Kenya: Why I Started My 'Made in Kenya' Brand of Sneakers

9 November 2019

We are sitting on a log under a tree.

Navalayo Osembo has taken the side where she is partly under the shade but also enjoying the sunshine.

The 31-year-old is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Enda Athletics, a Kenyan brand that specialises in making sportswear.

It is weirdly silent here. On most days, Kuona Artists Collective on Likoni road, Nairobi - where her office is located - is a buzz of activities. But, today being on a Sunday, it is deserted.

The first time I met Enda was when I interviewed her after she was nominated for the Business Daily's Top 40 Under 40.

Even then, we settled to have the interview outside her office. She works indoors most of the time so whenever she can, she settles for the outdoors.

Also, the ambiance is great and there are less distractions, except from her cat which wants a cuddle.

BUSINESS IS THE PRIORITY

We are still catching up when a man says hello and points at Navalayo's shoes.

"Same shoe, ah! I love them." He's wearing a green pair of sneakers, similar to Navalayo's red ones.

The shoes come in red, green and black. The mid soles are white, representing one of the colours on the Kenyan flag.

"I also wanted a black pair but they are out of stock," he continues. "We will re-stock soon," she assures him.

I am surprised at how humbly she takes his knowledge of her brand. Why didn't she introduce herself as the Enda Athletics proprietor?

"I don't want fame. What I need is success. I want people to familiarise themselves more with the shoes and less with me," she shares.

On her LinkedIn page, she describes herself as a runner-in-training, but she reveals she is also a sports fan who started a sports academy in Bungoma, her home place.

FINDING PRIDE

Why Enda Athletics? "Out here, most countries have a brand that they are famous for. I wanted to create a product that would give nuance to the Kenyan story. Beyond our borders, we are known as a running nation but we depend on other countries for apparel. I wanted to change that narrative," she says.

In 2015, while Enda was still in its formative years, she got a job as an accountant in New York City, USA, and moved there with her family -- her husband and four-year-old daughter.

Three years later, they packed up and returned to the country. "At that point, the business was quite demanding and I could no longer run it as a side hustle. I had to make a decision, leave the job, which had some good perks, or abandon the business.

My business partner, Weldon Kennedy, and I had come too far to quit. Starting a business is not easy. Sometimes the thought of starting over can make you cringe," she says.

GAINING MOMENTUM

Choosing the business path, she adds, was anything but easy. "I had all these doubts. There are some days I wake up and wonder, did I make the right decision? Thankfully, I have an amazing support system: my family and friends who remind me of my successes when I criticise myself."

Navalayo does not beat her own drum. Even when I ask for the highlights of her journey, she does not dwell much on that but instead chooses to focus on what she is yet to achieve.

I get it. Her vision is vast. She longs for the day when she will see our athletes rock Enda's apparel on the tracks, something that will make the company a brand synonymous with Kenya.

But for a company that was started as an online crowd-funded enterprise, they have done well for themselves. They recently received seed funding from Umoja Rubber productions limited and Mizizi Capital.

The market size is progressively growing. And although most of her customers are from the United States, her designs are gaining traction locally and in neighbouring countries.

"Before we launch any shoe, we have it tested by renowned reviewers," she says.

CHALLENGES

One of the challenges we have faced is in raising the capital. This is a capital intensive business. To compete with international brands, we have to inject a lot of resources into production and marketing. That can limit growth.

Further, there are those who complain about the cost of the shoes. A pair goes for Sh10,000.

"There is so much that goes into the production of sports shoes. We are intentional on each item and on the quality," she says.

Five lessons I picked from my journey with Enda

1. Character exceeds genius: it is better to work with a person of integrity and teach them new skills than work with a dishonest genius. I am also okay with working with someone who makes mistakes than one who is intentionally deceitful.

2. Fear of failure, or even actual failure, should never stop you from doing something that you love. Imagine the tragedy of an eagle hanging out with chicken because it was too afraid to fly. Fear exists but it should not prohibit.

3. Life is one, literally YOLO: do not settle for mediocrity. If you need to move, move. If you need time out, take time out. Whatever happens, always move, and always pivot, while seeking advice from mentors.

4. Your environment impacts you: seek an environment of excellence. You are the sum total of the five people that you spend most of your time with.

5. Work both smart and hard: work hard; be tactical; always be aware of the winds of change and act quickly while the window of opportunity exists.

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