Gear

Behind the Shoe: Kenya’s Newest Running Brand Debuts the Iten

Kenya’s first running shoe aims to be so much more than just a lightweight trainer.

Crafted in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the training epicenter of legendary runners including Mary Keitany and David Rudisha, the Enda Iten is a lightweight training shoe produced by upstart running shoe company Enda (meaning “go” in Swahili). It’s the first style produced by the brand, Kenya’s sole running shoe maker, which launched with a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016. After surpassing initial funding goals and raising more than $128,000, Enda co-founders Navalayo Osembo and Weldon Kennedy set out to produce a simultaneously high-performance and purpose-driven shoe.

Sure, the Iten is designed to go fast, but it has bigger ambitions than blistering paces. “As a Kenyan, I knew that making the first made-in-Kenya running shoe had to tell the story of Kenyan culture and history in both bold and subtle ways,” says Osembo, Enda’s co-founder and CEO. “The biggest inspiration was to showcase to the world a simple product from the ‘home of running champions’ that not only had great technical features but also shared Kenya’s story with the world. This inspiration is what guided our research into different elements…that eventually led us to decide the final features.”

Osembo, a trained accountant and lawyer who comes from a village near Eldoret, initially teamed up with Kennedy, an international development campaigner, with the goal of helping Kenya benefit from its world-renowned running reputation. Together they crafted a social-impact model for Enda, a public-benefit corporation, which is required to report to stakeholders on its social and environmental impact.

Initial sketch | Photo Credit: Enda

Their goal? Fuel economic development by creating jobs and giving back to Kenyan communities, all-the-while sharing a new piece of Kenyan running excellence with runners everywhere. Their next step was creating the Iten (pronounced Ee-ten). They dove into extensive market research and strategy, athlete wear-testing, refining prototypes, manufacturing, and distributing a versatile trainer that feels, and does, good.

Initial research—surveying runners—revealed a few market holes Enda could plug. First, athletes in Iten and beyond requested a shoe for speed work—something other than track spikes and more flexible than a racing flat. Second, runners asked for a shoe that would stick around, a reliable staple from season to season.

“They’re tired of the hype cycle of ‘Here’s the new technology that’s going to change everything and make you a better runner,’” says Kennedy. “Periodically there are incremental improvements in technology, but by and large that’s not going to change someone’s game. It’s not really changing their world. Consistent training does that.” Enda, then, sees the Iten as part of “a well-balanced training program.”

Photo Credit: Enda

It’s designed to be a go-to not only for runners who do quality workouts like fartleks and tempos, but those who want to start. Another target audience is one Kennedy fits into himself: the socially-conscious and/or charity-minded runner. He started running in college to raise money for Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. In marathon training, he found “an opportunity to do a little bit of good” while getting into shape.

“Where and how things are made matters…If something is not made with a purpose why are you buying it? If you don’t know the life cycle of your product and what good it does for the world, how much is it going to fulfill you? How much does it make your life richer? How much does it make everyone’s lives richer?” he asks. “We want to be as transparent as we can be showing our whole process and hopefully have everyone who puts on a pair of our shoes know the faces and names of people whose hands were working on making them.”

Enda Iten Specs

Support: Neutral
Weight: 7.9 oz (men’s size 9, women’s size 10.5)
Heel-to-toe drop: 4mm
Price: $100

Photo Credit: Enda

To refine the Iten concept’s engineering and production specs, Enda worked with Dan Richard, a footwear design consultant. Each detail was tailored to runner feedback. “Kenyan runners place a high value on the sole of the shoe for various reasons, including durability. The runners we’ve talked to have a keen sense of the relationship between the foot and the shoe and seem to prefer a clean sole with an emphasis on flexibility in the forefoot and not many obstructions throughout the sole,” says Richard. “For example, heel counter supports and plastic inserts or moderators were specifically mentioned as something not wanted. Good cushion and good flexibility within a simple design are highly valued.”

Each piece of the Iten was selected through wear-testing, based on goals of keeping the shoe lightweight, breathable and comfortable. Important features include a low heel-to-toe drop (to promote a mid- to forefoot landing), a low-volume but wider toe box (for flexibility and toe-splay), and a heel-cupping midsole (for a secure fit even while cornering). The midsole is compression molded EVA.

A rounded bottom design reflects the shape of the last, says Richards. Unlike many running shoes, the midsole thickness maintains a consistent dimension across the forefoot, which creates “an even touchdown and tread surface throughout the ground strike. We believe this offers a more lively and responsive footstrike,” he says.

Photo Credit: Enda

While the Iten is designed for performance, its aesthetics are inspired by Kenya—not, say, the technology inside it, as with many running shoes. On the outsole, the Swahili rallying cry “Harambee” means “all pull together” and 12 lines on each shoe represent Jamhuri Day on December 12, when Kenya gained independence from the UK in 1963. A rift cut into the heel honors the Rift Valley.

In the pliable, simple upper, triangle patterns across the shoe honor Maasai, Samburu and Swahili motifs. Even Enda’s logo holds significance: it’s a spear, a potent symbol found on the Kenyan flag. The Iten is available in the three colors of the Kenyan flag: red, black and green.

While Enda’s goal is to create a 100-percent, made-in-Kenya shoe, the Iten is currently manufactured in the country with materials sourced in China. Creating a new industry for performance footwear has presented challenges, in particular with the logistics of funding and manufacturing, but production has picked up. Primarily a direct-to-consumer model, the Iten is available online. About 70 percent of customers are in the US, 28 percent in Kenya, and the rest around the world.

Enda is working on two new styles to compliment the Iten, a high-mileage trainer and a lifestyle running shoe “specifically made for the Kenyan market to ensure that ordinary Wananchi (citizens) can afford, buy and wear our products,” Osembo says. “We are also progressively moving more of the shoe manufacturing process to Kenya, e.g. the strobel stitching. This improves our social impact outcome of job creation as the more of the shoemaking process that’s done in Kenya, the more job opportunities are created.”