A whole new ball game: women’s basketball in Africa and beyond
Hosting a key competition in the Rwandan capital is the latest showcase of the sport’s growing popularity
Kigali’s hilly Gasabo district vibrates with energy. Motorcycles whizz by chequered curbs and gated communities ascend from red-dirt paths. Revellers overflow from lively local haunt Molato, just a short drive from the white-painted Presidential Palace. Dominating it all is the BK Arena, a 10,000-capacity sports and entertainment venue built in just six months in 2019. Like a giant, perfectly round cake tin, it peeks over the skyline and regularly welcomes Rwandan superstar Bruce Melodie for R&B megashows.
But during late July and early August in 2023, east Africa’s largest covered arena played host to Women’s AfroBasket 2023. It was the 26th edition of the biennial basketball tournament, which began four years after its male counterpart, in 1966. Behind it all is FIBA – basketball’s international governing body – where AfroBasket serves as an important gateway to the FIBA World Cup and Olympic Games.
Today, basketball is one of the most popular sports on the African continent. But it wasn’t always this way. Basketball was first introduced to African nations by missionaries and colonial administrations in the mid-1900s.
In the early 1960s, at FIBA’s sixth Congress in Rome, the Egyptian Basketball Federation came together to create the Association des Fédérations Africaines de Basketball (AFABA), an institution dedicated to African basketball. At the time, it encompassed 12 African nations – but as AfroBasket took off for both men and women’s basketball, the popularity of the sport skyrocketed in tandem.
Fast-forward to 2023, and FIBA Africa has evolved to comprise all 54 African countries. Each has its own FIBA federation, from early women’s AfroBasket champions like Madagascar, to the current top teams of the competition, Nigeria and Senegal, who between them have won the past five editions of AfroBasket Women.
“There is prestige attached to competing in AfroBasket Women for US players of African descent”
Many of the top African national players are sourced from teams in the US. The Nigerian Women’s National Team (nicknamed D’Tigress) triumphed over Mali in the 2021 championship game in Yaoundé, Cameroon, led by captain Adaora Elonu, from Texas – the 6ft1ins forward’s family hails from Nigeria’s Enugu State.
Then there’s Nigerian forward Amy Okonkwo, who is well aware that D’Tigress taps US players who spend time in Nigeria – while back on African soil, there’s a barrier to emerging African talent being nurtured. Basketball clubs tend to proliferate in capital cities, where there’s the most infrastructure, leaving out potential players based in rural areas.
“Take Ethiopia. Most of the league is in Addis Ababa,” says Julien Bassam Farran, FIBA Competitions Manager for AfroBasket Women. “Many provinces are without. This a problem.” According to Farran, there are only five or six countries where clubs play all over the country.
Nevertheless, there is prestige attached to competing in AfroBasket Women for US players of African descent. “I’ve always wanted to play for Nigeria,” says California-born Okonkwo. “It’s always been a big goal and a big dream of mine in my professional career.”
While basketball in general has been on the rise in Africa since the 1960s, interest in women’s basketball has had a more recent uptick. Elonu believes that social media has aided the growth of the women’s game.
“Supporters, especially online, have definitely grown,” she explains. Finding ways to expose the public to the game and its players, she believes, is critical for growing the game even further.
There’s a slew of new initiatives bringing public attention to the game, too. Take Basketball Without Borders, a basketball instructional camp organised by the NBA in conjunction with FIBA. Or the NBA Academy Africa, launched in 2017 in Senegal, which trains top male and female prospects from across the continent. It’s the first of its kind in Africa.
“The goal was to make sure that as basketball was growing around the world, Africa wouldn’t be bypassed”
Amadou Gallo Fall, a former scout for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, is the brains behind SEED (Sports for Education and Economic Development) – an organisation that uses sport to inspire and develop promising, young African athletes. For the first time, because of this infrastructure, Fall believes there’s a clear pathway for players on the continent to rise from local courts to the pro ranks.
“The goal was to make sure that as the NBA and basketball was growing around the world, Africa wouldn’t be bypassed,” Fall said, noting that sports and entertainment contribute billions to a nation’s GDP. His hope is for Africa to be a place that not only exports basketball talent, but showcases and grows it on home turf.
The initiatives are starting to show the green shoots of success – with players from Africa being approached by European and US teams. Ramses Lonlack, a star guard from Cameroon, received a basketball scholarship to the US to attend boarding school in Massachusetts. Now based in Florida, she works as a senior field engineer, sometimes donning sneakers and a jersey to play for her national team.
According to Ahmed Mbombo Njoya, Lonlack’s coach and head coach of the Cameroon Women’s National Team, a few promising factors are coming together to elevate the profile of women’s basketball worldwide – not least the pure power and success of the D’Tigress.
“[Nigeria] started to move up. They made the Olympics,” he says. “They define the image of the African women’s ball player.”
“AfroBasket Women has become a hotspot for scouting out new talent”
As a result, African players who find their way to Europe are being well compensated. And on the flip side, African players in Njoya’s league are proud to say they play for their national team, with several of them having travelled to Kigali for AfroBasket’s 2023 edition. Because of this bigger spotlight, AfroBasket Women has become a hotspot for scouting out new talent, Njoya points out.
AfroBasket Women 2023 was, as always, packed with world-class basketball, but in the end, Nigeria emerged triumphant. Claiming an 84-74 victory over Senegal in the final meant that D’Tigress became the first team to win four consecutive AfroBasket Women’s titles during the last four decades.
It’s hard not to see Nigeria’s latest achievement as a win not just for the national team, but also for women’s basketball in a wider sense. “For us,” says Farran, “AfroBasket Women is a party – a big event for women in Africa.”
Illustrations by Kgabo Mametja (@iamsaintrose)