Long known for producing world-class runners, Kenya seemingly has all it needs to turn out top-flight athletes: Varied terrain, good weather for training and a culture that has grown up around the sport. The world has long watched in awe as this impoverished African nation has turned out a consistent stream of world champions.
What Kenyan runners have always lacked is a running shoe tailored specifically to the Kenyan running style.
Weldon Kennedy, a college-educated, decidedly middle-class New Mexican, is setting out to change that. While Kennedy has just about no connection to Kenya and comes from half a world away – literally and figuratively – he is all about change. A self-described social activist, Kennedy has worked for change both big and small. But in 2015, he and his now business partner, Navalayo Osembo-Ombati, struck on an idea that both believe will not only help effect tangible change in Kenya but will also shine a spotlight on the beauty, success and commitment the nation has to running.
"I've been incredibly fortunate in my life to have incredible opportunities," Kennedy says via phone from the Kenyan capitol of Nairobi. "To be able to travel the world and meet people who didn't have those same advantages, well, but for the grace of God, I could have been them – people who didn't have the opportunity to get that better education or job, so I felt deeply privileged to have those opportunities and it all seemed terribly unfair to me."
Kennedy's solution to the "problem" he discovered in his corner of the world (he moved to Nairobi several years ago when his wife got a job there), is remarkably simple: Build a running shoe suited to the Kenyan running style and then source, make, build and market that shoe right from Kenya, thereby creating jobs, elevating the financial status of employees and giving some of the world's best runners an advantage they have not had.
"The Kenyan running style is distinctively different (than Westerners) and this was also an opportunity to do social good and bring this idea to the world," Kennedy says. "It just seemed to make sense."
The end result – so far – is Enda, a fledgling Kenyan shoe company with a prototype and a prayer. Kennedy and his group thus far have created an out-of-the-box trainer that features a wider toebox than is standard, a lower drop from heel to toe and more secure heel cupping.
The shoes will come in solid red, green or black, the colors of the Kenyan flag, and, with any luck, production will begin later this year.
Enda is raising money through Kickstarter.com to finance the first round of production. From there, Kennedy and Enda will embark on a grass-roots campaign to sell the shoe at running expos and directly to consumers online.
The idea, however, is not just to sell shoes – it is to create a community of social activists who will do more than just make a purchase.
"It's a significant opportunity for us to say, 'Don't just give something to Kenya, buy something because that is what's sustainably changing communities," Kennedy says. "We also want to build a brand of 'Made in Kenya,' and have that be hip and cool. That's what will help build Kenya. … With us, we hope that it will be an ongoing experience … more that this is the beginning of involvement" in social change.
Everything about Enda is about celebrating Kenya, beginning with company name, which in Swahili means "Go!" but can also be a term used to encourage and is often heard at the end of races.
The shoe itself is named after one of Kenya's famed running towns, Iten, which is located in the Great Rift Valley. Kennedy says the town is viewed as somewhat "mythical, where you kind of think of mystical clouds and wizards, but it's really just this quaint, little town."
Iten as well as neighboring towns have developed a reputation for turning out top runners – so much so that stars of the sport come to Kenya to train.
The shoe, which Kennedy says will retail for about $100, is designed not only to better fit the Kenyan running style, but share Kenya's story with the world. The Kickstarter campaign and company website prominently feature explanations of how the shoe tells a story.
Consider some of these design aspects:
-- The logo emblazoned on the side of the shoe is designed in the shape of a spear tip, which has a prominent place in history and the development of the country's national identity.
-- The word "harambee," which means "all pull together" in Swahili, is molded onto the sole.
-- The No. 12, which marks the day Kenya gained its independence and later become a republic, is represented with 12 individual lines on the lateral side of the shoe.
-- The heel of the shoe is designed to mimic the Great Rift Valley, from where most of the country's running champions hail.
"One of things we wanted to do was tell stories about Kenyan running to the world," Kennedy says. "It's fun to tell the story of a town of 40,000 people that has so many world-class athletes."
And if all goes as planned, Enda will do just that.