ADDIS ABABA - Initially, her idea was to provide work for her family in her native village of Zenabework, about 30 kilometers from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
When she announced that she was going to start her own company on a plot of land lent by her grandmother, everyone said: You are crazy! You are a woman. Worse yet – an African! You have no chance of making it!
Bethlehem Alemu did not give up. Eight years later, her company has earned her international recognition and helped changed the image of Ethiopia. Using artisanal craftsmanship, soleRebels makes shoes that are cool and comfortable, but also good for the planet and certified Fair Trade.
SoleRebels only uses materials produced in Ethiopia: organic cotton, organic jute, koba plant fiber, leather and… used tires. The soles are made from recycled tires, just like the sandals worn by the Ethiopian rebels as they were fighting off the Italians in 1935. Hence the name – soleRebels.
For the rest, the shoes are modern, colorful and comfortable. And beautiful to look at. Case in point – their huge success in the UK, U.S. and Asia. Today, soleRebels is competing with the big brands on the international market.
Bethlehem Alemu has been amassing prizes and distinctions. She was voted a "Woman to Watch" as part of Forbes annual World's Most Powerful Women list. The most surprising thing when you meet the 32 years old entrepreneur is her will. Small, energetic and almost distant, except for when a smile suddenly illuminates her face, the young woman speaks fast, without elaborating. She has the natural reserve of the Ethiopians.
She decided to become an entrepreneur in 2004. Two years earlier, Ethiopian had started its economic takeoff. The GDP growth rate is around 11% – but it is relative since the country is starting from nothing, and its population is one of the poorest in the world. Bethlehem, who has a biblical name – Ethiopia is predominately Christian Orthodox – is the eldest of four children and the only girl.
She launched her company with four other people: her husband – “my most ardent supporter,” she says smiling, her younger brother Samuel, who was 16 at the time and two craftsmen. “My sister didn’t have the slightest idea about how to make shoes. I’d help her everyday after school,” recalls Samuel. Bethlehem says her first pair of shoes looked more like “miniature beds than shoes!”
The young woman learned quickly. She designed the models, decided what materials and colors to use, started recruiting people. She photographed the shoes, put them on line and started selling them on Amazon. Six months later, the first order arrived from the U.S. It was a retailer. “Seventy-five pairs at once! We were overwhelmed with joy. It was a party,” laughs Samuel.
Today, soleRebels has 300 employees. Some make the shoes – by hand from start to finish – in the small factory in Zenabework, while others produce the cotton or jute, weave it, or recycle tires. They are all paid three or four times the average wage in Ethiopia ($40), and benefit, along with their families, from medical coverage. “We sometimes hire people that have never had a job. They earn a good living, but mostly, they learn the meaning of the word hope,” says Alemu.
Over the years, the soleRebels collection has grown. After sandals, the company launched sneakers, moccasins, ballet slippers. “Our goal is not to increase the number of clients but to keep them for life!” explains Samuel.
Parallel to its online sales, Alemu has opened stores all over the world. Besides the flagship store in Addis Ababa, she opened three shops in Taiwan and one in Switzerland. In April, she will open a new one in Singapore. Regarding its turnover, the young woman is very discrete, but she hopes to exceed $10 million per year by 2016. Half of the sales are made in Asia. The Ethiopian market itself, does not account for more than 10%.
Projects? Alemu has plenty. Her goal is to have “the best shoe brand in the world in the next five to seven years” and in May she will launch a clothing brand called Alemu. She has already designed and commissioned a series of dresses, shirts, hats and handbags that she is very proud of.
Still, there are many obstacles, one of them being, “competition, which is not always fair,” she says. The allusion, no doubt, is to Huajian, one of the largest Chinese shoe manufacturers, which just opened a factory in Ethiopia. Attracted by the low cost of Ethiopian labor (four times lower than in China) and the abundance of raw material (leather), the shoe giant relocated one of its factories in Durkem, about 20 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. Everyday, 2500 shoes are produced in this factory, before being exported to the U.S. and Europe.
To ward off the competition, Alemu has opted for quality. But she must fight against another Ethiopian handicap – the image of famine that the country can’t get rid of.
“Ethiopia has changed. We don’t need to be assisted by the West anymore; we want to be considered as business partners,” she insists. “We don’t want charity. We are creative, and can bring something to the world as well. We need others to change the way they see us.”