What do Nike, Puma and Adidas have in common aside from being the world’s biggest sporting shoe brands? There are many not-so-cryptic answers, including that their founders were fueled by the desire to make better shoes for athletes and the fact that they were all male and Western.

Since these pioneers shaped the market, the sporting shoe industry has gone through the roof, penetrating several aspects of modern life. Research by GlobeNewswire valued the athletic shoe industry at $127.31 billion in 2021, projecting it to reach over $196.5 billion by 2030.

Today, African business founders are daring to take on this industry and put the continent in the conversation. But this time, women are front-lining the charge. One of them is Navalayo Osembo, founder of Enda Athletic Inc and second runner-up of Africa’s Business Heroes Prize Competition 2021.

Enda Athletic prides itself as the first high-performance running footwear brand made in Africa. Since its inception in 2015, Enda gained popularity by creating original men’s and women’s running footwear and apparel. However, Osembo’s brand was not an overnight success.

Osembo grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, with fond childhood memories of living in military barracks, as her father was in the Air Force. “I saw them do all these stunts with planes up in the air, among many other things,” Osembo told Ventures Africa. “My environment encouraged me to be curious.”

This curiosity became fuel for Osembo’s entrepreneurial drive. “I have tried different businesses throughout my life, including importing and selling clothes, farming and running a school,” she said.

The race against poverty

The same curiosity spurred her into a series of impact-driven ventures that led to the birth of Enda. According to Osembo, she was racing against a pattern of spiralling finances among Kenyan athletes. “I grew up among athletes. And in my community, we often see them make decent money, then end up broke. That story kept repeating itself and I was asking myself why it was so. I thought: Kenya has such a high reputation in athletics, so why haven’t we monetised it?”

So, Osembo and Weldon Kennedy, her co-founder, started thinking about solving this problem. “We knew that Kenya could do more than having a handful of athletes become recipients of award prizes or be used in marketing campaigns,” she said. Then they realised that running shoes had such a large market with little representation from Africa. “Africa had no ownership,” she said. “We have only been participating in the market as consumers.” So, they founded Enda Athletic in 2015 to explore this opportunity.

Navalayo Osembo, co-founder of Enda Athletic
Navalayo Osembo, co-founder of Enda Athletic

Jumping hurdles

Birthing the idea was the easy part. Osembo’s race to success involved jumping several hurdles, with capital scarcity being the tallest. “Finding capital was the biggest challenge,” she said. “There is really not much capital for startups. It’s a real problem in Africa. Even when startups get money, they will give you $10,000 to $15,000, which is not bad. But you can only start very small, as opposed to the West where you can start an Uber and get millions in funding.” Osembo’s claim is not wrong. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, about 82 percent of Africans lack access to formal credit, with 60 percent being Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Meanwhile, 51% of small businesses need more money than they can access, per IFC.

Enda’s next challenge, weirdly, was the size of its dream. The brand wants to take on the global stage and as a result, must learn to catch up fast. “We’re well educated and skilled, but the challenge comes when you’re trying to translate local talent to a global operation,” Osembo said. “To run a global company, you need someone with that kind of experience on your team, and that’s hard to find in Africa. Meanwhile, the alternative is to hire people from outside the continent, which is expensive.”

At the same time, the startup had to navigate a tough regulatory environment. “Regulators support entrepreneurship but are a bit too big on paperwork,” Osembo said. “There are too many licenses you need to get and too many hoops we have to jump as entrepreneurs.”

Becoming a business hero

It soon became clear to Osembo that the way out for Enda was to prove its value on the big stage. So in 2021, Enda Athletic joined Africa’s Business Heroes Prize Competition, where she emerged as the 2nd runner-up. Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) is a philanthropic program in Africa sponsored by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Philanthropy. It seeks to showcase, support and grow local talent who are creating a positive impact in their communities and beyond and inspire a movement of African entrepreneurship. “It was a fantastic experience, quite honestly,” Osembo said. “I loved the fact that we were competing against entrepreneurs from all 54 African countries, including Egypt, Botswana, Kenya and Nigeria among others. Aside from the money, we got a lot of exposure, media mentions and opportunities.”

Notably, winning on the big stage did not come cheap for Enda. ”You have to know your business in and out: spend time to understand your market, segmentation and competitive advantage. That only comes with experience. But when you have these, it becomes easier for you to paint a picture that investors will understand and appreciate,” she said. “I believe we were unique because we went into sportswear and performance footwear when nobody was into it.”

Running their own race

According to Osembo, one of Enda’s key strategies has been to maintain an original identity. “People keep asking us if we’re going to compete with Nike and Adidas. But we are neither the next Nike nor the next Adidas. We are Enda. This mindset has helped us to focus on our journey and explain our story in a way that makes sense. For example, we know we can’t win these people in the technology race because we don’t have the money to fund it. But we prove to our consumers that they don’t need all that technology to succeed as athletes and we have exactly what they need. It is perseverance, domination and showing up every day when you don’t want to and when no one else does that makes a champion and that’s the spirit we’re trying to take through our brand.”

Navalayo Osembo is a lawyer, accountant and London School of Economics alumnus. However, her optimism about Enda’s success is fueled by something greater than her resume: a growing market for niche brands. “Everybody thinks the bigger brands are the top running shoe brands. But the reality is quite different. It’s niche brands that came in the last 12-15 years that are taking charge now. So when I look at the market, I see that the consumer is willing to try new things or listen to other brands. All we need is a compelling story for them to listen to.”

More about Africa’s Business Heroes 5th Edition

ABH just closed the call for applications for its 5th annual edition on 17 May 2023. Winners will be awarded in November this year. For more about ABH and to follow the journey of the 2023 edition visit their website https://africabusinessheroes.org/en/

Over a ten-year period, the ABH program will recognize 100 African entrepreneurs and provide grant funding, training programs and broader support for the broad African entrepreneurial ecosystem. Every year, successful applicants gain access to training, mentoring and learning opportunities as well as a community of like-minded African business leaders. The top 10 finalists share US$1.5 million in grant funding, with the first-prize winner taking home US$300,000.

Additionally, all successful applicants to the ABH Prize Competition this year will enjoy the bonus offer of complimentary access to the Alibaba Netpreneur E-learning Course provided by Alibaba Global Initiatives (AGI). In collaboration with AGI, ABH will also facilitate the top 10 finalists’ participation in a sponsored trip to Hangzhou, China to attend an offline immersion program on digitalization.

Every year, ABH spotlights outstanding participants through traditional media and social media channels, including providing significant exposure to the top 10 finalists via the ABH Show and other contents. This year’s edition, which follows the ABH journey of the 2022 top 10 finalists and delves into their entrepreneurial stories, will come in 4-5 8-minute episodes that are slated to be broadcast online and across the continent in more than 40 countries. The first episode of the series has recently been released and is now available here.

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