Kenya has long been known to be home of many running champions. As the popularity of distance running grows globally, many recreational and amateur runners are looking to Kenyans for tips on how to run farther and faster. A quick Internet search produces a very long list of articles asking, as Runner’s World puts it, ‘Why are Kenyan distance runners so fast?’ The question does not only stay with running publications either. Major news publications including the BBC, The Guardian, National Public Radio, and The Atlantic magazine have written on the topic.
For PfAL 2 and 3 alumna Navalayo Sarah Osembo Ombati, this growing trend presented an opportunity. She had long been passionate about using sports to spur growth and development in her home country, Kenya, and since graduating with an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics on a PfAL scholarship, she has been dedicated to finding the right way to make a positive impact in Kenya through sport. Her recent social enterprise, Enda, launched a Kickstarter campaign in late May to produce the ‘world’s first Kenyan running shoe’. On June 1, 2016 Enda exceeded its target of $75,000 comfortably and is now seeking to reach its stretch goals. Here she talks to PfAL about Enda – its story, its mission, and how it is bringing the Kenyan spirit into the running industry.
What is the story of Enda?
Enda (which means “Go!” in Swahili) is a social enterprise company making Kenya’s first running shoes. I co-founded it with Weldon Kennedy. We met at an entrepreneurial workshop where I was pitching an idea to start a sports academy in Kenya which grooms children gifted in sports into champions, without compromising their education. We discussed different ideas on the importance of sports in development and Enda is a product of that conversation. We recognized the latent potential of Kenya’s excellent reputation in running and decided to develop a running shoe that not only espouses the great running spirit of Kenya, but also provide a means through which the country can benefit from the global running industry.
How did you come to the idea that Enda would be a sportswear company?
If you’ve ever watched any sport with a group of Kenyans, you’ve probably heard them shout “Enda! Enda!” in support of their team. That’s what made “Enda” an obvious choice for a name that can be associated with sports in Kenya. We chose sportswear for two reasons. First, I have always believed in sports as an alternative avenue for employment and positive social impact, and that is actually what led me to meet my co-founder. He is also an avid runner. Secondly, we wanted to capitalize on Kenya’s excellent reputation in sports.
How do you think Enda will make an impact in Kenyan communities?
Enda has created an opportunity through which the knowledge, skills and experience of Kenya’s athletes can be shared with other runners around the world. Enda also has potential to create massive social impact so that more Kenyan people can benefit from running.
One of the main ways Enda can help communities is by bringing employment opportunities, as we will provide jobs and enable people to earn a decent livelihood. According to a recent World Bank report, there are 50,000 jobs for every 800,000 graduates in Kenya. Because of the Kenyan social structure where one person takes care of both his or her nuclear and extended families, providing one person with a job means that many more people will benefit from one income.
Secondly, we are setting aside a portion of our profits to support local causes and innovations, in areas such as education and health, that need an extra push. Access to capital is a huge challenge to entrepreneurs and by helping other small business and community causes, we hope to facilitate creativity and innovation. Lastly, we want to change the way the world sees Kenya. We are known for great wildlife and beaches, but we also want to be known for high quality products too.
What challenges do you foresee in building up this business and how do you think you can overcome them?
The industry is dominated by a few key players who have deep pockets for product development and marketing. While it will be difficult to compete with them, our authenticity is what sets us apart i.e., being Kenyan made, being backed by individual supporters. The idea of Kenyan running shoes, designed and developed by world class designers, based on the experience of great Kenyan athletes is hard to beat. Coupled with a high quality product, this is what will help us succeed.
Another challenge is where we source all our raw materials. Right now, we’re not able to source all of the materials in Kenya. For example, the material we need to create the midsole of the shoe is not available locally. While we do hope to spark entrepreneurial creativity in locals and inspire someone to produce it, its unavailability means that we have to incur more expenses and source it from China. We are however optimistic that we will overcome these challenges with time.
How about manufacturing? Is that done in China, and if so, is there really no way to get started in Kenya?
Yes, the shoes will have to be manufactured in China, but we’re hoping to find ways to change that. We haven’t been able to get a local supplier for the specific EVA compound that we are using for the soles. It’s difficult to get started without the raw materials you need. That’s why we are sourcing from Asia for now. However, Kenyans are generally very entrepreneurial and I believe that since Enda has created a market for that specific EVA compound, someone will soon be making it because they are guaranteed of a buyer (Enda in this case).
Some articles address the fact that though Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate in the elite competitions, there are not as many Africans or African-Americans participating in recreational running. How popular is running in Kenya?
In addition to the professional athletes for whom running is a career, many people in urban areas, especially in Nairobi, are taking up running for leisure and fitness. A lot of running groups are popping up and it is quite common now to see people running along the streets early mornings and evenings. They are still a small percentage of the overall population though.
So do you expect Kenyans to also be customers or are you seeking an international consumer base?
We’re seeking both Kenyan and international consumers, although we have a greater outlook towards sharing the Kenyan running culture with the world.
If you’ll be looking outside of Kenya for consumers, how do you keep the brand ‘Kenyan’?
Keeping the brand Kenyan is critical to our success. We’ll do this in three ways: First, all our designs and product development processes will be informed by the skills and experiences of Kenyan runners. Secondly, Kenyan culture heavily influences nuances in product design. Lastly, we’ll be engaging a global community of runners who have bought Enda shoes to projects in Kenya. They will be able to vote on local projects that we’ll be supporting through a portion of our profits.
What have you learned in the process of starting Enda?
That’s tough to answer because there have been so many lessons and it’s hard to choose one or two. I would say though that one significant lesson has been not to fear failure. There are a lot of people with great ideas but fear failing, and failing publicly in particular may make you shy away from trying. There have been many times when I doubted myself, but the reception and support we received from people around the world when we made Enda public through our Kickstarter campaign have been overwhelming. Do not be afraid to try. Another significant lesson I have also learned is the value of networks and relationships and that the solution to your problem is always a conversation away. People around you are a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience, but you can only tap into all of that if you ask.
I must ask, do you run yourself?
I am definitely not at the 5k level (working on getting there) but I am definitely a casual runner.
Do you think you’d ever be tempted to give the shoes a go now that you’ve been lured into the sport?
I already gave them a go and I love them. We had a number of prototypes available and I got to test them out. They are comfortable to run in and fashionable to walk around with.
Enda is take pre-orders for two more weeks on their Kickstarter page.