Disegno #18

What's in a Shoe?


10 August 2018

On 16 August 2016, Julius Yego adjusted his grip on his javelin, preparing for his second throw. His first had been perfect, leaving him well placed for a medal at the Olympics; after years of dominating the track, his nation had its first real shot at an honour in the field events. Kenya, a country sharply divided, loves the Olympics. Every four years, the complexities of ethnicity, class, age and gender seem to disappear and an overwhelming sense of pride and oneness takes hold. The Olympics bring out the best version of Kenya, and Kenyans feast on it.

Ignoring the restless crowd in the packed stadium, Yego leaned back and launched himself into his effort. He must have known that halfway around the world in his home country millions of pairs of eyes were watching his every move. It wasn’t just that Yego was breaking barriers in Kenya’s athletic tradition; he also symbolised the power of possibility. Yego had taught himself to throw the javelin by watching YouTube videos and gone from being an ordinary working-class boy to an international superstar. Inspirational, aspirational, hopeful, dynamic and as Kenyan as the black, red and green of the flag – Yego became the quasi-superhero that an increasingly divided nation needed, even if that nation didn’t know it.

In 2007, Kenya had nearly fallen apart. An openly manipulated election fuelled political tension that spilled over into inter-ethnic clashes. Overnight, the ruling party destroyed the main opposition’s nearly one-million-vote lead with results from constituencies that showed turnouts of more than 100 per cent. The opposition invaded the tallying centre, leading to an on-air confrontation between politicians from both camps that triggered waves of protests around the country. In the resulting violent clashes, more than 1,000 died, well over 100,000 were displaced, and East Africa’s largest economy ground to a halt. The impact was felt beyond Kenya’s borders – Uganda and the DRC, which rely on the port city of Mombasa to import goods, suffered shortages for three months during the crisis. Only national dialogue supported by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan halted the violence, although arguably its political effects continue 10 years later. Multi-party elections in Kenya are always hotly contested and often violent affairs that pit strongman against strongman to the exclusion of women, the youth, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

By the 2016 Olympics, the country was in election mode once more and strongmen politicians were rallying their bases in preparation for the 2017 vote. The Olympics couldn’t have come at a better time – dousing the escalating tension, albeit for just two weeks. The entrepreneur Navalayo Osembo‑Ombati was one of those watching in Kenya who was captivated by Yego and elated when he took home the silver medal in Rio. She remembers thinking that Yego and others like him represented potential reservoirs of unity in Kenya. “If we could tap into that energy,” thought Osembo-Ombati, “what kind of social impact could Kenyan athletes have?”

Osembo-Ombati was born in a village in Bungoma County, western Kenya, but after graduating from the London School of Economics in 2014, had travelled and worked throughout the US, Ethiopia and Tanzania. In 2014, she was back in Nairobi for Spark Kenya, a business-accelerator programme for social entrepreneurs in East Africa. Osembo-Ombati was there to pitch a sports academy where children from poor backgrounds might get a quality education, as well as a chance to begin a sports career, building on the idea of a non-profit school that she had founded in Bungoma. Through that experience and after trying to find a sports-friendly school for her own daughter, Osembo-Ombati saw how little attention Kenya’s education system gave to the field, even while the country basked in the glory of self-made athletes like Yego. There is provision for physical education in the Kenyan school curriculum, but schools often ignore this to create study time instead – while PE is not examinable, maths and science are. Osembo-Ombati believed that her idea for a sports academy was the best way to reconcile the two approaches, although the judges at the competition disagreed. By the end of the event, Osembo-Ombati was looking for a new direction. “I remembered watching a Nike window display in a department store in New York that was an exact replica of the Rift Valley,” she says, referencing the region of East Africa that is home to Kenya’s running community. “There were even life-size cut-outs of Kenyan athletes in the display but it was an American shoe. And I remember even then wondering, ‘Why haven’t we made a Kenyan running shoe?’”

