CNN’s African Voices highlights Africa’s most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week the show profiles the dynamic founder and owner of the Ethiopian shoe company SoleRebels.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — “Oh, yes!” cries Bethlehem Alemu, the dynamic founder and owner of SoleRebels, a game-changing shoe company in the heart of Addis Ababa, the ancient capital of Ethiopia.
Working in Africa has its challenges. I’m used to stalking politicians in hallways, riding on the back of trucks with gun-turrets in Sudan, and negotiating UN flights in far-flung territories, but trying on hot pink vegan flip-flops was something new.
Alemu, 30, runs a trailblazing business making shoes
from old rubber tires and tubes with each one hand cut into soles; the business takes inspiration from the original old car tire shoes worn by soldiers who fought off Italy’s invading forces.
Some of the SoleRebels shoes are also made from camouflage material cut from old army uniforms. The shoes are simple cotton-covered or leather covered flip-flops and sandals with names like Night Rider, Pure Love, and New Deal.
Before this shoot I couldn’t tell the difference between Jimmy Choos and Batas. I wear the same pair until it falls apart. So Alemu gives me a bit of a lesson, a one-time accountant, shoes are now her life.
“All the time when we go to sleep or when we are sleeping in a dream we are always thinking to design another kind of shoe.”
Alemu and her family launched the business in 2005 and already it is stepping out onto the global stage with clients like Amazon, Urban Outfitters, and a host of Web sites outlets and bricks and mortar companies in the U.S.
“I had to quit my job when I started this company and people were like almost screaming,” says Alemu, “‘Why are you leaving your work to do nothing? But now they are getting it, they are happy.”
Innovation is not a hallmark of Ethiopia. The country is Africa’s second most populous and one of its poorest, more known for famine and periodic conflicts than innovative business startups.
The country is dependent on foreign aid from bilateral donors and millions receive food assistance every year.
But Bethlehem Alemu wants to change that.
“We earn our money in honorable way,” she says, “we can pay our bills by working and we can solve our own problems in our own way, so trade is better than aid.”
SoleRebels taps into AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a U.S. government law that allows business in certain African countries to export selected products tariff free. AGOA aims to level the playing field for African businesses.
AGOA has been criticized for merely bringing foreign companies and products to Africa rather than building sustainable growth.
SoleRebels represents an almost ideal scenario for the system. A family-run business using fair trade practices and building up with sustainable growth.
They handcraft “zero-emission” sandals and shoes from organic and recycled materials. Sole Rebels focuses on the fickle export market and use the power of the Internet to produce made-to-order shipments and compete squarely with other high-end products from across the globe.
SoleRebels is by no means cutting edge. They purposely use ancient techniques with the new designs. Alemu went to a much-maligned corner of Addis Ababa to find her fabrics.
Zenabwork is on the poorer reaches of the capital, long stigmatized as a place were leprosy sufferers live and seek treatment.
Alemu buys her fabric from women’s groups in Zenabwork. They use traditional cotton spinning techniques. The fabric is expensive, but for SoleRebels it is worth it.
“I always wanted to give something that I have to the people,” says Alemu, “I want to grow up with them, they are good people and they deserve better.”
It is this business savvy and community consciousness that makes SoleRebels a new kind of ethical African business. And one to watch.
After that shoot we bought a couple of pairs of the shoes that normally go straight to the U.S. You know, I couldn’t bring myself to take home that pair of pink vegan flip-flops.
But I did admire that shoe from army pants.”Now we are using it for peace, so we really like it,” says Alemu.