“Making the world a better place. One step at a time.”

Friday 7 June 2013, by Esen, Hazal Sezer

9 inspired

1. The main facts about the activities of the company.

Company Background

SoleRebels is a footwear company founded in 2004 by company founder and managing director Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu in her community of Zenabwork, Ethiopia. SoleRebels began as an idea that the creation of shoes could be a platform for inspiration and hope. SoleRebels creates employment opportunities for the local society in Ethiopia.

SoleRebels is based on the revolutionary idea that to truly enjoy lasting development, developing nation producers should create, grow and control successful global brands and the equity developed in them, the very same formula that global brands in developed nations have so successfully deployed to build themselves and their countries.

In the period since the founding of the company in 2004, SoleRebels has not only emerged as Ethiopia’s leading eco-ethical footwear brand, and one of the leading ones globally, but they are also the first WFTO/IFAT fair trade certified footwear firm in Ethiopia and the number one footwear exporter to the US market. SoleRebels is an active player in the changing dynamic of Ethiopia since they are helping the shift away from aid toward trade and furthermore to control the countries destiny by exporting higher value branded finished goods instead of low value commodity exports. SoleRebels ambition is to continue to nurture into a market leading global footwear brand.

The Main Facts About the Activities of the Company

SoleRebels is an innovative company committed to creating world-class footwear and apparel products and great community based jobs that create sustained prosperity. They do this by utilizing the immense, diverse, and sustainable materials and artisan arts of Ethiopia.

Their main production is footwear. They have selected to produce shoes since they have noticed that footwear was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous eco-sensible craft heritages and artisan talents that is very common in Ethiopia. Furthermore, they can source and make almost all their materials from the local society; thereby they could create an export product from 100% local inputs.
Moreover this fact allowed SoleRebels to riff, recreate and re-imagine the traditional “selate” and “barabasso” shoes, a recycled car tire soled shoe that has existed in Ethiopia for a long time. They have took this indigenous age-old recycling tradition and fused it with Ethiopian artisan crafts and modern design sensibilities and turned it into a market beating export brand that is now being retailed around the world.

Another important issue about the main facts of their activities is that they run a green business. They define themselves as “green by nature”. They use the terms like “historically eco-sensible” and “green by heritage” to describe this phenomenon. The key fact they want to express about their methods is that they are deeply sustainable and traditionally zero carbon way of production. They embrace these production methodologies, materials, ideas and ethos’ because they are integral parts of Ethiopia’s cultural fabric; a tradition which they have grew up within and feel passionately about preserving. In addition to recycled car tire soles, all of their styles incorporate as much recycled and sustainable materials as much as possible with ingredients like hand spun, hand loomed organic cotton fabrics, a pallet of unique natural fibers including abyssinian hemp and pure abyssinian koba and abyssinian pure leathers . All of their shoes are handcrafted which makes it a truly zero carbon production process.

What Is Unique About the Way SoleRebels Trade?

Sustainable Production

Ethiopia is said to be one of the birthplaces of cotton cultivation so cotton understandably occupies a central role in Ethiopian cultural life. They source their cotton from small scale heritage organic + traditional growers, ensuring that their customers get wondrously soft cotton and a historic crop continues to flourish. Ethiopia is also one of the last authentically organic environments in which cotton is grown. Owing to the privations endured, most small-scale cotton farmers never used anything more complex than animal dung as fertilizer. The support that they give to these small-scale farmers ensures not only their ability to grow their birthright crop in this traditional organic manner but also has a meaningful impact on the local + global ecosystem. They also line the shoe interiors and strap linings with the fabric made from this organic hand spun cotton.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu (the founder and Managing Director of SoleRebels) explains the importance of cotton based on her own experiences:

“I grew up watching members of my family spin cotton with an inzert (the traditional wooden hand drop spindle used in Ethiopia for centuries to spin cotton.) The art of hand spinning of cotton in this manner dates back millennia here in Ethiopia and our artisans are among the finest. We also grew up watching shemmanies [weavers] hand loom the threads that we hand spun into magical gorgeous fabrics to make netalla, gabbis [traditional scarves, shawls and blankets worn widely in Ethiopia] on their simple wooden looms . These two functions – hand spinning and hand looming -which are integral to our production processes as well, are true examples of highly sustainable ZERO CARBON production that we have been utilizing here in Ethiopia for centuries.”

