partnership and Royal Salute will be sensitive not to pursue any commercial advantage from the association, says Gallois. Perhaps the moral imperative allows her to be candid: ‘There isn’t really a big strategy or corporate plan, I have to admit, moving forward.’ However, having contributed £1 million during the course of the partnership to Sentebale, which used it as it wished, this year there is more emphasis on the money going to the charity’s care-giver initiative, she says. ‘That’s a little bit more hands-on than we’ve been in the past and we’ll see how it goes.’

Global corporates have become more associated with tax avoidance than charitable giving, and the transformation of corporate social responsibility into a business initialism has arguably built more walls than bridges. But if consumer brands are innovative and humble enough, then having a mutual promotion interest with a charity can give both a valid fillip.

Ferrier, previously of corporates WH Smith and Walt Disney and charity Oxfam, says that synergy often comes from marketing rather than ‘CRS’ agendas: ‘Wherever you can find a sweet spot between what you want to do as a charity and something you can provide for a corporate partner and their brand objectives, as long as there is no contradiction in those objectives, then it’s enormously valuable.’ A value both parties recognise as measured by the lives and livelihoods of Lesotho’s young.

Photography by Roberto Chamorro, Chris Jackson and Sentebale

sentebale.org