A sole star

One of the workers that make up the raison d'être of soleRebels

Hammering away to a higher goal - the workers are the raison d'être of soleRebels

“Ethiopia has got a name in the outside world which is synonymous with aid, right? I wanted to show that rather than that, we can build something for ourselves.”

So says 31-year-old Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder of international shoe exporter soleRebels – a funky brand of shoe sold around the world that packs a big social and eco punch.

SoleRebels’ sandals, trainers and street shoes are certified fair-trade and 50 per cent recycled, with the soles made from recycled car tyres. But that’s just half the story.

What makes this Ethiopian company truly special is the fact it is firmly rooted in its community – a poor satellite village of Addis Ababa called Zenabwork famous, and stigmatised, locally for the high rate of leprosy which existed here years ago.

This is where Bethlehem grew up and where she still works. We are speaking in her small office in soleRebels small factory, which you only arrive at after driving out of town, off the highway, past goat herders, down a bumpy mud road. There is the pungent smell of glue wafting in through the work spaces and we are talking over the background noise of shoe hammers, sewing machines, radio and intermittent chatter.

Six-years-old, the company has moved premises three times as it has grown and grown again. Selling more and more shoes to well-known international retailers drives this young woman for the very simple reason 

that the more shoes she sells the more people she can employ.

Being employed by soleRebels is something special. Bethlehem pays three times the industry standard, provides health insurance and supports her workers – most of who have not been educated – to take up night school. At the beginning of the school year workers also get funding for their children’s school expenses such as uniforms and books.

Bethlehem at her cotton suppliers in Zenabwork

Bethlehem (pictured left) and her husband started the business to provide employment opportunities in an area where they were extremely limited and that drives them still. Most of the company’s 75 full-time employees are 

from the local area. Before working at soleRebels many would fill their days by making the long trek into town to Addis’s infamous Merkato area; possibly the largest market in sub-Saharan Africa, known for its begging and thieving.

 Bethlehem prefers to have people come to her rather than go scouting for employees in the community – if people come to her she knows they really want to turn their life around. Most who start working for soleRebels soon move out of Zenabwork and some have even started their own business – something which Bethlehem will also support her employees to do.

In fact, Bethlehem’s chief designer rather rashly says, with Bethlehem listening, that in five years time he would like to run his own business along the same lines as soleRebels.

Even with soleRebels blazing the way it’s sure to be difficult. Bethlehem is clearly a driven and determined 

woman. It took her a year and a half to get her first order (from Urban Outfitters in the United States) sending email after email and posting sample shoe after sample shoe. Despite the demands of three children – the youngest only eight months old – she says that she and her husband business partner are 

constantly thinking about soleRebels.

“And we usually end the day with an argument,” she laughs.

As well as being a driven entrepreneur, the soleRebels brand of business requires the unusual ability to give much of what you gain away – even though you yourself are starting from a low base. Perhaps Bethlehem is able to do this because she does not claim her success as solely her own but instead points to the inspiration she gained from the skills and ingenuity which already existed in the community.

 “Actually this kind of (recycled tyre) shoe has been in Ethiopia for the last 40-45 years because people can’t afford to buy new shoes – it’s known as berabaso or salateh,” she says.

Bethlehem was also inspired by the traditional weaving that takes place in the community and she tries as much as possible to support the local industries already in existence, employing 200 people part-time through her supply chain.

She introduces me to Birke Nigtu, an old woman with leprosy-ravaged hands who is part trainer, part manager and very under-skilled marketing coordinator for the Ex-Leprosy Patient Women Work Group – one of soleRebels local suppliers.

Working on old looms they provide raw cotton and also skilled embroidery work: their main stock and trade is tablecloths and cushion covers and their main client the Evangelical church. Perhaps inspired by soleRebels – which last year turned over US $600,000, finding its biggest markets in the US and Japan – Birke is acutely aware of the fact that she needs a more aggressive marketing strategy. In fact, she needs a marketing manager.

Recently, Bethlehem was visited by one of her Australian Fairtrade retailers. She brought him to see the Ex-Leprosy Patient Women Work Group’s work. He was so impressed that he put in an order for 120 cushion covers.

Birke proudly tells me: “We were given a month to complete the order but we did it in two weeks.”

Partly this speaks of the women’s skill but it also speaks of the many idle hands desperate for work. Birke has more employees in the association than she has orders so many ‘employees’ remain unpaid.

Birke has been a constant part of Bethlehem’s life since she was a little girl and ‘skilled women without work’ has been a motif of Bethlehem’s life since childhood.

She was relatively lucky in that both her parents had work, her dad as an electrician, her mum as a cook. They both worked at the local hospital and the hospital grounds became something of an oasis for Bethlehem. The hospital hosted an embroidery work-group.

“Even though they were working hard and making beautiful things no one was buying from them so they went to begging,” says Bethlehem.

This is obviously one experience that still drives her. The other was watching aid organisations come and go to and from Zenabwork while the poverty stayed the same. Now, thanks to soleRebels’ fame, journalists are as likely to come and go from Zenabwork as aid workers.

Among other honours, Bethlehem was this year named a World Economic Forum young global leader. She is very excited about the fact that in September she will be speaking on a panel discussion in China – local girl made good indeed.

Not that all her challenges are over. Even as we speak the lights go off in the factory – unreliable electricity supply is one of the challenges of working in less developed areas of Ethiopia. Not long ago soleRebels lost two full working days a week to electricity stoppages but two years ago Bethlehem gained special support from the government and now she is assured that someone will come to restore power within two hours.

In other local challenges soleRebels waited for years to try to find an Ethiopian platform for internet sales but e-commerce is still fledgling to non-existent in Ethiopia. This year it bit the bullet and soleRebels redesigned its website with a Canadian platform for internet sales.

Further challenges are on the horizon. As an exporter the company was given a five-year tax holiday by the government – that tax holiday is due to come to an end and, anyway you look at it, the transition is sure to be difficult.

Also challenging is the fact that soleRebels is about to open its first retail store.

Bethlehem explains: “I wanted to break the outside market and then come back here.

“The mentality in Ethiopia is, if it is made in Ethiopia then nobody wants to buy the product, whereas if it is made in England, for example, than they really want it.

“If I opened a store before I got my name from the outside world nobody was going to be interested.”

Standing in the posh shopping centre in the nice Addis area of Sarbet, outside the still-to-be-fitted-out store which will act as a showcase for soleRebels, Bethlehem says: “I think Ethiopians will be proud of what they see.”

I think so too.

soleRebels – www.solerebelsfootwear.co

Ex-Leprosy Patient Women Work Group ph: 259-011-321-4907