This African startup is reducing the footprint of running shoes

A whopping seven – that’s the number of pairs of shoes the average person in the United States buys each year. At this rate, the footwear market is ripe for a green conversion, including lower consumption. What if consumers started turning to fewer, better, more sustainable, socially and environmentally responsible shoes? What are the options?

The global footwear market totaled more than $235 billion in 2020, and there are many players. Recent studies suggest more than 30,000 global shoe manufacturing companies employ 10 million people and produce 23 billion pairs of shoes per year.

In this 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 to offer investors and consumers a quadruple score for impact: it is climate friendly, operates with a JEDI lens (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) and is led by a woman who is also an underrepresented entrepreneur of color.

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

Although the footwear market is maintaining an expected compound annual growth rate of around 4%, the COVID pandemic has shaken the industry. The supply chain, which includes the supply of raw materials, the processing of semi-finished products and numerous distribution channels, has experienced setbacks. Most athletic shoes for the US market are shipped by ship that takes two to three weeks from Asia to the major ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. With sick staff at all points in the supply chain and limited retail store openings, it is difficult to get goods from point A to the end user. This COVID-related challenge includes much longer shipping times and a long wait at the port.

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

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

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

Navalayo Osembo: I grew up in an educational family with high expectations for success. My father, now retired, worked for the Kenya Air Force and my mother was a teacher. Discipline and education occupied an important place in our home. Academically, I studied law (I am a barrister in 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 focused on things that interested me.

Waite: What was your motivation for founding Enda?

Osembo: The motivation to start Enda was based on the desire to bring tangible economic benefits from the running shoe industry in 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’ve seen athletes used in marketing campaigns by big shoe companies who keep financial returns from their savings and those same athletes languish in poverty in their later years. Being a pioneer in making running shoes in Kenya, which would offer long-term solutions, made sense.

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

Osembo: A typical day starts early. I mostly work from home so there’s not much of interest other than meetings, emails, a visit to the gym and more meetings when the east coast of the US wakes up . I enjoy factory visits, although I don’t do as much now as I did when I started. The evenings are reserved for my family as much as possible.

Waite: Enda is B Corp certified and Climate Neutral certified, the latter being a commit to measuring the carbon footprint, reduce this you can, and make up the rest. What does Enda do differently in terms of sustainability?

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

Waite: There are many considerations for localizing shoemaking and building a financially viable business model; these considerations include labor, materials, exchange rate fluctuations, and pricing. How do you manage to maintain Enda’s cost competitiveness given the economies of scale achieved in other markets?

Osembo: It is a work in progress. For now, we benefit from the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). However, we pay full rates in our other growth 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 about the competition. Your main competitors are niche running shoe companies such as On, Altra, and Hoka. In this context, what do you attribute your success to?

Osembo: I think companies and customers have realized that we have to do things differently if we want to fight climate change and create a viable environment and society. This is why it is important to distinguish the companies committed to this philosophy and to facilitate knowledge of these companies by the market. We are distinguished by our commitment to this philosophy, in addition to working with the best runners in the world to develop shoes for runners around the world.

Waite: Let’s talk about customers. Why target US based customers including free shipping offer? Interesting customer trends?

Osembo: When we started the business, we turned to crowdfunding through Kickstarter, which was popular in the US and predates many crowdfunding platforms that exist today. This is how we ended up with mostly American clients. Free shipping is in response to massive competition in this market.

What I love most about our customers is that they care about who makes their products, why companies like Enda exist, and where their products are made. They also care about the future and climate change. This gives me hope for the future of consumption.

Waite: What advice do you have for investors?

Osembo: There is no better time to invest in a Kenyan shoe business and other businesses in Africa than now. It is worth showing that it is possible to develop global brands from Africa.

For foreigners, please don’t come to Africa to save us, come and invest in business. For diaspora investors in particular, Africa needs 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 house. There are many startup and investor networks to get started, including Shona, Africa Growth and Intelcap.

Waite: What is your biggest challenge heading into the Year of the Tiger 2022?

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

Waite: What excites you most about directing Enda? New immediate projects?

Osembo: The opportunity to develop a global brand from Africa. We plan to have a flagship store in Kenya soon, as it is important to have an anchor at home. We are also expanding our B2B sales to ensure customers have more places to try on and buy our shoes.

About Ethel Partin

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