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African Sneaker Brands Go Global

Big hitters and scrappy start-ups in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa are vying for a share of the $152 billion global sneaker market.
Kenyan performance running label Enda has become a leader in the 'made in Africa' footwear market.
Kenyan performance running label Enda has become a standout player in the 'made in Africa' footwear market. (Enda)

Key insights

  • Entrepreneurs across sub-Saharan Africa are moulding sneaker culture into local businesses as the influence of the region’s burgeoning streetwear scene grows.
  • Weak supply chain infrastructure and other local challenges make intracontinental manufacturing and distribution disproportionately costly.
  • Some African footwear brands manufacture in Asia or prioritise overseas markets like the US and Europe before returning to scale in their home markets.

A new generation of sneaker entrepreneurs is making waves across Africa.

From Nairobi to Dakar, brand founders are following in the footsteps of pioneers like Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, an Ethiopian businesswoman who first made the global footwear industry wake up to the potential of locally made shoes.

Originally inspired by traditional rubber-soled selate and barabasso shoes, Alemu struck gold in the noughties, producing her brand of sneakers, slip-ons and boots called SoleRebels, handmade by local craftspeople using mostly recycled materials. Within ten years, she had expanded from a small shop in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to a network of her own mono-brand stores across Europe and Asia, supporting exports to 45 countries.

“It took me a decade to employ 400 people, but it shouldn’t have taken that long — and it wouldn’t have either if I’d had access to the right partners,” Alemu told BoF in 2012, shortly after launching her next initiative, Made by Ethiopia, an organisation that brokers deals between Ethiopian footwear factories and international brands.


Around that time, sneakerheads across East Africa became aware of Ethiopia’s growing manufacturing prowess. Among them were four high school friends in Kenya who realised their dream of creating an upmarket African sneaker brand by tapping partners in Addis Ababa to produce under the banner Enzi Footwear.

Since then, other African sneaker brands have made headway too, such as Kenya’s performance running specialist Enda and South African powerhouse Bathu Sneakers. The latest chapter in the continent-wide story centres around fashion-forward start-ups like Ice, a Cameroonian sneaker brand, and Nio Far from Senegal, who have both gained popularity in their home markets after catching the eye of local tastemakers and global celebrities.

Some of these brands were able to expand to the US and Europe thanks to a combination of resourceful workarounds to local market challenges, the support of diasporic consumers worldwide and savvy tweaks to the global sneaker brand playbook. Clearly, the made-in-Africa sneaker industry — or at least the designed-in-Africa industry — is on an upward trajectory. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious barriers to overcome.

Marketing local brands in countries with a sneaker culture that has long been shaped by the overwhelmingly dominant position of global megabrands is proving to be an uphill struggle for some founders.

A David-and-Goliath Market

While the rate of sneaker sales in North America and Europe is in decline as consumers pivot to other styles, sneaker-mania is only just beginning to take off across Africa. Global brands have recognised that while the African footwear market is small compared to other regions, it has high-growth potential. Most of the big players have already put down roots and are looking to expand.

Nike launched its first store in West Africa last August, adding a store in Lagos’ Ikeja City Mall to its existing retail footprint across the continent in Kenya and South Africa. Adidas’s new Johannesburg store opened to much fanfare in 2021 thanks to eye-catching interiors that were inspired by the South African city. Puma is also expanding in the region, making use of its global ambassador, Nigerian Afrobeats star Davido.

Local brands certainly can’t compete with marketing and retail budgets on this scale, but some are now slowly entering the mainstream, buoyed by Africa’s booming streetwear ecosystem, epitomised by businesses like Ghana’s Free The Youth and streetwear festivals in Nigeria like Streek Souk and Homecoming, as well as South Africa’s Sneaker Exchange, regarded as the continent’s largest sneaker trade show, founded by Capetonian Zaid Osman.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, consumers are [traditionally] more conversant with leather footwear, so you see more sandals and slippers compared to sneakers,” said Rhoda Aguonigho, a Lagos-based fashion business consultant and founder of Lhaude Africa consultancy. “But the sneaker market is now being boosted by the young, vibrant streetwear community growing out of cities across the continent.”


Global brands are finding creative ways of tapping into the growing demand for sneakers from African consumers. Last year, Fila pair collaborated with the popular South African brand Drip Footwear on a co-designed capsule collection.

The Investment Conundrum

International investors — already wary of parting with their cash in a global economy with an increasingly pessimistic outlook — are hesitant to back promising brands because of the complexities of doing business in the region, experts suggest.

“While investors are interested in tapping into the size and potential of the African footwear market, there’s a major trust issue,” Aguonigho said. “There are the infrastructure problems, [and] supply chain issues that need to be addressed.”

Operating a start-up can be challenging across much of the continent. According to the latest 2019 edition of the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking, most African countries score poorly. The vast majority fall in the bottom half of the global ranking that measures everything from getting reliable electricity and enforcing contracts to the efficiency of tax regimes and cross-border trade regulations.

Yet some brands have managed to attract investors from both near and far.