For much of the last 15 years, Kenya’s economy has registered high rates of economic growth, hovering at around 5 per cent and above the global average of just under 3 per cent. Its staples are horticulture and tourism (38 per cent of cut roses sold in the European Union are grown in Kenya), but much of the country’s economic expansion has also been driven by information and communications technology. The Communication Authority of Kenya estimates mobile penetration to have reached 88 per cent in 2016, while a 2017 study showed that more than 60 per cent of the population had access to smartphones.

However, the persistent inability to resolve overarching political issues, and particularly the recurrent electoral tension, has put a damper on Kenya’s success story. “Political power in Kenya is linked to access to public resources which are easily plundered due to a paucity of independent institutions that would demand accountability,” observes Kimani Njogu, a linguist and cultural theorist based in Nairobi. Increasing corruption and political violence mean that every five years since 1992 Kenya holds its collective breath, waiting to see if this will be the election that finally breaks the country. “This problem is compounded by the way in which money and public resources are used during elections to buy votes,” explains Njogu. “The fact that a good number of leaders believe that they bought their way into positions of power [means that] they believe they can abuse power without any consequences.” These politicians’ strategies often involve financing and mobilisation of inter-ethnic violence. This peaked in 2007 but is typical of every multi-party election for the last 25 years, with the exception of 2002. Throughout these periods, spending contracts and investments wither as money is diverted towards the election, and confidence in the economy shrinks while everyone trades the by-now infamous Kenyan cliché, “Ngoja tuone vile hizi elections zitaenda” (“Let’s wait and see how the elections will go”).

Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, a nascent design sector is coalescing in Kenya, turning inwards to develop products and find a market for goods that capitalise on the nation itself as a brand. Peperuka is a label that sells T-shirts, mugs and other items showcasing often difficult-to‑translate Kenyan clichés like “Me I love Nairobi” (a direct translation from the Swahili featuring the double subject) and “Wacha niende nirudi” (“Let me go and come back”), a euphemism often used to ease out of conversations one is no longer interested in. Sandstorm Kenya, meanwhile, connects its sturdy canvas and leather luggage and bags to the wide and wild Kenyan outdoors, and other brands scream “Africa” through their omnipresent use of kitenge Dutch wax print, as evident on bags by Vintara Collections or chairs produced by Love Artisan. None of these initiatives is older than their home nation’s multi‑party democracy, and all are working hard to establish themselves as quintessentially by Kenya and primarily for Kenya. The domestic design landscape is filled with companies that have suffocated under ambitions larger than their investment in building good products, but others have managed to jump into the international scene, like Sandstorm – which is endorsed by the Duchess of Cambridge – or the jewellery chain Kazuri Beads.

Osembo-Ombati wanted to ride this wave. Although she didn’t advance in the Spark Kenya competition, she did connect with Weldon Kennedy, a communications and campaign strategist working as a mentor at the event, who was impressed by Osembo-Ombati’s presentation. “Nava was really passionate about the idea of mixing sports and education,” he says, “and she made an excellent point that Kenya wasn’t doing enough with [its] sports legacy.” Kennedy was born in Michigan but had moved to Kenya with his wife in 2013, having previously worked in social justice and co-founded Campaign Bootcamp, an activist training programme based in Europe. When Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy met for coffee a week after the competition, they began trading ideas on how to build an ethical, sustainable business inspired by their backgrounds in development, while also drawing on Kenya’s sporting tradition.

For non-Kenyans, brand Kenya is synonymous with athletics, wildlife and the bright-red scarves of the Maasai people. But game reserves are often too expensive for locals to visit, and the Maasai people account for only 1 per cent of the population, which comprises 44 ethnic groups. Only sport transcends the lines of class and ethnic diversity that cut through the country. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy wanted to capitalise on this, condensing the athletic version of brand Kenya into a running shoe. They wanted the people who stitched it to have meaningful work – a living wage and good conditions – so that everyone who came into contact with the product was enriched by the experience. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy also wanted to make an affordable shoe that would be a reasonable option for an athlete yet to earn the lucrative endorsement deals that support those at the elite level. Those who make it onto Kenya’s national athletics team are fully kitted out by Nike thanks to a sponsorship deal with Athletics Kenya, but people who don’t make the cut often go back to training and competing nonetheless, frequently running barefoot. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy’s concept was for a social enterprise that would invest in Kenya and Kenyans, incorporating a foundation that would support some of the thousands of athletes who try to qualify. “Of the many who try out for Kenya’s athletic teams every year, very few actually make it onto the team,” observes Kennedy. “What happens to the others?”

But Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy would also be taking on powerful entrenched interests. Soon after Rio 2016, investigations revealed that officials from Nike had paid $500,000 allegedly to prevent Athletics Kenya from signing with a rival Chinese company. The same officials also diverted kit destined for athletes to family and friends of senior Ministry of Sports officials. Creating a good product was one thing; building a brand to take on these issues quite another. Over and above all of this, however, was the enterprise’s major hiccup. “I had no idea how to make shoes,” says Osembo-Ombati laughing. Kennedy had no idea either. They had no background or training in shoe design, no leads, no experience – just a strong sense that their idea would work. Their first challenge was figuring out how to shrink their social and political aspirations into a single, functional material object.

Osembo-Ombati decided that the best place to start would be to ask athletes what they wanted. She sent word to Eldoret and Iten, the two towns in East Africa’s Rift Valley that serve as the epicentre of Kenya’s running community. Perched astride the Kerio Valley, the narrowest point of the Rift Valley, Iten overlooks the lush, green slopes below from dizzying heights. Meanwhile, Eldoret is the fifth-largest city in Kenya. Formerly a racially segregated agricultural town and the hub for the country’s small Afrikaaner community, it has grown into one of the nation’s most important conurbations, in part because of its fame as a base for training. At 2,150m and 2,400m above sea level respectively, the altitude in Eldoret and Iten attracts thousands of local and international athletes hoping to take seconds off their personal bests. Researchers argue that because of the relatively thin oxygen, training at high altitudes boosts performance when the athlete returns to lower altitudes. Iten and Eldoret are high enough to trigger this effect, but not so high that special equipment is required. All of Kenya’s elite athletes, such as the 800m world record-holder David Rudisha and the Olympic marathon gold medallist Eliud Kipchoge train in Iten, as does the reigning Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah. It was a community that provided a ready-made sample for Osembo-Ombati’s initial product-development research. “We wanted to get their perspective on the technical and aesthetic aspects of the shoe,” she says, “so we commissioned a large survey of athletes to hear what they wanted.”

Many of those they approached would not participate because of contractual obligations, but some, such as the nationally ranked runners Justin Lagat and Joan Masa, did. “They told us that shoes are the most expensive items in their kits,” Kennedy remembers, “which seems obvious but was important to hear.” A good pair of running shoes is an investment. None of the other brand elements behind Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy’s idea mattered if the shoe wouldn’t help the athletes run fast. The ideal shoe has to be ultra lightweight and flexible, but also sturdy enough to support the foot and prevent rolling, which can damage ankles over the many kilometres that elite athletes run each day. Still, Kennedy observes, “while running shoes are expensive, they are also high-turnover items. Even a novice runner will run about 300 or 400km when preparing for a single race.” This means that anyone who takes running seriously is probably replacing their shoes regularly.

The business potential for the right kind of shoe is huge. There are no statistics for Kenya, but a 2016 report by Running USA estimated that almost 2 million people ran a half-marathon in the US in 2015, with another 509,000 finishing a full marathon. In that same year, Americans spent $3.2bn on running shoes, a 40 per cent increase from 2010. Upstart companies like Brooks are challenging established names such as Nike, which in 2015 was only the fourth-most-purchased running-shoe brand. For new companies this spells possibility; for the old guard it’s an incentive to protect their territory at all costs, especially in emerging markets such as Kenya. “This shoe is a great opportunity to let people in on what’s happening with running in Kenya,” says Osembo-Ombati.

Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy networked furiously for six months, talking to people who understood the technical aspects of making a running shoe. This level of research is unusual in product design in Kenya, a country in which market research may be common, but is practically unheard of for new brands. Instead, a model in which people bring whatever they have to a market and hope that someone browsing the stalls is interested is the norm. Moreover, designers in Kenya who display an attention to detail rarely manufacture for the mass market. Peperuka, Vivo and Sandstorm, for instance, all have their retail outlets and pop-ups at Nairobi’s high-end malls, with prices starting at close to the national monthly minimum wage (approximately $50). This means that market-orientated design in Kenya is, for the most part, a luxury good, with middle- and lower-class consumers often settling for formless functionality. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy were not targeting the high end, however. They wanted to build a shoe that ordinary people would see as an investment in their sporting career and they spent considerable time trying to understand what product might justify such an investment. It took six months to distil their conversations into a concept of what the ideal Kenyan shoe would look like. “It was about both a technical and an aesthetic perspective,” says Osembo-Ombati. But they soon hit another hurdle – they needed someone who knew how to make it.

The initial plan had been to create a 100 per cent Kenyan shoe, but the realities of the nation’s design and manufacturing capacities stood in the way. “We found that there was only one person in Kenya who knew how to make an athletic shoe,” says Kennedy. Although that designer, Barre Yassin, worked closely with Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy, they were unable to translate their ideals into a product. In order to find a developer who could both design the shoe and identify suitable materials for building it, the pair had to look outside the country. They eventually settled on Birdhaus design, a New York-based firm that specialises in working with small companies and was able to recommend commodities, manufacturers and other design elements. Yassin and a further footwear designer, Daniel Richard from the New Hampshire-based practice Daniel Richard Design, were brought in to work on revisions. “We were still committed to making a Kenyan shoe,” Osembo-Ombati remembers, “and so we were really involved in the design process to make sure it reflected that. But we had to recognise that in Kenya the capacity just wasn’t there.”

A similar problem emerged around manufacturing. By the time they had a product that was ready to launch on the market, Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy had orders for approximately 10,000 shoes: an amount that they thought was large, but which turned out to be peanuts, relatively speaking. Most shoemakers in Kenya supply to Bata, a Swiss multinational that makes low-cost canvas and leather shoes and owns a large factory in Limuru, a few kilometres outside Nairobi. Bata is prolific across Africa and sells millions of shoes each year; it has more than 100 outlets in Kenya alone. “Many suppliers said we were too small for them, so we had to go back to the drawing board,” remembers Osembo-Ombati. “There were some small factories in Lamu that manufacture for Bata who considered our offer but none of them had the capacity to manufacture the uppers.” Furthermore, none were willing to make the investment required to address their capacity issues given the size of the order.

“[Because] no one could make all the parts in Kenya,” adds Kennedy, “we basically had to rebuild our supply chain from scratch.” Only Chinese manufacturers were willing to invest in making moulds for such a small order and at a price that wouldn’t put the shoe out of reach for ordinary Kenyans. For a concept so rooted in national identity, this was no small setback. Can a shoe designed in New York and manufactured in China call itself Kenyan? “Our shoe is about the spirit of Kenya,” says Osembo-Ombati. “When we were talking to the designer we spent a lot of time just talking generally about the history of the country. All of those conversations are distilled in the shoe.” Equally significant, however, is the fact that the difficulties encountered by Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy are not unique to their project or, indeed, to Kenya. Today, it is rare to find a branded consumer good that is 100 per cent owned, designed and manufactured in the country that claims it. Most Apple products may be “Designed in California” but they are made in China. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy’s putative competitor Nike is an American brand that gets much of its credibility through its association with American sports like basketball, as well as American hip-hop culture, but its shoes are made in more than 10 Asian countries. As Greg Linden, co-author of a 2011 study titled ‘Distribution of Value in a Mobile Phone Supply Chain’ published in the journal Telecommunications Policy, told Nautilus magazine, “capturing all the logistics linkages for a mobile phone would take years”.

