New Africa: the Ethiopian woman who made ethical sandals fashionable

By IndepthAfrica
In East Africa
Aug 26th, 2012
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Lucy Siegle, The Observer

SoleRebels founder Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was convinced she could make stylish shoes out of old tyres,

SoleRebels’ Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu. Portrait by Antonio Fiorente for the Observer New Review

The idea for footwear label soleRebelspopped into the brain of Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu in 2004. Looking around her native Addis Ababa, she caught sight of the ubiquitous simple sandals made from recycled tyres and decided to turn them into an international brand. Twelve months later, soleRebels was launched in a local workshop with just five staff.

Made from recycled content, and bringing work to the local community, who are then paid equitably, soleRebels is as ethical as it gets. It is the embodiment of the drive to use commerce to bring about social change, and Alemu is an articulate and passionate believer. (She has twice made the Forbes “outstanding African businesswomen” list.)

But if you think she wants to create a worthy product to sell at church fetes, think again. “Actually, I don’t even want to describe my brand in terms of Ethiopia. I want you to buy my shoe lines because they are fashionable and comfortable.”

No wonder soleRebels has earned the soubriquet, the Nike of Ethiopia. This year, it will turn over $2m and Alemu now employs 200 staff. Next month, soleRebels opens its first international store in Taiwan, and more are slated to follow. But Alemu has her eye on one place – New York. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” she laughs.

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