How An Ethiopian Woman Built A Global Startup

Bethlehem Alemu and the Building of Sole Rebels- A Global Shoe Brand

Ethiopia’s Bethlehem Alemu has built one of the world’s fastest growing shoe brands with revenues in the millions of dollars. Her business, Sole Rebels, which makes eco-friendly shoes from recycled materials has built a global following from San Jose California to Zurich and Taiwan. Sole Rebels has established standalone stores in leading cities around the world in countries such as Austria, Greece, Switzerland, United States, Taiwan, Spain, and Singapore. The founding of Sole Rebels was driven by two factors-passion and a desire to make a difference. Bethlehem, who had worked as an accountant prior to founding Sole Rebels, had always had a passion for Ethiopia’s cultural aesthetic and had always dreamed of sharing it with the world. At the same time, she had always wanted to make a difference on the plight of the many poor and yet skilled artisans in her community of Zenebework. So in 2005, Bethlehem left her job as an accountant at a local company and decided to pursue her dream. With some savings that she had put aside and a piece of land obtained from her grandmother-she set up a small shoe factory.  Bethlehem begun her operations with five workers who included two artisans who were involved in the manufacturing

Sole Rebels Workers. Image via True Africa

The newly formed company started to make handmade shoes from recycled tyres building upon a long practiced Ethiopian cultural tradition which had great historical significance. In fact, the company’s name, Sole Rebels, was inspired in part by Ethiopian rebel fighters who fought off Italian colonial forces who had sought to take over the country. The rebels wore sandals made from recycled materials. Soles Rebels manufactures comfortable, functional, and brightly coloured shoes made from materials sourced from local small farmers. The small local suppliers supply the company with materials such as cotton and jute. This strategy has been the cornerstone of the company’s business model which seeks to manufacture handcrafted, ‘eco-sensible’ shoes made from locally sourced products.

 The shoes have resonated with consumers around the world helping to drive the company’s financial success. From the outset Sole Rebels also employed fair trade practices and complied with the guidelines and standards of the World Fair Trade Association (WFTA). The company began operations with the goal of paying its workers up to more than four times the minimum wage, 100% medical care coverage, and transportation for its employees to and from work. Bethlehem had always not favoured quota based production systems, arguing that they did not uphold worker rights. Rather, she preferred a system in which workers bought-into mutually agreed upon goals and worked as a team to achieve the goals. These practices led Sole Rebels to earn the distinction of being WFTA’s only fair trade certified Footwear Company.

Soles Store. Image:

Sole Rebels Greece Store. Retail Design, Stirixis

Sole Rebels has also hit another milestone with the launch of its first US store. The company opened a store at the upscale Westfield Valley Fair Mall in San Jose California. The store opening made Sole Rebels the first African consumer company to operate a standalone retail brand store in the US. Bethlehem believes that Sole Rebels is a model of how globally competitive private sector players can deliver development for developing countries. A proponent of trade over aid, Bethlehem is an advocate of promoting businesses that can develop strong business models and products that can compete in global markets. In the process, she believes, such businesses can move the continent up the global
value chain.

Bethlehem’s work has gained international recognition and accolades. In 2013 Bethlehem she was recognized as one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in business. In 2012 Business Insider also named her as one of Africa’s Top 5 Entrepreneurs. The World Economic Forum named her a Young Global Leader in 2011. Meanwhile Bethlehem also ventured into another project. This time she wants to promote Ethiopian coffee through new newest company called Garden of Coffee which is already making significant headways in the global coffee space.