MEET: Emo Rugene & Nyala the afrosneaker

Emo Rugene sometimes makes more noise and sometimes less. But you can be sure of one thing – there is always something interesting going on around him. This entrepreneur, designer, actor and then some, has many many ideas and a mindset that makes him turn them into reality. His latest project is a real dream project for many. Emo has spent over a year developing a sneaker that has just been launched with a Kickstarter campaign. The sneaker, Nyala, is designed in Nairobi and Berlin and hand-made in Addis Ababa, the leather manufacture centre of Africa. The shoe is absolutely gorgeous, Emo has a love for detail and perfection that would not allow for anything else. But there is also a lot of interesting stuff with this project, from collaborations to launch strategy. So we found Emo somewhere between his workshop in Nairobi and his second home Berlin to get more insight into this super-inspiring project. We also asked one of the creative partners, Musa Omusi for some thoughts. Hope you enjoy this interview and please share the Nyala story so we can make the afrosneaker fly!

The three Nyalas, shoe bags and artwork. Photo by Mutua Matheka.

The three Nyalas, shoe bags and artwork. Photo by Mutua Matheka

Emo in one of Nyala's three cities, Berlin.  Image from the Nyala film that can be seen on the Kickstarter page.

Emo in one of Nyala’s three cities, Berlin. Image from the Nyala film that can be seen on the Kickstarter page.

Hi Emo. So, tell us abbout this new exciting project of yours? What’s going on?
ER: Our new project is a sleek minimalistic shoe designed between Berlin and Nairobi and produced in Ethiopia. We have been working on it for over a year hence our silence, because it was an intricate and very focused time for us. The final result is the Nyala collection. Hope it was worth the wait.

Why a sneaker and not some other type of shoe?
ER: I decided on a sneaker because I wanted to make something people can wear everyday as they go about all their business. A shoe that is a mix between work and play in that you can be up and down all day and still meet friends with this pair of shoes and do not feel underdressed or fatigued.

How long has this process taken?
ER: It is a process that has taken over one year to produce but in all totality I can say that it is a journey that has been on going since 2012 when Afros began. We are here at this point because of the effort we have put in from the first day the first pair of Afros was created.

One of three Nyala colors. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

One of three Nyala colors. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

You call Nyala an intercity sneaker – what do you mean?
ER: We call it that because of the three different cities that the shoe has taken us to. Nairobi, where I was brought up, Berlin, part of my inspiration for the shoes came from here – and my adopted city, Addis Ababa, where the shoes have been made. The sneaker is inspired by the architecture of Berlin’s massive buildings, long visual axes, high ceilings and beauty that is inconspicuous and also influenced by the vibrancy and eclectic nature of Nairobi. About the name, Nyala is an Amharic word meaning gazelle. The name is our way of paying tribute to the beauty, elegance and agility of this animal, which was a central part of the design process.

You’re a person who Is very conscious of details so we can imagine the aesthetics of the shoe were very important for you. Tell us more about the result of the long design process.
ER: The collection is unisex and available in three colors: Giza (darkness – black), Mbingu (sky – blue) and Ardhi (land – brown). The shoes are designed on an ankle high silhouette with a rounded toe box and completed by a flexible rubber outsole to give the shoe the comfort and stability of an everyday shoe.

Each piece in the collection represents an element in the savanna and this is why every piece has a different upper and outsole color combination. The uppers are made of sheep leather that is light and durable, and on the inside of every shoe the tongue is lined by textile sourced from Kenya to give the shoes an authentic feel. Another important details Is that the shoes do not come in shoeboxes but in customized unique shoe bags that are hand-made by a community-based organization in Nairobi called the Seed of hope.

Getting a pair of Nyala sneakers means that you literally wear a hand-made piece of work that has passed through three capital cities. This why we refer to them as the intercity sneakers and we hope they will again go round the world with our customers.

Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

Do you have an inner idea of ”the typical Nyala person”?
ER: Nyala, like all my shoes are designed for anyone. We want our story and craftsmanship to speak for itself and if a person is willing to embrace it then we have succeeded in doing that.

You have made very conscious choices with the materials and manufacture; tell us a bit more about that?
ER: With the Nyala we have outsourced production from our workspace because we do not have the quality workmanship and the production capacity to cater for this shoe. With that said, we looked for partners who we feel resonated with our ethos and vision. For production of the shoes we went to Addis Ababa and after a thorough search we were able to find a company with over 20 years experience in export and they were willing to work with us. We are also making shoe bags as accompaniments to the shoes and these we do in Kenya in collaboration with an organization called Seed of Hope which supports disadvantaged youth and gives them vocational skills to better their situation.

Nyalas in the making in Addis Ababa.

Nyalas in the making in Addis Ababa.


Nyalas in the making in Addis Ababa.


