Women walk for miles with buckets on their heads to fetch water, as the warm air rustles the leaves of the eucalyptus trees. Children play outside and men work for little or no pay. Here, in the village of Zenebework, Addis Ababa, one of the most impoverished parts of Ethiopia, the people rely on international aid for food and supplies.
“It’s how we lived and how we survived…” says Bethlehem Alemu, founder and CEO of SoleRebels.
When Alemu was a young girl she was saddened to see her neighbors struggle to make a decent living because of the lack of jobs.
“I don’t like to call people poor. I would call them disadvantaged… if you give opportunities to the poor, they will no longer be poor.”
After university she returned home, determined to create a better life for her community, one that would empower it through its members’ creative skills. With $10,000 and a few employees her dream and artisanal shoe brand began to take shape.
“It has a strong investment on people. It’s not about giving aid but teaching people life skills that will sustain them in the future.”
SoleRebels makes eco-friendly shoes that combine traditional Ethiopian Selate and Barabasso shoes with modern production. The shoes are made from recycled tires and natural fibers. Alemu says that although the market share for green products is small, it opens up a lot of opportunities. However, this requires a lot of marketing.
“We selected shoes because we saw that footwear was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous, eco-sensible, craft heritage and artisanal talents that we have here in Ethiopia,” she says.
It was a simple idea that turned the company into the first fair trade-certified footwear brand under the World Fair Trade Organization. Over the years SoleRebels has expanded and become the fastest-growing African footwear brand with stores in over 30 countries across the world. It is also the country’s number one exporter to the United States.
The success of the company has transformed Alemu into one of the most successful businesswomen in the world. She has appeared on the Forbes ‘100 Most Powerful Women in the World’ list and was selected by the World Economic Forum (WEF), as a 2011 Young Global Leader. Last year, she sat alongside Sir Richard Branson, Bob Geldof and Arianna Huffington as one of the councilors at the One Young World (OYW) summit, which was held in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In her address to the youth at OYW, she spoke of the importance of being innovative and how blazing your own path will pave the way for others to follow.
“When I started the business I was afraid because the market was not there… I didn’t follow anybody’s road. What’s happening in Africa is there is one big road and everybody’s following it.”
One of her biggest challenges was breaking through the mindset of those who believed an African footwear brand would not succeed.
“There are a lot of entrepreneurs in Ethiopia who are doing really well, but they don’t know how to sell their product, how to market it, or how to brand it. It’s not only a problem in Ethiopia, it’s all over Africa.”
Another issue that troubles many female businesswomen is gender inequality. Alemu, fortunately, has never been treated differently or had difficulties because she is a woman.
“I don’t think females should think like a female, they have to see themselves as a person who has a dream and can make their dreams come true. I don’t want to put myself back in that box when I am already out of that box.”
According to Alemu, the key to a successful business – whether you are in Africa, Europe or America – is to follow the business strategies of successful companies and adjust them to suit your community. The problem for Africans is the disconnect and lack of trading agreements between other countries.
“Whenever people want to start a business, they always look up to somebody and that’s a problem. We don’t ask: ‘how are other companies reaching this point?’ or “how am I going to build that inside my company?’”
As the founder, she has ambitious dreams for her Ethiopian-based company and wants it to become the “Apple of Africa”.
“I am inspired by the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. I love how he came up with the idea and said I want to have this kind of product next week and then people put it in front of him the next week.”
Looking back, Alemu never thought that the footwear company with the quirky name would become what it is today. She set out to create a business that would allow her to earn an income and better the lives of the people around her, and today she is one of Africa’s most successful female entrepreneurs.
The people of Zenebework, who once felt hopeless, now stand with dignity. It was one small step for Alemu, but one giant leap for Ethiopia.
She just happened to do it in a pair of SoleRebels.