When they had a working prototype, Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy reached out to Joan Masa and David Gitari, another professional runner. They gave the athletes a pair of shoes each and invited them to pound the muddy roads of Iten. “We wanted to see how the shoe performed under normal training conditions,” Kennedy says, “so we told them to use the shoe as regular training shoes and then be brutally honest with us.” This trial process led to major changes in the design. For example, the first prototype had a solid sole that the runners complained made it rigid and inflexible. A swooping groove running from the middle to the rear was added so that it yielded more to the variable pressure of the athlete’s foot. The groove also made the shoe lighter, bringing it closer to the barefoot running preferred by Kenya’s amateur athletes.

Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy further incorporated design elements that nod to Kenya and its running tradition. For example, a notch in the heel represents the Rift Valley in which Iten sits, as does the groove in the sole. The Kenyan national motto “harambee” (“let’s pull together”) is etched into each sole and the company’s logo is a spear tip, borrowed from Kenya’s flag and coat of arms. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy also settled on a name for their company: Enda, the Swahili word for “go” and the mantra that Kenyans shout when willing on athletes like Yego. In addition, they dubbed their first-generation shoe the Iten in a nod to the running town. The Iten comes in only three colours, black, red and green, all of which are accented with hints of white: the colours of Kenya’s flag. Significantly, Enda was keen that the red and green match the Kenyan flag’s distinct Pantone shades. The red is richer and deeper than that on most flags because it is intended to mimic the colour of blood, and the green is stronger for the verdant hues of the Rift Valley’s forests and countryside. At the Olympics, these darker hues give the national kit a gravitas that Enda tried to replicate on the Iten shoe.

Aesthetic nods aside, the Iten is also a Kenyan shoe because of its story. By the time they had built and tested their prototype, Enda had no money left to make shoes. No bank in Kenya was willing to take a chance on a start-up business with no actual assets. “Kenyan individual investors were the hardest,” says Osembo-Ombati. “If it’s not about land, they really don’t want to hear it.” What Enda did to overcome these obstacles, however, is part of what makes this a uniquely Kenyan story. Kenya is a largely rural and poor country, with internet penetration at only 27 per cent. The nation’s 88 per cent mobile penetration, however, provides considerable opportunities. By 2006 only 27.4 per cent of Kenyans were using formal banking systems, which demand oppressive minimum opening and operating balances, and charge a fortune in transaction fees. When the mobile provider Safaricom launched M-Pesa mobile banking in 2007, Kenyans were ready for a cheaper, more flexible alternative. This new platform allowed individuals to send money to other mobile-phone customers and to hold significant deposits. By 2016, M-Pesa had evolved to allow customers to borrow, buy government bonds, and pay for goods and services, all without needing a bank account or a credit card. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the most frequent users of M-Pesa are market women who borrow money in the morning, buy goods with it, and repay the loans at close of business that day. In the same year, the value of money traded on mobile money apps in Kenya equalled 50 per cent of the country’s GDP, with M-Pesa alone accounting for 30 per cent.

At the same time, more than 5 million Kenyans were on social media by 2016, coalescing into a distinct digital identity colloquially known as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter). This group has been involved in everything from organising and executing protests, to deepening accountability around elections. During the 2017 vote for example, citizens tweeted pictures of results posted at their polling stations, aggregating and sharing them under the hashtag #KOT to refute fraudulent tallies on the official results website. In a similar vein, Enda turned to the digital-fundraising platform Kickstarter. Because of the limitations of formal banking, community fundraisers, which are known as harambees, are an integral part of the culture. There is probably a harambee somewhere in the country every weekend and a Kickstarter campaign can essentially be seen as a digital version of the phenomenon. To realise the money required for production, Enda combined fundraising on Kickstarter with a social-media campaign. Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy didn’t just talk about shoes; they wanted donors to buy into a concept – the idea of a running shoe built by and around one of the world’s greatest running communities. “Social media is a big part of our story,” says Osembo-Ombati, “it helps us tell our story and the Kenyan running story is what sells this shoe. You would be surprised at how much people love the idea of a Kenyan running shoe.”

