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This African startup is reducing the footprint of running shoes

Ten questions with Enda co-founder and CEO Navalayo Osembo.

Enda production

Production of one of Enda's running shoes. Image courtesy of Enda

A whopping seven — that’s how many pairs of shoes the average person in the United States purchases each year. At this rate, the footwear market is ripe for green conversion — including less consumption. What if consumers start shifting towards fewer, higher-quality, longer-lasting, socially and environmentally responsible footwear? What are the options?

The global footwear market totaled more than $235 billion in 2020, and the players are plenty. Recent studies suggest over 30,000 global shoemaking companies employ 10 million people and producing 23 billion pairs of shoes annually.

Within that mix, there are more than 15 B Corp certified sustainable footwear brands, including Vivo Barefoot, Patara, Cariuma and Enda. Enda is a global designer and manufacturer specializing in running shoes. Proudly "Made in Kenya," Enda is one of the few footwear companies offering investors and consumers a quadruple word score for impact: It is climate-friendly, operates with a JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) lens, and is led by a woman who is also an underrepresented entrepreneur of color.

The thing I love most about our customers is that they care about who makes their products, why companies such as Enda exist,and where their products are made.

Although the footwear market maintains an expected compound annual growth rate of around 4 percent, the COVID pandemic has scathed the industry. The supply chain, which includes raw material sourcing, semi-finished goods transformation and numerous distribution channels, experienced setbacks. Most athletic shoes for the U.S. market are shipped through boats that take two to three weeks from Asia to the major ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. With staff out sick at all points in the supply chain and retail store openings limited, moving goods from point A to the end user is difficult. This COVID-related challenge includes much longer shipping lead times and a long wait at the port.

Environmental problems also plague the athletic footwear industry, with petroleum-based plastics dominating parts of the supply chain. Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) is the sole material-of-choice for performance-oriented running shoes; EVA generally offers better shock absorption and lasts longer than its natural rubber alternative.

Needless to say, establishing and growing an eco-friendly and socially responsible, "Made in Africa" global running shoe company is not without its challenges. Yet Enda is more than meeting them. Below is a 10-question Q&A, edited for brevity, with Enda co-founder and CEO Navalayo Osembo.

Enda co-founder and CEO Navalayo Osembo.

Enda co-founder and CEO Navalayo Osembo. Image courtesy of Enda

Marilyn Waite: Tell us more about your background, upbringing, education or anything else before founding Enda. 

Navalayo Osembo: I grew up in a family supportive of education and with high expectations for achievement. My dad, now retired, worked for the Kenya Air Force and my mother was a teacher. Discipline and education ranked high in our household. Academically, I studied law (I am an advocate of the High Court of Kenya), accounting (CPA), international development (with a specialty in humanitarian emergencies) and project management (Prince2). There was no planned path — I just gravitated towards the things that interested me.

Waite: What was your motivation for founding Enda?

Osembo: The motivation for starting Enda was based on a desire to bring tangible economic benefits from the running shoe industry back to Kenya. Growing up in the military and having Eldoret (also known as the city of champions) as the closest town to my village exposed me to world class athletes. I saw the athletes being used in marketing campaigns by big shoe companies that keep the financial returns in their economies and these same athletes languishing in poverty in their later years. Pioneering by making the running shoes in Kenya, which would offer long-term solutions, just made sense.

Waite: What does a typical day look and feel like for you?

Osembo: A typical day starts early. I mostly work from home, so there isn’t much interesting stuff other than meetings, emails, a visit to the gym and more meetings when the East Coast of the U.S. wakes up. I enjoy visits to the factory, although I don’t do as much of that now as I did in the beginning. Evenings are reserved for my family as much as possible.

Waite: Enda is B Corp certified and Climate Neutral certified, the latter being a pledge to measure the carbon footprint, reduce what you can, and offset the rest. What is Enda doing that is different in terms of sustainability? 

Osembo: First, we manufacture on a clean grid. Manufacturing in Kenya is done using hydro, wind, solar and geothermal electricity. We also recycle old newspapers in our packaging and use reusable shoe bags instead of boxes, which are often discarded as soon as the unboxing experience is over. Finally, especially in Africa’s context, social sustainability through job creation is vital.

Waite: There are many considerations for localizing footwear manufacturing and building a financially viable business model; these considerations include labor, materials, exchange rate fluctuations and tariffs. How are you able to keep Enda cost competitive given the economies of scale that other markets have? 

Osembo: This is a work in progress. For now, we benefit from the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). However, we are paying full tariffs in our other growing markets in Europe, including Germany, Spain and Italy. [Editor's note: AGOA, enacted in 2000, provides eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the U.S. market for over 1,800 products, in addition to the more than 5,000 products that are eligible for duty-free access under the Generalized System of Preferences program.]

Waite: Let’s talk competition. Your main competitors are niche running shoe companies such as On, Altra and Hoka. Against that backdrop, to what do you attribute your success?

Osembo: I think both businesses and customers have realized that we need to do things differently if we are to combat climate change and create a viable environment and society. That’s why it is important to distinguish businesses committed to these ethos as well as make it easier for the market to know about these businesses. We distinguish ourselves by being committed to these ethos, in addition to working with the world’s best runners to develop shoes for runners around the world.

Waite: Let’s talk customers. Why target U.S.-based customers, including the free shipping offer? Any interesting customer trends? 

Osembo: When we started the business, we turned to crowdfunding via Kickstarter, which was popular in the U.S. and predates many of the crowdinvesting platforms that now exist. That’s how we ended up with majority U.S. customers. The free shipping is in response to the massive competition in that market.

The thing I love most about our customers is that they care about who makes their products, why companies such as Enda exist and where their products are made. They also care about the future and climate change. This gives me hope about the future of consumerism.

Waite: What advice do you have for investors?

Osembo: There is no better time to invest in a Kenyan footwear company and other companies in Africa than now. It’s worth showing that it is possible to grow global brands from Africa.

For foreigners, please do not come to Africa to save us, come to invest in business. To diaspora investors especially, Africa has to be built and that building includes you. The diaspora has a big role to play since no one else is going to build your home. There are plenty of startup and investor networks to get started, including Shona, Growth Africa and Intellecap.

Waite: What is your biggest challenge heading into the year of the tiger 2022? 

Osembo: Our current business is different [from] before. What got us here is not what will sustain us in this new phase. We have to think and act differently.

Waite: What excites you the most about leading Enda? Any new immediate plans?

Osembo: The possibility of growing a global brand from Africa. We plan on having a flagship store in Kenya soon, as it is important to have anchorage at home. We are also expanding our B2B sales to ensure that customers have more places where they can try out and buy our shoes.

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