Startups Playbook: Scaling Impact with Africa’s First Home-Grown Running Shoe
Kenyan entrepreneur Navalayo Osembo-Ombati gave up a job at the UN in New York to fulfil her dream of maximising social impact through sports. She founded Enda, a made-in-Kenya running shoe brand that creates jobs, invests in local communities, and spurs economic development.
With a vision of becoming one of the biggest running shoe brands in the world, this Room member and top finalist in Africa’s Business Heroes 2021 awards shares some of the triumphs and challenges of her journey with Enda, and how she plans to realise her mission of driving impact across the continent.
Prior to founding Enda, my entrepreneurial journey was a rocky one. I had tried several other businesses and had seen mixed results; some grew, and others were subject to seasonal changes.
The business that I was running just before Enda was a tennis academy that I had established in Bungoma, Western Kenya. I’d experienced Wimbledon during my time in London when I was studying for a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics. And as someone from a community that is athletically endowed, it blew me away that there was no African representation. So I returned home to Kenya and started a tennis academy which ran for two years before I closed it down. I had gotten a job at the UN headquarters in New York shortly after my return to Kenya, and it had become more difficult to manage the academy.
After it failed, I joined a business accelerator run by Ygap Kenya to figure out how to pivot. It was during the final presentation of the Ygap accelerator program that I met my co-founder, Weldon Kennedy, who was part of the audience. In our conversations, we agreed that it would make sense to pivot to another sport that would make more economic sense and have wider social impact. Running seemed the obvious choice, and running shoes became the product, because they are the tools that every runner needs.
My decision to leave New York and return to Kenya once again was as a result of Enda’s growth. It grew from a small project to a full-time job, and it became hard to balance it with my other regular job and family commitments. My career at the UN was also growing, and I knew it would require significant time investment. I had to make a choice. I spoke to people who had been in the UN for many years, as well as those who had retired. The message was unilateral: pursue your dreams! They advised that I could always get another job, but there was no guarantee that I would grow another business to the same level that Enda had grown.
As I was contemplating whether to move back home, it was also opportune that the first Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) event was happening in South Africa. I didn’t get to attend the event in person, but I watched it online. The former US President, Barack Obama, had a Q&A with the YALI fellows, and someone asked what he would tell people who want to move back to Africa but are afraid of the economic, political and social climate. Mr. Obama’s response was that if you want to change Africa, you have to be on the ground; it would be impossible to make an impact from a distance. I felt like he was speaking directly to me. So with that message and the restlessness I already had, I made the decision to resign and head back home again, and I am glad that I decided to embark on that journey.
The compulsion to found Enda and become the first manufacturer of running shoes in Africa mostly came from the realisation that something so obvious hadn’t been done. I considered other countries that had built a reputation and made money from it, such as Germany’s reputation for engineering and Italy’s for fashion. These countries had leveraged their craftsmanship to create opportunities for their people, and here Kenya was with a legendary running culture, but no one taking advantage of it. This is despite the fact that our people are poor and our balance of trade is negative. It just made sense that a Kenyan running shoe should exist, so we took on the challenge of making it happen.
My ultimate vision is for Enda to be one of the top three running shoe brands globally, to be Africa’s cultural shoe brand, to be a source of employment for thousands of people and an inspiration for millions.
Our existence has proved that local supply chains will grow if there is a market for the goods and services they produce. Through Enda, I am hoping to continue expanding local supply chains in Kenya and Africa and create a company that will sponsor millions of sports men and women across the continent. Sports is still a sector where the workers are underpaid despite needing the financial security necessary to perfect their skills. I would like Enda to fuel the dreams and ambitions of the millions of athletes that have talent but not resources.
This focus on local sourcing is one of the things that makes us unique. We are intentional about making our shoes in Africa. There is no other global shoe brand that is headquartered and manufacturing in Africa.
Our designs are also special because they share Kenya’s running history and culture with our customers around the world. From how we name them to the colors and patterns that we pick, everything has meaning and resonance. For example, all our shoes have the word “Harambee” on their soles because we believe in the value of community. We started Enda through a crowdfunding campaign, so community is very important to us. Our lightweight trainers are called the “Iten”, after a small town in Kenya’s Rift Valley that has produced the highest number of athletics champions. Our latest product is a trail shoe called the “Koobi Fora”, after the archeological site in northern Kenya where the first remains of Homo Erectus were discovered, and it tells the story of human evolution and the origin of running. Basically, our shoes always give customers a piece of history or culture.
We are also a certified B Corp and a certified Climate Neutral Company. We are proud to be leading the way with regard to creating sustainable businesses.
Our impact in Kenya involves creating jobs directly through our company and contractors, and indirectly in the supply chain. Additionally, 2% of our revenues go to community projects. So far, we have supported a community-based organisation in Nairobi’s Korogocho slums that teaches life skills through sports, an NGO in Nandi County that buys livestock for disadvantaged women to help them earn a livelihood, and most recently, an organisation in Kenya’s coast that empowers girls through sports. We have also given direct cash grants to athletes. I am excited for the future because we have the capacity to create an impact for so many more people.
At the moment, I’m grateful for all the great moments Enda has had as a company. One of my topmost highlights was seeing the first prototype of our debut shoe, the Iten. It had been a drawing for so long that feeling and touching it felt surreal. It was also amazing when we hit our fundraising targets on Kickstarter and when Lupita Nyong’o wore our shoes to the Afropunk festival in 2017. Most recently, I came in third in the Africa’s Business Heroes 2021 awards out of a pool of 12,000 applicants. The feeling was amazing.
When I think about the people who had the greatest impact on my journey thus far and unlocked opportunities for me along the way, I am unable to count them all. My former bosses at Deloitte & Touche and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stand out because they took me under their wings and literally showed me the ropes. I think of Firoz and Najma Lalji, who through their foundation, paid for my postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics, as well as Dr. Teddy Brett, who was such a great lecturer and adviser and continues to encourage me on my path. I have several mentors who constantly provide guidance and advice. There are other people that I have met only once, and sometimes briefly, and they too opened many doors. The list is long, and I am grateful to each and every person who has crossed my path.
Altogether, as an entrepreneur, I’ve learnt so much. I am inspired by the fact that no one day is ever the same as another, and also by the fact that I can make decisions that directly impact my future and that of so many other people. It’s a huge responsibility but I like the challenge that it presents.