Enda, the Nairobi-based running shoes brand founded by Navalayo Osembo in 2016, is one. In addition to raising $350,000 in 2019 from investors, including Mizizi Capital and Umoja Rubber Products, a Kenyan footwear manufacturing major, Enda raised a further $1.1 million in 2021 to meet unprecedented demand. In 2020, sales of the brand’s sleek $80 running shoes — each adorned with the recognisable Enda ‘spear’ logo borrowed from the Kenyan flag — grew 323 percent year-on-year as sporting goods businesses worldwide benefitted from the pandemic-era fitness and wellness boom.

An image from Enda's crowdfunding campaign for its "Lapatet" road running footwear line.
An image from Enda's crowdfunding campaign for its "Lapatet" road running footwear line. (Enda)

The brand — which has been endorsed by celebrities such as Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o and is stocked alongside international names like On and Adidas at retailers like the speciality running store Runners Point in Nairobi — had also recently secured Christopher Williams, a former Nike, Adidas and VF Corp executive, as an investor and chair of its board of directors, to boost its international ambitions.

But the last two years saw Enda run into difficulties with production, sourcing and distribution that ate into the company’s bottom line. Some of these issues were universal, such as the global supply chain crisis which disrupted stock deliveries and resulted in soaring unsold inventories for sneakers everywhere including megabrands Nike and Adidas.


“We were experiencing significant delay challenges which of course had an impact on sales because we didn’t necessarily have the products arrive on time,” said Osembo.

Other challenges she faced, however, arose from localised issues shared by entrepreneurs across the African continent.

Navigating Operational Complexities

Political and economic instability across many African markets makes basic tasks like securing permits and registering intellectual property unpredictable for most business leaders.

For footwear start-ups, universal challenges such as expensive prototyping processes are often amplified on the continent. So too are global headwinds like inflation. At the same time, logistical disruptions make distribution and order fulfilment disproportionately time-consuming and costly.

Enda does all its production in Kenya. But designing prototypes in the country, sourcing materials from China to be shipped back for manufacturing in Kenya, then to be despatched across the continent and the rest of the world to fulfil orders, is a logistical nightmare even for a founder like Osembo, a former lawyer and consultant.

“It was just not working for us and we were exposed to certain risks that made us realise: if we’re building a global brand, we need to also take advantage of the global supply chain as our competitors do,” said Osembo, revealing that she is now looking to shift the bulk of production to China or Vietnam within the next two years, while retaining some manufacturing presence in her home country.

Countries like Ethiopia and Kenya were once tipped to become global sourcing and manufacturing hubs as western fashion and footwear companies looked to reduce their reliance on China-centric supply chains or nearshore from other Asian markets. In particular, Ethiopia attracted significant investment before it was hit by civil conflict in the form of the Tigray War. But even when you put the renewed instability of the region to one side, other longstanding risks and barriers mean it is often far easier and cheaper for African brands to manufacture in Asia.

“It’s hard because what makes African footwear African is that it’s produced here, based off the workers and consumers being empowered — but that comes at a huge cost to business owners,” said Annie Oti, a lawyer and founder of The Africa Fashion Law consultancy. “This is why we see so many of our African brands shifting production to Asia once they reach scale, after trying it at home.”

While a sizable brand like Enda is sufficiently capitalised to pursue this path, most smaller start-ups are not. So when neither Asian nor domestic manufacturing partners are a viable option, the next logical step is to try to create a supply chain cluster in neighbouring countries.

But that can be prohibitively expensive in Africa.

Pathways to International Growth

“A major challenge we face is shipping from one country to the other within Africa — the cost of shipping is almost as costly or sometimes even more costly than the sneakers itself,” said Ayissi William, a 24-year-old designer from Cameroon who launched his brand, Ice, last year after the initial release was scuppered by the onset of Covid-19.

The "orange" and "oxblood" colourways of Ayissi William's Cameroonian sneaker start-up, Ice.
The "orange" and "oxblood" colourways of Ayissi William's Cameroonian sneaker start-up, Ice. (Courtesy)

Intercontinental shipping from Africa to Asia or Africa to Europe can be considerably cheaper and faster than shipping to other countries within the African continent due to insufficient internal infrastructure like reliable roads, rail networks and transport vehicles.

William’s shoes are currently produced by a factory in East Asia. “The sneaker prototypes are designed by me in Cameroon and then sent to be manufactured abroad,” William said, adding that another reason for the set-up was “because Cameroon lacks the necessary equipment and materials to manufacture premium sneakers like this.”

For now, William is content with his nascent brand’s growth in Cameroon, where word is spreading rapidly and sales of its basketball-style high-top sneakers are picking up across a network of retail partners including local e-commerce platform Glothello.

But as far as distribution to other African markets is concerned, “we are yet to get a convenient shipping solution,” William told BoF.

No wonder many African brands look beyond the continent to North America or Europe as soon as they have established themselves in their home market – especially when African diaspora communities can help them gain a foothold there. Not only are these communities valuable markets in their own right, but they also serve as a springboard to reach a much wider consumer base in each region.

