The 'first Kenyan running shoe' hits its stride

Kenyan runner Joan Cherop wears a pair of Enda Athletic shoes. Photo by: Enda Athletic

Amsterdam Falafel, a favorite late-night food spot in Washington, D.C., has no doubt contributed to the genesis of numerous good ideas — and probably as many bad ones. For Weldon Kennedy, co-founder of Enda Athletic and future manufacturer of “the first Kenyan running shoe,” the falafel joint steered him toward his first marathon.

“I was in there late one evening having a falafel I in no way deserved to be eating,” Kennedy said. He pocketed a flyer the restaurant had on display. It advertised a marathon for a cause — raising money for the Whitman-Walker HIV/AIDS clinic — and it appealed to Kennedy, whose uncle was living with AIDS.

Training for that charitable race got him into running. When Kennedy moved to Kenya, where running is not just a fitness routine but a part of the nation’s identity, the possibilities to merge sport with social impact expanded. He met Enda’s co-founder Navalayo Osembo-Ombati, and the two came up with a plan.

On Wednesday, Enda reached its Kickstarter funding target of $75,000, unlocking bigger “stretch goals,” that will give backers and customers more product choices. Each pledge level rewards supporters with company products — early shoe orders, and, for $6,000, even a private running camp experience with elite Kenyan runners.

Devex spoke with Kennedy about his plans for Enda, the challenges of being a startup in Kenya, and finding the connection between elite running shoes and social impact. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to be based in Kenya?

My wife got a job with the GSMA, which has a grant fund that they distribute to organizations using mobile phones to expand access to water, sanitation and energy. I was working for at the time. I managed Europe for I was the first employee outside the U.S., and I had a team of 44 people at the time when I moved down here.

I loved my job at It was a great place to work. But I was chatting with people in the U.S. and they’re like, “How’s Kenya?” And I’m like, “I go camping in Kenya on the weekends.” It was just this realization, living in Kenya five days a week was an inconvenience and two days a week was an adventure. I wasn't actually taking on any real challenges, learning anything, growing as a person because of this space. And that’s stupid, right? If you're going to go somewhere that's got new experiences for you to have and you're ignoring them, then you’re being a bit daft.

Serendipitously, I met Nava [Kenyan entrepreneur Navalayo Osembo-Ombati] at a pitching contest where she was pitching a social enterprise school that was kind of athletics and sports education without sacrificing the rest of education. I was like, that sounds really cool. I want to know how much more can we do for the country using running.

What is the biggest thing in the running world? ... What do runners think about, and what's financially impactful? It's the running shoe. The running shoe is the central item. So that's what we should be doing. We should be doing running shoes. I met her serendipitously at the same time when I was thinking I want to step back from and find more local stuff, and it seemed obvious. Let’s do this.

Enda Athletic co-founders Weldon Kennedy and Navalayo Osembo-Ombati. Photo by: Enda Athletic

We met when I was in Nairobi last year, and you had this idea fully formed in your head, but now you've got a Kickstarter campaign going. You've got a fancy website. So where are you overall, and how are you feeling about it? How close are you to launching a line of running shoes?

I like the way you phrased the question, because if you had said, “how close are you to realizing your vision,” I’d say not even half of 1 percent. Our ambition is madly huge here in terms of what we want to accomplish in the long term. In the near term, how close are we to shipping shoes from Kenya to customers in the U.S.? By the end of the year we’ll be doing that.

As an online campaigner, I can tell you the easiest part of a campaign is the launch. It's so obvious to show up and be like, “Here we are!” That's such an easy story to tell. The next part of the story, which is like, “We're at 60 percent!” is a bloody hard thing to convince people on. I’m lucky enough to have worked in the social change, development, online advocacy spaces for my entire career, and so I happen to know a reasonable number of people who are interested in this project. I've not worked in the running space. Neither has Nava. So we're pushing as hard as we can to reach into these communities of runners — into running clubs, to running stores, to wherever they may be.

When it comes to the intersection of the private sector and social impact and social change, I think we hear more about multinational corporations participating in a corporate social responsibility effort or a shared value initiative than we do about foreigners like yourself who decide to create a business in the developing world. Feel free to contest that observation, but why did you decide to go that route?

