How African shoes transformed a local community

Shoes never felt so personal. Through its online platform, SoleRebels’s community-based plant in Zenabwork (Ethiopia) processes an order at a time. Every individual African shoe, made from recycled car tyres and inner tubes, is handcrafted by artisan shoemakers and delivers an unusually personalised product to customers anywhere in the world. 

“The primary reason I started a shoe manufacturing company”, says Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, the company’s managing director and founder, “is because I wanted to create jobs in a community in which literally none existed. In my hometown Zenabwork, a borough in Addis Ababa, talent lay dormant as the economy to gainfully exercise gifts was lacking. I remember poverty alleviation being the hype of the day when I was a little girl – an understanding of the impoverished I fiercely oppose after having run my own company for nearly a decade. People don’t want to be ‘not poor’, they want to be prosperous. Only by delivering a high-quality and well-rounded product, a community like Zenabwork could have been transformed from economic desperation into a thriving micro-economy.”

Employees’ roots

Jobs at SoleRebels incorporate as many artisan skills and indigenous resources as available in Ethiopia. From an aesthetic point of view, it is traditional Ethiopian footwear such as the Barabassao and the Selate shoe that influenced SoleRebels’s contemporary design. The basis of this model is recycled car tyres and inner tubes, complemented by cotton fabric and Abyssinian – or Ethiopian – hemp. Bethlehem: “Almost all our raw materials are won locally, by which we cut down on imports while boosting the Ethiopian economy. Most importantly: all our employees’ roots trace near our factory. It is they who export Ethiopia’s longstanding culture of artisan shoemaking, while their jobs empower them, and their families, to prosper economically.”

Sales rates

SoleRebels reaches out globally. Although the company’s size is somewhat trivial when compared to multinational giants operating in the same industry, it offers a product range that is continuously relevant to a worldwide audience consuming on the basis of different tastes, preferences and styles. Bethlehem: “In Zenabwork, we employ 150 fulltime staff, in addition to 300 part-time staff. Yet we ship SoleRebels shoes to 60 countries around the world. We deliver shoes by mail, as well as have our own retail stores in Ethiopia, Taiwan, Austria, Singapore and Spain. During the fiscal year of 2014 – 2015, we target at a sales rate of 150,000 pairs.”

Not a new approach to business

“Ironically, in today’s economy we have had to come up with such labels as ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘Fairtrade’ and ‘recycled’. This kind of consciousness, however, had permeated the Ethiopian mindset for over centuries and is not a new approach to business, but rather a deeply ingrained cultural heritage that culminated in a competitive, internationally distributing shoe brand.”

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