Like most people in the world, I wear shoes when I have to. Are my shoes made in Africa? Are yours? Did you ever ask yourself why not?
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu wanted to show it’s possible for Africans to prosper, not through donor projects, but by creating a globally-acclaimed brand. And that’s EXACTLY what she did when she founded soleRebels in 2005 in Total/Zenabwork (a slum area of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia).
A 100% African product – financing, design, materials, and workforce – soleRebels is now one of the fastest growing footwear brands on the planet!
Footwear is a $190 billion world market, dominated mostly by North Asia, in particular China, with 70-80% of the market. Highest growth is in emerging markets where more and more people can now afford to buy shoes.
High growth means high opportunity! Find it! What do people want or need, even at the worst of times?
With a start-up team of five artisans, soleRebels launched from a workshop on her grandmother’s plot of land. From the beginning, Alemu wanted to grow and CONTROL a world-class footwear brand showcasing Ethiopian artisan talent, “green-by-heritage” designs and sustainable materials – including organic cotton and recycled tires.
How did it start? As a child, Alemu noticed many Ethiopians wore shoes made of old tires. This wasn’t to “think green,” but because of scarcity:
___“When you have limited resources, everything is valued.”
Alemu says she was motivated to start her company to help her community, knowing her jobless neighbours and family could do great things. She was also disturbed when media seemed only to show Africans as helpless victims that needed international aid to survive.
What did Alemu, a mother of three, do differently that set soleRebels on the path to greatness?
# She saw poverty in her own community, and also recognized local talents and resources could help solve it;
# She imagined a world-class product line based on local traditions, materials, skills and trash handcrafted together into an export product;
# She identified a global market niche where her eco-friendly footwear brand could fit perfectly;
# She created hundreds of well-paying Ethiopian jobs, as well as stand-alone businesses globally;
# She aimed high. She designed soleRebels’ products to be the best of the best in the world. She didn’t want a single customer to buy simply as an act of charity or sympathy.
___Now 34, Alemu has a growing list of accolades — Credit Suisse’s top 50 “Movers and Shakers” of Africa; Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year; Forbes’ World’s 100 Most Powerful Woman to Watch and CNN’s Top 12 Women Entrepreneurs of the Last Century. The list is long.
soleRebels’ products are sold in 40+ countries and via e-commerce platforms such as Amazon.com and their very own www.solerebels.com. With huge global market expansion in progress, soleRebels will soon be housed in a new a “state-of-the-arts” production facility employing more and more Ethiopians of her community!
Clearly, the world is at her feet! Well done, M’am!
By: Strive Masiyiwa