True Recycling

Another unique aspect of SoleRebels is that they benefit from historic recycling which is a way of life in Ethiopia. Due to having limited resources, everything is highly valued and everything has a purpose even if it is not the original purpose it was intended for. So, true recycling is a natural outcome of ingenuity and resourcefulness. For example the “barabassao” and “selate” recycled tire sole shoe have been widely worn in Ethiopia for years and are wonderful examples of this historic recycling ethos. As a company, SoleRebels fully embraces this ethos and craft their soles from recycled car tires as has been done for years.
In collecting and sorting “used tires” and hand cutting them into soles, they accomplish a few key things:

1. They ensure a perfectly fitted sole that is long lasting and very comfortable.

2. By using car tires as soles, (a loving recycling tradition) they ensure that a great recycling tradition endures.

3. Best of all, something that might otherwise go to waste now enjoys a dynamic, new and useful purpose while keeping their landfills less clogged and saving Co2 from being emitted when landfill bound tires are burned.

For the company, sustainability and cultural arts are living ideas that need to be redefined and re-interpreted to keep themselves contemporary, exciting and vital to people everywhere. That’s why their products, while having a unique Ethiopia “splash” to them, are universal in their appeal and design. The company believes it is vital to keep the traditional elements that they craft their shoes but the way they style and craft their products is also important so that they can continue to have a deeply universal appeal. For this reason, they focus on developing new materials and products all the time. They experiment new weaves, finishing, materials, stitches all the time. Adding new pieces and series constantly keeps their offering very fresh and ensures that they always have fresh things to excite customers. They also co-develop products with all partners so as to be able to reflect the specific tastes of their specific market, be it in style or color or anything else. They are able to turn many new ideas into fully realized products within 3-5 working days.

Preserving Culture and Community

In Ethiopia, the idea of community still is very strong in many respects. This strength translates down to the idea that “you are responsible for more than yourself and your own narrow gain.” So, this gives business a perspective on looking out for the welfare of others around them. Taking this perspective a step further into the business realm, they are able to create a strong community centric business that looks at the total welfare being created from that business and not simply a static bottom line. The fact that they have the WFTO Fair Trade imprint on the company is the validation of what they already practice inherently because of the community and wider culture.

“The communal elements of the culture here still persist and these inform us deeply in terms of how we operate and respect for our community, the lands and resources. We feel passionately that Ethiopia has some powerful sustainable and “green” heritages to share with the world and some great ideas on how to make truly great and sustainable products. We are excited to share these ideas more widely in the coming years with more people around the world through our products.”
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

So, preserving cultural assets, maximizing recycling and eco-sensible products which are crafted from 100% local materials in the traditional manner is the unique aspect of the business. That way, SoleRebel gives to its customers incredibly cool and stylish things to wear and generates “zero” carbon impact. 100% local input means this is a deeply sustainable mode of production and export.

Most exports require a majority of inputs that travel huge distances to get to the final assembly point, enduring huge amounts of energy intensive processing along the way. Their model inverts that relationship and draws on locally sourced inputs, locally worked and processed for our export output. This model creates an elevated element of sustainability to the SoleRebels brand. Most importantly the very fact that the model is authentically Ethiopian that leverages heritages both culturally and material/production wise, this makes the business model as a big win for sustainable business models.

“I hope, people can start to appreciate that what we offer goes far beyond “green” labels and really extends in to meaningful ideas about sustainability, ecologically sound practices and authenticity. To me, the whole idea of “green,” -if we want to call it that- is really something which places like Ethiopia have something to offer to. Not just in terms of amazing products, but adding authenticity in the whole dialogue and drive towards sustainability in production and other areas.”
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

“We’ve been embracing and employing sustainability throughout our history, especially when it comes to the manufacture of certain things. So now it is appropriate that Ethiopia be rewarded, recognized and promoted for being, as we say, “green by heritage.””
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

The ethical challenges that the company is addressing:

The main ethical challenge that the company addresses is the creation of wealth for local community. SoleRebels generates real sustainable wealth by creating hundreds of creative, dignified and well-paying jobs inside the Ethiopian community. Bethlehem T. Alehu also adds that they are planning to add more real wealth as they create tens of thousands in the coming 36-48 months. At this moment, their prediction is to create over 1000 global jobs by 2016. According to the company, this is a key as SoleRebels emerges as the first African brand to become an international job creation powerhouse with international stores.

Another ethical challenge that is addressed and owned with the sustainable business model of SoleRebels is that they try to create more wealth for their supply network of entrepreneurs. They are expanding their network of local entrepreneurs who are actually their “suppliers web of material inputs.” This network also employs hundreds and creates multi-millions in local supplier purchases. According to company, this network is growing fast and is forecasted to employ tens of thousands by 2017!