After a few days of build-up, their campaign went live to considerable success. “It was surreal,” says Osembo-Ombati. “People actually believed in this. They gave us their money!” In fact, the pair raised their target repeatedly over the three days that the campaign was active. Their initial ask was $75,000 but in the end they got more than $128,000. By remaining true to its initial vision and investing significantly in the research and design process, Enda achieved something extraordinary: it attracted significant public investment in and excitement over a product that didn’t yet exist. “That was an amazing feeling,” Osembo-Ombati remembers. “It was amazing to see all the work we had put in finally pay off.”

Enda successfully harnessed the story of Kenyan running to build hype around a previously untested idea – the Kenyan running shoe. The Iten undoubtedly represents a remarkable first attempt at such a product. It is lightweight and responsive to rapid changes in terrain, especially in urban running in Kenya, which can go from tarmac to mud in a snap. Moreover, no one is more aware than Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy that the Iten can be improved upon. If you have normal feet, the current model is successful, but there is one seam in the right shoe that people with one foot larger than the other – a common situation – will feel after the first kilometre. “We know about the seam,” concedes Kennedy. “We’re fixing it for the next round.” The Iten also has no ankle support or compensation for pronation when the foot lands, making it less than ideal for those with flat feet or low arches. In addition, Kennedy concedes that in its current iteration, the Iten is not suitable for running a full marathon, especially one like the urban Nairobi Marathon, which takes place entirely on tarmac. “A half marathon, maybe,” he says, “but a full marathon would be too much.” The athletes they collaborate with are currently using it for speedwork and recovery runs, and the creators plan to keep iterating.

At 10,000 shillings (approximately $100) the shoe is fairly priced for those keen to invest in their running seriously – other running shoes start at around $120. In fact, the Iten has so far done well domestically. “Fifteen per cent of all our sales during the first round were in Kenya,” says Kennedy, “and we were only expecting single digits.” The first round of orders delivered to 32 countries, the majority to Australia, where the Kickstarter campaign was featured on Runners’ Tribe, a popular running blog, which also serves as Enda’s Australian distributor.

In the Iten, Enda has succeeded in building a starter shoe that is at least worthy of the ambitions of the athletes who aspire to one day wear Team Kenya’s colours at the Olympics. The creators hope that the buzz will make fundraising for the second round of manufacturing easier. In the meantime, they are using their digital presence to collect and share the lessons they’ve learnt during their process. David Gitari ran the 2017 New York Marathon in a pair of Endas and has since featured prominently in their marketing. In January 2017, Enda launched a range of running tees that complement the colours and style of the shoes. As Nike did with the Air Jordan, Enda is cross-positioning the Iten as a lifestyle shoe, managing to get the Kenyan Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o photographed in a pair during the Afropunk Festival in New York. “The Lupita moment was something,” says Osembo-Ombati. “It took quite a bit of work and networking to get in touch with her team and they didn’t really respond except to say thanks. We actually didn’t know she was going to wear the shoes until they showed up on her Instagram. It was such a special moment.”

In the long term, Osembo-Ombati and Kennedy hope to take on the giants like Nike and Adidas, which currently dominate sports sponsorship in Kenya. These companies play right into the pervasive practice in race-meet commentary and athletics writing to treat Kenyan athletes not as individuals, but as a pack – no coverage of a major race is complete without the phrase “the Kenyans”. Enda hopes to change that by working closely with individual athletes: to keep building its shoes around these people and hopefully sponsor one of them to reach the heights achieved by Yego in 2016. “Right now, these big companies treat Kenyan runners as a unit,” explains Osembo-Ombati, “but they can’t beat us at individualisation.” For brand Kenya, therefore, the Iten is a brave and exciting development, even if work remains to be done for it to achieve its full potential. “It’s about just going – just trying,” Osembo-Ombati reflects. “Enda means ‘just go’, so even when everything is scary, we just go for it.”