Ethiopia-Based Entrepreneur Fuses Shoe Business With Community Empowerment

January 6, 2012  |  

Bethelehem Tilahun Alemu looked around Zenebework, her small, rural impoverished community in Ethiopia and vowed to make a difference not only in her life, but for those around her. Forbes reports that her commitment and drive to impact her community inspired her to create one of Africa’s premier footwear brands.

The lack of jobs available in Zenebework did not equate to lack of skill. Alemu observed the wealth of unused artistic talent so many in her community possessed. With the financial backing of her husband and immediate family, she brought together a group of talented artisans and founded SoleRebels in 2004. Nike, Reebok and Adidas can’t compare to this company. The name pays homage to the Ethiopian rebel fighters who wore the classic Selate and Barabasso shoe during their successful campaign to overcome western colonization.

These shoes are in essence the modern version of the Selate and Barabasso sole shoe. Handcrafted by members of her community, the shoes are made from various locally grown natural plants and weather-beaten tires using Ethiopian traditional techniques and materials. Alemu’s dream is now known internationally as a unique, quality African-based footwear manufacturer. Her company was one of the top 5 finalists for the 2011 Legatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship and is currently a top footwear exporter to the US. Although Alemu won’t release the net worth of her company, finalists for this award must earn an annual revenue of $1 million to $15 million. Alemu estimates that by 2016, her company will hit the $10 million mark.

SoleRebels is sold in over 30 countries and through online retailers including Amazon. Styles range from comfortable and colorful slips-ons, lace ups and sandals, and carry a price tag of $20 to $100.

In addition to the Legatum Africa Award, last year Alemu won the “Most Outstanding Businesswoman” award from the African Business Magazine and was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. In her entrepreneurial pursuits she has not only succeeded in creating an internationally recognizable company, but in providing jobs for her fellow countrymen.

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