The Nyala launch features collaborations with some other very awesome Kenyan creatives. Why did you choose them?
ER: Yes, for the sneaker launch we made it a creative collaborative affair so to say. We launched the sneaker via Kickstarter where people can crowd fund and in the process get to own one of the very first pairs of our sneakers. For this to be successful I asked for the help of some selected Kenyan creative. We worked with Sarah Waiswa (@lafrohemien) who is a contemporary photographer with the knack to tell the African story, Musa Omusi a talented visual artist who I was a fan of from his methali series and Mutua Matheka the visual artist extraordinaire who I dearly look up to. I also worked with Dru Mungai a gifted cinematographer and one of the best in Kenya who helped document my story. And last but not least, the amazing editor Roselidah Taabu who had to spend countless hours with me in the edit suite listening to my jokes and not tolerating my version of the video. Wait, I can’t forget to mention Sean Peevers who did the music for the Kickstarter video. I will forever be in debt to these talented individuals.

Thoughts from the team… Musa Omusi shares his thoughts on the Nyala project.

“I believe that collaboration is the glue to the workings of life. Through multiple interactions I have had this year in creating, contemplating or dissecting ideas I have found this notion to be true. With the Afros collaboration, I met a fellow craftsman with whom I had never interacted with before despite having so many friends in common. We were able to connect and immediately found that we share certain ideals and understandings that guide our respective crafts.  Sneakers are my favourite fashion item/accessory and most of my early drawings were of sneaker profiles (Grant Hill Fila’s, The Puma Suede, Bata Northstars …) in biro an fluorescent yellow. So the artwork created references this with a free hand and a fluid flow. The opportunity to create with a brand that had made a bold step in its product offering of a functional African inspired sneaker boot – Nyala was a blessing.”

Nyala art by Musa Omusi.

Nyala art by Musa Omusi.

Your entrepreneurship is characterized by a continuous social perspective. In this project you have collaborated with Seed of Hope for example. Tell us about that?
ER: If we have the chance to help others, why not do it? I do believe that a person is judged by their actions and as you can see as afroshoes we are taking the right actions to satisfy both the consumer and also to support the community around us. We do not believe in profit at the expense of humanity.

What has been the best part of the project so far?
ER: I really cannot say I have a best part because every experience has been a highlight. From getting the right partner, seeing the first sample, getting the bags, seeing the video, launching on Kickstarter. It has all been so surreal.

Emo recording the Nyala story for the film that is part of the Kickstarter campaign.

Emo recording the Nyala story for the film that is part of the Kickstarter campaign.

What has been the most challenging part of the project so far?
ER: Staying positive and keeping the cause. Entrepreneurship is said to be a lonely journey and this project has really emphasized that. I’m coming from a community where people tend to do things together, so embarking on the project alone has been quite challenging to say the least. But luckily I got people on board here and there, so we are a growing family.

Nyala's backers come from all over the world. Emo has promised world-wide delivery.

Nyala’s backers come from all over the world. Emo has promised world-wide delivery.

Kickstarter has developed into a really powerful platform for creatives and entrepreneurs. Based on your experience so far, what is the best advice you can give to someone thinking about doing a Kickstarter?
ER: If you want it do it, but know that it is work. You have to work to get to your goal beacuse in this world nothing comes easy and it’s the work you put in that determines your outcome.

The Kickstarter campaign.

The Kickstarter campaign.

What will you do when the Kickstarter is over?
ER: My first instinct is to say sleep (because its 3 am as I answer these questions) but I know this is not possible because to be successful I will first work on shipping and distribution of the shoes to all our supporters. Entrepreneurship is never over.

Does this mean you no longer make the Afroshoes ballerinas and loafers that people love so much?
ER: Our classic afros will forever be our core shoes because it is these shoes that we are identified with. At the moment we are in the process of developing new soles that will guarantee better comfort and durability so the shoes will be better than ever. To date the best selling pieces have been the Classic Afros, which are ballerinas and slippers. The Hessian collection has also done well over time because of the innovative approach of using Gunia (recycled sacks) to make shoes.

Examples of some of the classic Afroshoes models that have become global darlings.

Examples of some of the classic Afroshoes models that have become global darlings.


Since the start of Afroshoes, or Afros as they are commonly referred to, in 2012 the brand has grown to spread into other markets hence not making it not only a Kenyan brand but a global brand. It’s been an amazing journey. Now with the launch of Nyala collection Afroshoes aims to firmly assert itself as brand that can stand its ground in the global market.

Thank you so much Emo and Musa for taking time to share more of the story and thoughts that make the Nyala sneaker such a powerful and interesting launch. To get your own Nyalas please go to Afroshoes’ Kickstarter page. And please share!



Photo by Mutua Matheka.



One thought on “MEET: Emo Rugene & Nyala the afrosneaker

  1. 30 June, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    Good interview. Congratulations Emo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *