Politics of Poverty

Kenya produces champion runners — and now it produces quality running shoes

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Runner wearing Enda running shoes. (Photo: Enda)

Interview with Weldon Kennedy and Nava Osembo-Ombati of Enda.

Technically, I’m a runner; because I strap on some shoes and slog out a few miles a couple times a week.  I don’t run fast and I don’t run far.  I’ll never be great.  But as a runner, maybe I can be good.  Or so I thought, when I came across Enda, few months ago, a company with a mission to produce quality running shoes, made in Kenya.

At the time, Enda was raising funds for its first production run on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.  I donated and received my bright green shoes a few weeks ago.  I love them.

Edna running shoes. (Photo: Gawain Kripke)

I wanted to learn more, so I asked Enda’s co-founders to answer some questions.  Here’s Weldon Kennedy and Navalayo Osembo-Ombati:

Q: So how’s it going?  You’ve shipped shoes and are starting to get some good reviews and publicity.  Are you where you want to be?

Kennedy: It feels like we’ve got some great momentum right now. We’ve shipped brilliant running shoes around the world, have Lupita Nyong’o in a pair, and see runners posting great action shots just about every day. Of course we’d love to have our shoes on many more feet, and there are some things we haven’t gotten quite right, but overall it’s a very exciting time!

Q: I can’t quite make out what Enda is: A charity? A philanthropic project? A business? A vanity project?

Osembo-Ombati: Enda is a social enterprise with a mission of bringing a bit of Kenyan athletic excellence to runners everywhere and fuelling economic and social development in Kenya. We do that by making outstanding running shoes that are both inspired and made by the very best of Kenya.

We feel deeply that Kenya can and should benefit more economically from its well-earned running reputation. We’ve seen high-quality, export-oriented manufacturing drive development elsewhere in the world, but faced heaps of challenges in bringing similar development to Kenya. By leveraging the power of the Kenyan running brand and addressing the specific needs of runners around the world, we can hopefully overcome some of the cost and competitive barriers and help increase manufacturing in Kenya.

Beyond industrial development, we’re also working to connect our customers to impactful social initiatives in Kenya. A portion of our sales is invested in local causes and projects in Kenya, with our customers taking part in the process of selecting which projects we support. We are targeting both for-profit and nonprofit initiatives in sectors such as healthcare, education, and sanitation that are making a difference and need help to reach more people. The more shoes we sell to more customers, the greater our impact will be.

Q: Manufacturing shoes in Kenya fulfills a vision that development practitioners and economic advisers have been seeking for a long time.  Why has the industrial and manufacturing development been so slow in Kenya (and Africa)?

Osembo-Ombati: This is a really good question. I suppose a good place to start is the early 1990s. At the time, Kenya didn’t have a very efficient textile industry, but it was still many times larger than it is today. Then industrial policy was changed, allowing for things like cheap imports of second hand clothing. While this was arguably good for consumers, who could now get higher quality goods at lower prices, it all but buried the Kenyan textile industry.

Recovering from that is difficult. Consumers understandably want continued access to these cheap goods, and rich countries around the world continue to have a massive surplus of used clothing. So companies looking to produce goods in Kenya don’t have much of a domestic market to serve, making it hard to launch and grow unless you’re exporting right from the start.

Enda employee works on a shoe in the company’s production facility in Kenya. (Photo: Enda)

Q: Is Enda a model that can be replicated? Scaled up? Is the future of Kenya in shoes?

Kennedy: We certainly intend to scale. We really see ourselves as just finishing phase one: We’ve made running shoes and people are enjoying them. A couple of small things to sort out with sizing and logistics, but basically the system is now built for making shoes and getting them out to consumers.

In our next phase, we intend to make many more shoes, reach many more customers, and start selling shoes on a recurring basis so that customers can immediately get a fresh pair once their old ones are worn out.

Osembo-Ombati: I don’t think the future of Kenya is as narrow as shoes. I think the future of Kenya is in innovation. There’s a lot of innovation going on, only that the stories as not told as much. I’m optimistic that we’re a part of that future, but I hope many others will be on this journey with us and create new products and services with a global reach.

Q: It seems like Enda is marketing to rich country markets and consumers.  And the price is definitely competitive with the big running shoe companies, Nike, Adidas, Saucony, etc. But is there a market in Kenya and Africa?

Osembo-Ombati: There is certainly a market in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, and a good number of our early sales were here. But while we’re able to compete in the performance running category, we know that our price point is not reachable to everyone here who might want a Kenyan made shoe. So we’re looking at more affordable lifestyle shoe models in the future to reach an even larger segment of the domestic fashion market.

Founders of Enda, Nava Osembo-Ombati and Weldon Kennedy. (Photo: Enda)

Q: Are you having fun?  

Kennedy: Absolutely! We’re getting to run and meet heaps of interesting people. There’s lots of stress along the way, but it’s all stress in the service of doing something meaningful – so can’t complain about that!

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