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SoleRebels: Africa’s answer to Nike

 INSP 12 March 2019

Fair-trade shoe manufacturer SoleRebels is fast becoming Ethiopia’s biggest export brand and is enjoying booming trade in the European and US-markets. Philipp Hedemann speaks to the woman behind Africa’s answer to Nike. (848 Words) - By Philip Hedemann


SNS_SoleRebels: Africa’s answer to Nike

1. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is the woman behind Ethiopian fair-trade shoe munufacturer SoleRebels.Photo: Philipp Hedemann

INSP_Sole rebels2

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu in her shoe factory.Photo: Philipp Hedemann

When Meles Zenawi and his rebel Army marched into Addis Ababa in 1991, his fighters toppled the communist dictator wearing only sandals made out of old truck tyres. It was all they could afford. These days, tyre slippers are too expensive for most Ethiopians, ever since Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu turned the shanty-town shoes into an expensive export brand. Even now, the SoleRebels-founder has still not realised her ambition: "My brand shall become the African answer to Nike, Puma and Timberland."

In a cramped workshop, at the end of a bumpy dirt road on the edge of the capital, 100 men and women sit on handmade wooden benches. They draw patterns, they sew colourful cloth around green lasts, they glue truck-tyre soles under cotton shoes. The fast rhythm of work is set by the buzz of sewing machines and the smack of hammers. Tomorrow, several boxes of shoes must leave the little factory; a fresh supply for the US-market.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu takes a few sandals out of one of the boxes and tears at the cloth and soles. The seams pass the test, the boss is happy. "We can deliver the shoes to New York four days after the order has been placed, but that doesn't matter if the quality is not right," lectures the feisty entrepreneur.

"My brand shall become the African answer to Nike, Puma and Timberland."

Her workers produce up to 200 pairs of shoes every day. Since 2006, SoleRebels has increased year-on-year sales, and in 2012 the start-up hopes to make 1.5 million Euro turnover. The way Alemu rattles off these numbers shows that they do not mean everything to her. But when she talks about her employees, the pride in her voice almost drowns out the noise of the workshop. "Six years ago, I started with five people. Today I employ 300!" she says. Most SoleRebels-Workers come from the neighborhood. "I played with some of them when I was a child. Of course, I treat them well," Alemu says. That means she pays them about twice as much as they would earn in other factories, she settles all medical bills, and provides school uniforms and teaching materials for the children of the SoleRebels workers. Employees who want to continue their education after work are given money for night school.

It's a small wonder that Alemu has no problems with staff turnover. So far, only two employees resigned: they wanted to emulate Alemu and start up their own clothing company. As a farewell gift and start-up capital, they received a sewing machine from their former boss. "In the beginning, we had big problems with discipline, because most of our employees never had a steady job before. Since the devastating famine of 1984/85, a whole generation relied on foreign aid. But now it makes my people proud that they get good money for good work and do not have to beg for handouts from international aid organizations anymore", says the entrepeneur. She has a low opinion of the NGO representatives that she sees prancing through the streets of Addis.

"Since I was a child, I have seen how development aid agencies have pumped billions of dollars into Ethiopia. But we are still a poor country. Maybe, development aid can alleviate the worst hardship in the short term, but it is no long-term solution. Nevertheless, we relied on it far too long. We must finally understand, that we have to begin to export quality products, instead of unrefined raw materials only. Then we will be less dependent on fluctuating world market prices, and we can prolong the value chain in our country", says the entrepreneur who was recognised as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. It is just one award amongst many. Alemu has nearly as many decorations as she has shoes.

In Ethiopia, the designer items cost the equivalent of 17-43 Euro, but 99 per cent of the shoes go into the export market. In Europe and America, a customer gets little change from 70 euros for the handmade pieces. Alemu ploughs the profits back in to her home country. She plans to hire another 300 workers within the next three years.

SoleRebels offers about 600 different flip-flops, sandals and shoes - and the collection is still growing. The company boss and shoemaker constantly designs new models from military uniforms, leather, hemp, jute, cotton and old truck tyres. Soon, Alemu wants to include children's shoes in the programme, so that her children Naiomi (6) Benjamin (3) and Nathan (1) can also wear Mama´s shoes.

"We don´t really know the word recycling. We just don´t throw things away. Everything is used again and again, including truck tyres," the company founder explains.

And why does the boss herself does not wear tyre shoes when she receives a journalist? Alemu answers,"I am only 1.60 meters tall. So I have to wear high heels during business appointments - and SoleRebels only makes comfy flats."

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