I’ll contest the observation a little bit. I think there's one more dimension, because there are a lot of startups founded by foreigners particularly, but also locals, who do similar things. M-Kopa is a famous company now, and founded by people from outside of Kenya who came here to start a business. Especially here in Kenya — and I’m thinking about Tanzania, I know a couple people there as well — there are number of people who are like, “hey you know what I'm going to a socially impactful business.”

The thing that we’re doing differently is — [for] most of the businesses that I'm familiar with, when you talk about social impact, you’re talking about products and services sold to customers who previously have not had access to those services. M-Kopa is getting electricity to people who’ve never had electricity, and that’s a … good thing. I would say that's what a lot of impact investment is focused on is ... reaching new consumers for the first time. There are relatively fewer businesses that I’ve seen that are saying, “Hey you know what, rather than trying to sell something to Kenyans, what if we took the productive capacity of Kenya and sold something new to the world.” They exist. We're not the only ones doing it. But definitely the kind of publicized companies in this space are fewer.

A pair of Enda Athletic running shoes. Photo by: Enda Athletic

I think that's a really interesting distinction. Since you're not delivering products and services to the communities where you're trying to have a social impact, do you think about this as “development,” or is that just sort of a useless, unnecessary term to even engage at this point?

I think there is a big debate to be had in terms of what does that word mean, especially in the context of major international nongovernmental organizations moving their headquarters into the “global south.” What does development mean if the leadership of multinational organizations is in the places formally termed the global south, what does “developed” mean? To answer your question specifically — did we ever think of this as a development opportunity? I don't think we use the term development, but improving the amount that Kenya benefits from its running reputation is definitely something that’s a driving motivator for both of us.

Nava is from a town just outside of Eldoret, so she grew up near these communities. It’s something that I've seen very acutely, where despite this huge global reputation and absolute dominance of a singular sport, just how little money is actually making it back into these communities and making it into the pockets of everyday people there. And changing that is something we definitely want to accomplish. Did we term it “development?” No, I don't think so.

A question I’m asked a lot is, “don't the kids there run barefoot?” Well, yes I've definitely been out and there are lots of kids running barefoot. And the natural reaction to that in the development framework is, let's get those kids shoes. I don’t think that's right. I think if their family doesn’t have shoes, there’s probably a lot of other things they're going without. So rather than giving those kids shoes, why don't we employ their parents, and their parents can best determine how to allocate that money to achieve improved livelihoods. If that’s what development means then sure, that’s what we want to do. But we definitely see it in terms of helping Kenya derive greater benefit from its running reputation.

It seems like we're getting to a point where there are so many people doing so many different interesting things, and yet there’s still this kind of pressure to try to squeeze those things into a prefabricated category. One of the reasons I was interested to hear more about [Enda] is that I have trouble thinking about exactly what category your idea and enterprise fits into.

Honestly it's something that’s been a little bit of a challenge … There’s almost a trend within the term “impact investing” now that it means essentially investing in companies that provide health, education, electricity, water services and sanitation services to bottom of the pyramid consumers. If that’s what impact investing is becoming to mean, I worry about that, because I think there's a lot more ways to have impact. I've definitely encountered lots of people who are not that in the impact investing space, but I would say there are a large number of people and funds, that when they see that term that's what they mean.

Have you gotten any support from donor agencies or impact investors or other external funders? And whether you have or not, do you think there's more that community of actors could be doing to support ventures like yours?

Well I mean obviously I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn't think the world should support this happening. So yes, I think everyone should support us! We did do a seed round of investment. Most of that is from people who I would say are in the social impact space but not formalized in the investment space. So they are people who’ve done social change campaigning, digital campaigners, people who are on a different frame of thinking than traditional development investors or development workers.

I've talked to at least one [development finance institution] who is very supportive, and from everything I've seen from other people in the impact investing space and social good investing space everyone says, “DFI, DFI, DFI. Talk to them.” The challenge that I've encountered with most of them is, if you look at pretty much any country's development finance institution, their minimum investments are going to be something in the $50 million range. They're geared to huge projects, and there's relatively little in the startup fund space. The startup fund space is mostly these type of impact investors like I mentioned previously who are looking at, how can you sell services to bottom of the pyramid consumers for the first time.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.