Finally, the company is doing well by supporting the local communities and traditional crafts. SoleRebels are creating a state of the arts production facility that will preserve, promote and keep indigenous artisan crafts relevant through their continued use as inputs in their footwear products. They employ over 300 factory workers, many of whom had been unemployed for years before being hired. They earn around three times the average industry wage in Ethiopia and receive comprehensive medical coverage for their families including free doctor run medical checks.

SoleRebels has a very customer centric policy, what the company calls “Customer For Life”, which is supported by its Happysoles Guarantee Policy. They want customers to benefit from the exceptional level of service that they give. When the customers buy a pair of SoleRebels shoes, if they have any complaints they replace the order without any questions being asked until the customer is 100% satisfied and if the soles have worn, they replace them with new pair of shoes.

From the business perspective, maybe the biggest challenge for SoleRebels brand is to expand the definition of SoleRebels as a global brand and still stay committed to serving to customers and local workers equally well. Moreover, as the company grows bigger they might experience bigger challenges in terms of supporting local community and the development of Ethiopian crafts with good business practices and sustainability vision. SoleRebels pays high wages, try to provide a great relaxed work environment as they believe this is the way in which the workers get to maximize their potential and be a part of building an exciting global brand. Company is aware that this requires a constant dedication to worker happiness, and always tries to keep this vision on top of business practices. In fact, SoleRebels is the very first and only WTFO Fair Trade Certified footwear company and was always profitable enough.

What makes you believe this company is really ethical and why do you trust it?

SoleRebels is the world’s first Fair Trade–certified footwear company.

SoleRebels have emerged as a brand from Ethiopia as a proactive idea. It embodies a vision which is focused on creating a brand and products which are gives back wealth to the society it has born in. They symbolize the richness of physical, cultural and intellectual resources of Ethiopia and create thousands of job opportunities to local workers, families, support artisans and many local entrepreneurs as suppliers. The company is creating a local value chain which is beneficial to many people and does this in a very sustainable vision and making great contributions to prosperity shared by the local people in Ethiopia. Also, by successfully marketing its products, they create another opportunity for foreign exchange growth and the development of the country. Although, we do not have exact figures of how much the company pays to its workers, the founder of the company claims that the wages are similar to what these international brand name charities pay to their staff.

We can also say that apart from the company ethos, the main idea behind the business model and what company believes is significantly important and also inspiring. The company believes that Ethiopia (and Africa) does not need NGO + Charity brands and what they really need is to have their own powerful brands whose global equity can leverage to their own good and most importantly in the creation of the prosperity that comes from well paid sustainable jobs.

The vision behind the company allows people to bring forth the abilities of local people and empower them to contribute their own society and prosperity by simply integrating what they have been doing so far. This is also a great opportunity for them to see their own potential and create their own opportunities to be more prosperous for themselves and families. We believe the model is a very sustainable way and promotes the vision of its founder which we found truly inspiring: “and the best way to create prosperity is the true and true method: create amazing products with service to match, pay your workers very well, operate in a highly ethical and transparent manner; all of which in turn create a hyper successful company.”

The SoleRebels model is a real example of what can happen when young and motivated and talented African entrepreneurs like Bethelehem, take on the global market, compete and win.

“The so called Philanthropic companies/projects cynically try to convince the world that Ethiopia or Africa is not even capable of putting shoes on the feet of our own people, and so they ask people to buy their shoes so that they can give an Ethiopian a free pair of shoes! Companies like this are simply different versions of the AID industry model that has paralyzed Ethiopia by constantly presenting us as “weak and helpless victims” always needing to be helped by some form of external assistance. Aid and charity in almost all their formats and configurations won’t ever create jobs; cannot and never will create sustained prosperity, esp. in the Ethiopian or African context.”
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

The possible challenges facing the company in the future and how do you think this company may improve?

SoleRebel was able able to build a global brand from the scratch and they are now able to market their product through Amazon. In 7 years they have increased their employees from 5 to 75. As the company enjoys the growth, the growth may bring challenges in the future. SoleRebel vision is built upon community based production. As they grow up and try to keep up with the market competition, they may have to concede some of their ethical practices. Supporting community can be more challenging.

Another important challenge is to find market. SoleRebel want to be the Nike of Ethiopia. So, they need to prove themselves in the market and develop a strategy for their unique products which offer local and traditional values.

Finally, as they plan to increase the number of employees to 300 in just 3 years and build a production facility powered by solar energy, we can say that company vision is very enthusiastic however they need a clear and effective future strategy to be successful.

Location: Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)

Official website:

Nbr. visits: 6140

Nbr. inspires: 9