Today, Kenya accounts for just five percent of Enda’s sales, while the US accounts for 85 percent and Europe makes up the remainder of the brand’s business, said Osembo.

Going international from day one — a strategy that helped launch niche sneaker labels like Canadian running shoe company Norda — is a tactic that is also serving sneaker businesses in sub-Saharan Africa.

Milcos Badji is a good example. The founder of Dakar-based footwear brand, Nio Far, quickly gained a name for himself after launching in 2014, both at home and abroad, thanks to his vibrant sneakers, hand-crafted from bogolan, a traditional Malian fabric also known as mudcloth, typically dyed with fermented mud.

Milcos Badji's Senegalese sneaker start-up Nio Far has benefitted from a range of organic celebrity endorsements.
Milcos Badji's Senegalese sneaker start-up Nio Far has benefitted from a range of organic celebrity endorsements. (Nio Far)

Though he sells at New York concept store Marche Rue Dix, Badji makes the bulk of his international sales by taking his brand on the road, exhibiting at trade shows, art conventions and self-organised pop-ups. In the last year, the brand has hosted such events in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and Lagos, and Badji will also present his work in Geneva and Brussels in the coming months.

Badji plans to reinvest the international sales revenues back in his domestic business, where many Senegalese either can’t access his products or are currently priced out by price points that range from €250 ($272) to €500 per pair. A more accessibly priced line will be introduced and the brand’s first flagship store in Dakar will open in early 2024, he said.

Savvy Brand Building

When it comes to product development and marketing, African sneaker brand entrepreneurs have had to be extra resourceful to capture even a tiny share of the $152 billion global sports footwear market.

For Enda, this meant making use of crowdfunding to cover the research and development costs for two of the three sneaker lines it has released to date. “This gave us the benefit of advanced capital and also is a great way to get customers lined up and excited in anticipation of the product launch,” Osembo said.

Enda’s marketing promotes the fact that the brand is tried and tested in the home of international long-distance running champions and the brand’s products have benefitted from Osembo’s proximity and ongoing relationship with elite Kenyan athletes. These associations are especially valuable because the brand is often priced out of high-profile athlete endorsements by the likes of Nike, Adidas and Puma, “which the global sportswear brand playbook has made a very expensive proposition,” said Christopher Williams.

In Senegal, Badji has also saved a lot in marketing through a range of organic celebrity endorsements. After a chance meeting with Alicia Keys and Swizz Beats, the American musicians bought pairs of his eye-catching Nio Far sneakers. Word quickly spread, leading to the brand having an outsized and diverse celebrity consumer base which now includes Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, NBA stars Chris Bosh and Luol Deng, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, American activist and actor Kendrick Sampson and French footballing legend Djibril Cissé.

A similar playbook is being adopted by sneaker start-ups to gain cultural cachet and drive interest back in their home markets. Ayissi William’s Ice has secured endorsements from local celebrities like Cameroonian rapper Mic Monsta. For Ice’s next collection, the pair are working on a co-designed capsule collection to capitalise on the buzz.

Room for Start-Ups to Scale

The business potential of homegrown African sneaker brands is slowly being recognised by international distribution partners.

Salubata, a fast-growing Nigerian start-up making chunky, fashion-forward plimsole shoes from recycled plastic, which currently does the bulk of its sales in North America, recently agreed a deal with Amazon to distribute its products, which will enable the brand to increase distribution to 2,000 pairs per month this year.

Nigeria's Salubata is a set to ramp up distribution after signing a partnership with Amazon.
Nigeria's Salubata is a set to ramp up distribution after signing a partnership with Amazon. (Courtesy)

Founded by entrepreneurs Fela Buyi and Yewande Akinse, the company was accepted into the Los Angeles programme of pre-seed investor and company accelerator Techstars in March and is now targeting global expansion. It has sold over 6,000 pairs to-date via partnerships with companies such as digital wholesale marketplace Faire.

“We are currently raising a seed round which will allow us to increase manufacturing capacity, fund research and development and improve customer acquisition internationally and in Nigeria,” Buyi said.

The company’s bullish outlook is shared by other pioneering sneaker brand founders across sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom are aware of the market opportunity that awaits should their businesses reach scale. And some are motivated by more than just the bottom line.

“We believe [our African] product can go viral and cause a ripple effect across the whole continent,” Buyi added.

Further Reading

The Gatekeepers to Nigeria’s Fashion Market

Brands are partnering with Lagos-based talent to help them navigate the complexities of the country’s billion-dollar fashion market and create a ripple effect across the African continent.

Why Senegal Is on Global Fashion’s Radar

Dakar’s reputation as a regional fashion hub has persuaded brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss to expand to the capital of the West African nation as it upgrades its retail infrastructure.

About the author
Daniel-Yaw  Miller
Daniel-Yaw Miller

Daniel-Yaw Miller is Senior Editorial Associate at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers menswear, streetwear and sport.

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