When Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu founded soleRebels in Ethiopia, her goal was to do more than create shoes from recycled car tires – she wanted to create hope for her community.
Alemu, 32, started the company in 2004 as a means to bring jobs to her village, Zenabwork, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — a place where there were no jobs, she said. She started with five employees. Now she has 120.
“We selected shoes because we saw that footwear was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous, eco-sensible craft heritages and artisan talents that we have here in Ethiopia with the world,” Alemu said in an interview with AfkInsider. “Most of the work that we do is by hand, so we don’t require a lot of machinery. And we make almost all our materials locally, thereby creating an export product from 100 percent local inputs.”
Today, thanks to online marketing, soleRebels sells sandals, slippers, sneakers and boots in a wide variety of sizes, colors, and styles to customers in countries including the U.S., Japan, Canada, the U.K., Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Portugal, Germany, Taiwan, Singapore and India.
“We do have flagship stores, though, in Taiwan, Japan, and Austria,” Alemu said. “And we’re about to open another one in London.”
Continuing an age-old Ethiopian tradition, the company collects and sorts tires. These are then hand-cut into soles, ensuring a reliable fit and durable wear, with homespun cotton fabric — an ancient skill used in a modern way.
“So a great indigenous recycling tradition endures,” Alemu said. “And best of all, something that might otherwise go to waste now enjoys a dynamic, new and useful purpose while keeping our landfills less clogged and saving carbon dioxide from being emitted when landfill-bound tires are burned.”
In addition to coming up with a stylish and sustainable product, Alemu found a way to create good-paying jobs for her neighbors.
“Our wages on average are over 233 percent higher than the industry average,” she said. “What that means is that our average workers earn a full four-to-five times the legal minimum wage and over three times the industry average. Many workers earn much more. We do that by empowering our own people, giving them a chance to come work here.”
The company also gives back to its workers in the form of medical coverage, transportation for those with disabilities, and an artisan education fund, which allocates financial assets to the schooling of employees’ children.
Alemu said she believes that consumer brands are the future for developing African countries, and if the trend continues, growth of companies like hers can be exponential — once a supply chain is established and infrastructure is improved. For that to happen, she said, the government needs to get more involved.
“We are competitive with other brands,” Alemu said. “We managed to create a brand inside Africa, and ‘Made in Africa’ has become a strong brand. We can make something from nothing. We set the bar high, to be the Nike of Africa. But to be there, I need some support from the government and policymakers.”