Bethlehem Alemu: Building 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. With a presence in more than 50 countries, Sole Rebels has established stand alone stores in leading cities around the world in countries such as Austria, Greece, Japan, 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 he 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.
The newly formed company would make handmade shoes from recycled tyres building upon a long practiced Ethiopian cultural tradition w h i c h a l s o h e l d g r e a t h i s t o r i c a l significance. In fact, the company’s name, Sole Rebels, was inspired in part by Ethiopian rebel fighters who fought off Italian colonial forces who has sought to take over the country. The rebels wore sandals made from recycled materials. The shoes, which retail for about $60 plus, are comfortable, often brightly coloured
and 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 c o m p a n y ’ s b u s i n e s s m o d e l s – t h e manufacture of handcrafted, ‘eco-sensible’, shoes made from locally sourced products.
T h e s h o e s h a v e r e s o n a t e d w i t h consumers around the world helping to drive the company’s financial success. By 2011, for instance, the company’s revenues had reached $ 2million while the revenues for 2015 where reported to have reached upwards of $10 million. Sole Rebels also employees fair trade practices and complies with the guidelines and standards of the World Fair Trade Association (WFTA). The company reportedly pays 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 does not believe in quota based production systems, arguing that the system does not uphold worker rights. Rather, she prefers a system in which workers buy-into mutually agreed goals and work as a team to achieve the goals. These practices have led Sole Rebels to earn the distinction of being WFTA’s only fair trade certified footwear company.
Sole Rebels has also recently 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 stand alone retail brand store in the US. Meanwhile, Sole Rebels plans to have 50 stores in the US by 2018. With growing global demand, Sole Rebels is set to develop a $20 million production facility. True to Sole Rebels form, the plant will be developed with local eco-friendly materials and the capacity to self generate power. When
operational, the factory will boost production to over 2,500 pairs of shoes per day. 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
B e t h l e h e m ’ s w o r k h a s g a i n e d international recognition and accolades. In 2013 Bethlehem was recognized as one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in business. In 2012 Business Inside also named her as one of Africa’s Top 5 Entrepreneurs. The World Economic Forum named her a Young Global Leader in 2011. Her business plans? Well maybe 500 store around the world by 2022? And in the meantime get a Coffee Brand launched. It looks like the unstoppable entrepreneur has a lot on her plate and is only is just getting started