“Cruise the beach, the bar, the broad walk, or the board room in these babies and you will know what it means to say ahhhhh (which is your foot talk of I am in Heaven).” That is an excerpt from one of SoleRebels’ product advert describing what you feel when you put your feet into one of Africa’s international fore-runner footwear.
When Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu began the production of SoleRebels, in 2005, as a means of creating jobs for the people in her community, there is a possibility that she did not know the little native community project would become an international brand. Bethlehem took a look at her squalor and impoverished community in Zenabwork, a small village in the outskirt of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and was inspired to turn the unexploited artisan skill of the community to a worldwide eco-sensible product.
After she resigned from her job as an Accountant at the age of thirty, Bethlehem launched the first indigenous hand crafted African international footwear, SoleRebels, into the market with borrowed capital (580,000 BR) from her husband and some immediate members of her family. With the over-arching business name – BOSTEX Plc – which means- ‘By Ourselves Textile’- Bethlehem started a new chapter of life at SoleRebels alongside her husband Worku Beyi and her brother –Kirubel.
While SoleRebels remain the company’s core brand, with other focus on footwear, accessories and apparels; the company has grown into a world class brand and hailed as the Africa’s answer to brands like Nike, Reebok and Addidas.
Narrating her experience in a newsletter published on her website, Bethlehem said, “having grown up watching our families and neighbors struggling, we decided to create the ‘better life’ we were all waiting for by harnessing our community’s incredible artisan skills and channeling them into a sustainable, global, fair trade footwear business.”
SoleRebels is a re-invention of the renowned Selate and Barabasso shoe worn by the then Ethiopian rebels who opposed vehemently to the colonialisation of their country by the West. Bethlehem actually got the inspiration of the product name from this experience. SoleRebels is a hand-crafted eco-sensible footwear made from recycled weather-beaten car tires with series of recycled and sustainable ingredient like handspun organic cotton, hand loomed organic fabrics and a palette unique natural fibers including pure organic Abyssinian jutes and pure Abyssinian koba plants to make it internationally appealing. This makes the footwear 100 percent locally made.
What really made SoleRebels an eco-sensible product is that it is involves recycling of product with low carbon production as it is hand crafted. Bethlehem describes the production of SoleRebels as ‘combining the expertise of several traditional Ethiopian Artisan areas – from palm-spinning organic string to workman appearing fabrics and on to boots palm-crafting – we fuse these arts with unique innovative designs sensibilities, always delivering exciting creations. The result is what we call FushionFashion- the ultimate marriage between traditional cultural crafts and contemporary design.’
As a model for African Business excellence, with the success of being able to develop an international company from the scratch with no support from the government other than the credit to help meet up with the demands of the product, the company makes about 500 pair of sandals for export daily to different part of the world while abiding by its motto- ‘making the world a better place one step at a time.’
Since its establishment, SoleRebels has produced collection of sandals, flip flops and shoes with its renowned recycled tire soles- all of which are age-old tradition transformed into sophisticated globally worn footwear. What make SolesRebels special are authenticity, style and value.
Nevertheless, with innovation, creativity and hard work as the inspiration, Bethlehem’s SoleRebels has become a successful Fairtrade Certified global brand that has showcased Africa’s creativity to the world. She is globally recognized to have built a world-class brand from the scratch while empowering her community and country.
Her reason for going into the shoe-making business is simple– the talented and dignified lady said in an interview, ‘…footwear was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous eco-sensible craft heritage and artisan talents that we have here in Ethiopia with the world.’
However, apart from being able to empower members of her community through their indigenous artisan skill, Bethlehem has been able to use her knowledge as an Accountant and manager to launch her product internationally by maximizing the use of the internet as a global media to exalt a local community trade to an international business. Although SoleRebels is not wholly a new idea – being an indigenous craft in Ethiopia for generations, the product re-branding by Bethlehem into hip and fashionable footwear has spread SoleRebels tentacles to over thirty countries (including Canada, China, Taiwan, Spain, France, United Kingdom and the United States) as the world’s fastest growing African footwear. It can also be purchased online from e-commerce sites like Amazon, endless.com, sandalworld, javari.co.uk, urbanoutfitters, WholeFoods, spartoo.com and the company’s own e-commerce site with the price range of $20 to $100 – depending on where you are buying it from.
As the first green global footwear brand to emerge from a developing country and the first World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) Fairtrade Certified footwear company in the world, SoleRebels have had amazing turnovers with an annual revenue in million(s) of Dollars and the expectation to generate over $10 million by 2016.
For the secret of her success, Bethlehem told Fortunes Magazine, ‘… we have hard work and innovation going for us.’
Another factor attributed to her achievement in the business industry stand her out from her peer in her indigenous country is that while other manufacturers in Ethiopia are concentrating on winning the market competition with other nimble products from China, Bethlehem focused on the international market where she believes customers will pay good money for a uniquely designed product. Bringing SoleRebels directly to consumers worldwide is an integral part of SoleRebels revenue and brand growth strategy.
To help SoleRebel meet up with the competitive price in the international market, Bethlehem exports her product duty-free under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act. Bringing SoleRebels directly to consumers worldwide is an integral part of our revenue and brand growth strategy.
As a Fair Trade emissary, Bethlehem on behalf of SoleRebels controls the final sales price as she deals directly with retailers. Also, by virtue of being a Fair Trade Ambassador, Bethlehem abides by Fair trade healthy working conditions creed of gender equity, decent wages (wages are not subjected to quotas but on mutually agreed company goals), labour codes, health benefit packages and provision of transportation to and fro for workers with disabilities even if they are living at a walking distance. However, being a fair trade company sale price to the retailer is monitored and controlled in a way that there is no middleman milking profits by the side. This ensures maximum profit for the producer, the retailer and end user of the product.
Bethlehem who said she was inspired by the kind of sandal that rebels wore during the Ethiopia territory war with Eritrea in the 1990s explained that ‘when I was young and we were at war and rebels were wearing that kind of sandals with used tire soles were giving hope to people.’ Now, as the Director of more than one hundred and fifty full time and part-time staff company, she gives hope to her community as SoleRebel prides itself with paying more than the wages other companies might offer for similar work – over 233% higher than the industry average. This amounts to four or five times higher than the regular minimum wage in Ethiopia.
With her success in producing hand-crafted colourful and comfortable sandals, Bethlehem has also been able to expand and construct a solar-powered factory adjacent her old factory to ensure that the production of SoleRebels continue to be an environmental sensible craft.
Consequently, SoleRebels is pioneering energy effective packaging in the shoe business. The brand has never been packaged in the ‘regular’ shoebox but in an amazing hand-loomed Cinchsaks. This is cost-effective and original. It also helps cut down the use of fuel, water and electricity that would have been used to make shoeboxes and plastic retail bags used to transport boxes.
Entrenched in the footwear business for about seven years now, Bethlehem has been credited as the first Global Fair Trade Ambassador by the World Fair Trade Organization and the first female African Entrepreneur to address the Clinton Global Initiative as a speaker and panelist. She was also invited by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala to address the World Bank/LDC Trade enhancement policies formulation session in Istanbul; making it the first time a female African Entrepreneur was invited to assist in formulating global trade. SoleRebels is also the winner of the first Annual Green Award under the ‘Best Shoe category’ organized by Ecobold.
Her other accolades include being the Most Valuable Entrepreneur (MVE) during the Global Entrepreneurship week 2011, the Most Outstanding Business woman by the African Business Magazine- the youngest Ethiopia to ever win the award.
She was also listed as one of the youngest power women in Africa by Forbes and recently in the Africa’s Most Successful woman list by Forbes Magazine. And she was one of the five finalists at the 2011 Legatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship where she won $50,000.
‘I am elated on receiving this award. It is the recognition that SoleRebels is at the forefront of a new business paradigm on the continent, one where African driven businesses and brand are elevating Africa’s global competitiveness by winning in the global market place’, she said on receiving the Legatum Africa award.
Bethlehem have also been profiled on CNN in a 30 minutes special titled ‘Ethiopian footwear fashionista started a green revolution!’ and featured on BBC worldwide until Mid-2011 in ‘African Journey’ with Jonathan Dimbley. She has also being featured in international media like Guardian, Tidas and Fortunes.
Apart from this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has chosen Bethlehem as one of the 2012 New York Ventures fellow in recognition of her achievement as a global Ambassador to help entrepreneurs take their business to the next level.
One thing that have made SoleRebel’s proprietor stand out is that in spite of the limited role given to women in Africa coupled with marginalized segregation of the gender, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu have been able to stand tall as an inspiration and role model to the modern African woman. She has also been able to put her small community into the world map by her little but significant act of grace.
Although, Ethiopia, the second most populated African country with over 80 million people, it is still perceived globally as a needy country depending on aids from the international community as a result of the upshot of the war that left over 80,000 people dead. Bethlehem is helping to change that perception. From the small corner of her community in Zenabwork, she is uplifting people and returning hope to the hopeless.
Bethlehem believes that what Africa and Ethiopia really needs is more trade and not aid. She opines that if sub-Saharan Africa increases its share from the penny-pinching 2 per cent in the control of global trade, the continent will go a long way in establishing itself as a force to reckon with in the international market. As a result of this dilemma, she encourages her employees to create their own business from skills they have developed while working at SoleRebels.
Currently, apart from aspiring to be the next ‘Timberland’ or ‘Sketchers’ of Africa, Bethlehem is working with the World Economic Forum(WEF) as curator of the Forum’s newest venture, Global Shapers Community to provide young people in their 20s a global platform to shape the future by integrating the personal, community and global dimension. She has been chosen as one of the 2012 NYC ventures fellow to instruct upcoming young entrepreneurs. The NYC ventures leadership program to connect with upcoming entrepreneurs all over the world with mentors and role model from leading companies.
This activity is in line with Ethiopia plan to host the 2012 World Economic Forum Africa meeting. The program will enable Global Shapers Community collaborate with other forum of Young Global Leaders all over the world. The entire hub activities will be online at www.comechangeyourworld.com.
Her advice to budding entrepreneurs, “stop looking at consumers and start looking at them as what they are: people!”
Being a successful entrepreneur is not simply hard work. It is about having good fortune and also a great team beside you! These multiple factors have allowed me to take SoleRebels to the next level, she says.