Ethiopia: Heart and Sole



Bethlehem Tilahun

By Matthew Newsome

Ethiopia’s Bethlehem Alemu is making great strides in creating employment and developing artisanal skills with her footwear brand soleRebels

The flagship soleRebels store in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is a hipster shoe haven. A lilting reggae soundtrack pervades the air. The wooden décor is splashed with Ethiopia’s warm national colours: green, red and yellow. Hundreds of funky shoe designs, their price tags ranging from $40 to $100, festoon the shelves.

In its midst sits Bethlehem Alemu, 34, the company’s founder and owner, sipping Ethiopian black coffee and boasting breathlessly about the fast rise of her foot-wear empire. “Our business model centres on eco-sensibility and community empowerment,” she explains with self-confidence. “Our model maximises local development by creating a vibrant local supply chain while creating world-class footwear.”

Ms Bethlehem launched soleRebels with only five employees in 2005. She now employs more than 200 people who make shoes from Abyssinian hemp, organic cotton and recycled car tyres. These shoes, a combination of Ethiopian heritage crafts and modern design, are exported to 55 countries and sold in more than 65 stores. Ethiopia’s 20th century anti-colonial fighters, who wore sandals with rubber-tyre soles, inspired the shoes’ design and name.

Today, in addition to the flagship store in Ethiopia, 13 stand-alone soleRebels stores are selling shoes in five countries: Canada, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan. Last year’s company sales reached $2 million. Ms Bethlehem says she is expecting $5 million in store sales this year as well as more than $6 million in online sales over the next 18-36 months.

Read more at: Good Governance Africa