Sole rebel: Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu takes Ethiopian shoes to the world
As a girl growing up in Addis Ababa, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu saw people all around her wearing makeshift sandals improvised from old lorry and car tyres.
Later, when she left college, she decided she would sell these handcrafted, recycled tyre shoes to the rest of the world. A decade on, she expects to turn over $6m of internet sales this year, has opened 11 shoe stores in the Far East and Europe and has plans for 50 more in the next three years.
The tyre-soled shoe developed as a result of scarcity. Waste was simply too valuable not to reuse. “When you have limited resources, everything is valued,” Tilahun Alemu says. “Everything has a purpose, even if not the purpose originally intended; and if not, one can always be found for it.”
The selate tyre-soled shoe was originally popularised by freedom fighters resisting Italian colonisation in the 1940s and subsequently spread throughout Ethiopia: extremely basic, cobbled together, ubiquitous.
Tilahun Alemu, a mother of three, is a small woman with a soft voice that belies her verve and drive. Born in 1980, she grew up in Zenabwork, one of the most impoverished areas of Addis Ababa, where her father was an electrician and her mother cooked and raised the children.
Education was seen as the route to success and Bethlehem went to local primary and high schools and then to Unity University in Addis Ababa to study accountancy. In her student years and immediately after, she worked in leather and clothing companies learning marketing, sales, design and production.
Increasingly, she became frustrated by the disjunction between profitable companies in the formal economy and the unrewarded skills in her own community.
She had grown up watching members of her family spin cotton with an inzert (a centuries-old wooden spindle); she had spun rolls of fetel (soft cotton), with her mother and watched weavers making netalla and gabbis (shawls and blankets), on traditional wooden looms. “I saw what talented people in the community could do but, owing to extreme poverty, stigma and marginalisation, many of them couldn’t get simple jobs. These were people I had grown up with, my neighbours and family.”
Her decision to bridge the gap between these artisans and global commerce has led to a highly successful business. It is not uncommon to have difficulty getting hard data on African companies and so it is here: Tilahun Alemu tends to talk about projected rather than actual turnover.
Other members of her family are involved in the business, not least her husband, but they remain shadowy figures. For anyone interested in how the company is organised, the relentless public focus on her can be quite frustrating. “My family have all been involved,” is all she will say. “My husband is my sounding board who constantly challenges me to go higher.”
Clearly, she is turning over several million dollars’ worth of business which, in manufacturing and retail, cannot be done single-handedly. As the public face of the brand, she still answers customer inquiries herself with her usual panache, but she manages to guard her privacy quite carefully.
It has to be said that the approach is working: last year, CNN placed her fourth on their list of 12 women entrepreneurs who have changed the way the world does business, along with Coco Chanel, Giuliana Benetton, Anita Roddick and Sara Blakely, creator of Spanx. The PR operation isn’t, I think, misleading but it is so slick that it can feel a bit controlling.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu began with five artisans in a shed on land belonging to her grandmother who, years before, had been one of the first inhabitants of Zenabwork, a migrant from Gojjam in search of a better life. “By the time I was growing up,” Bethlehem says drily, “it was clear a better life was non-existent for this community.”
Her brand is called soleRebel, a nod both to the freedom fighters and to the rebelliousness of the project. “I grew up hearing about poverty alleviation but even as a girl I had a strong feeling that the people doing the talking were not connected to the communities where they were trying to ‘alleviate poverty’. They were invariably prosperous themselves, so why set the bar so low for others? I became convinced that prosperity creation is the sole route to the elimination of poverty – and for that, you have to create something world class.” (Interbrand estimates that the top 100 global brands are worth almost $1 trillion, equal to the combined GDP of the world’s poorest 63 countries.)
While soleRebels shoes are marketed for their style and comfort, the fact that they reuse old tyres is an important part of their backstory. Tyres take up a lot of space in landfill, more than half of which is void.
They can trap methane gases, creating a bubbling effect that can damage the liners designed to stop pollution of the surface and groundwater. They are flammable. When stockpiled, they are a breeding-ground for vermin and mosquitoes. And it’s estimated that, worldwide, 259m of them are discarded every year.
“We’re not green because some bloke in marketing told us it was a good idea,” Tilahun Alemu says, “but because this is how we make shoes in Ethiopia.”