AFRICANGLOBE – For Bethlehem Tilahun, the answer to ending poverty in Africa is not aid or sympathy or donations from the outside. It’s shoes.
Specifically, building a successful shoe manufacturing business that creates jobs, empowers employees, like the one she founded SoleRebels, the first ever global footwear company to come out of a developing country.
“You don’t build your economy based on aid, you want to build your economy based on the way SoleRebels built its business, so that it’s sustainable,” Bethlehem said.
SoleRebels highlights how burgeoning enterprises can transform economies across Africa.
By shifting away from a reliance on exporting raw materials to the production of premium products such as shoes, Africa can ease its dependency on aid and slowly move toward industrialised growth.
Founded in 2004, SoleRebels now employs around 150 Ethiopians producing shoes with hand-spun Ethiopian cotton, rubber and leather for export in over 65 stores around the world.
She believes creating jobs, supporting local industries and transforming Africa’s image abroad will have lasting impact on economies across the continent in ways that traditional aid cannot.
“That is sustainable, and that’s the only way of getting out of poverty,” she said, sitting in her flagship store in downtown Addis Ababa.
With a growth rate of 7.2 percent, according to the World Bank, Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
But, paradoxically, it also remains one of the top recipients of aid in Africa.
Today, the Ethiopian government is keen on boosting private investment, increasing trade and transforming the agriculture-based economy into an industry-based one, mimicking development models from Asia, such as South Korea or China.
For Bethlehem, it is not only about moving from aid to trade, it is about building a savvy business and manufacturing a product that resonates with customers from France to Taiwan, not because its made in Ethiopia, but because it is a good shoe.
“People see them and say ‘wow, cool shoes!’ without necessarily knowing they are made in Ethiopia. To me, that is critical,” she said.
She is intent on marketing her product in exactly the same way as longer-established Western-based companies market theirs.
“We are not saying … ‘we’re poor, we’re in Africa, we’re doing this to help the poor’. We have a brand, and we strongly believe in what we’re doing,” she said, lighting up at she gazes at the racks of shoes in her wood-lined store.
Trade, Not Aid
Born in a poor neighbourhood in Ethiopia’s capital, Bethlehem said she was inspired at a young age to go against the grain, especially after seeing how little impact traditional aid had in her community and her country.
“To follow everybody’s pattern is not something that I wanted to do from the beginning,” she said with a characteristic zeal in her eyes. “If I am doing the same thing that everybody is doing and I don’t make a difference, there is no change.”
Shoes, she said, are the perfect homegrown product since they can be produced entirely from Ethiopian materials. The cotton and leather is sourced locally, while the rubber soles are made from recycled tires.
Plus, the shoes and the company name resonates with Ethiopia’s rich history. Having never been formally colonised, Ethiopian rebels famously fought off Italian occupiers in 1941, inspiring a pride and spirit of independence Bethlehem sought to invoke with her company.
“We’re free, that’s why we call ourselves SoleRebels,” she said, sitting next to a display of colourful, rubber-soled shoes modelled after shoes worn by Ethiopia’s rebels.
Her business ethos is one that succeeds where charitable retailers elsewhere do not. Tugging on philanthropic heart strings, Western companies often brandish products manufactured cheaply in Asia in order to help Africa, something the socially-conscious founder of SoleRebels adamantly opposes.
She said too many companies “come up with ever more outrageous claims of how they are saving Africa or helping Africa as a marketing tactic to sell product,” adding that “most of it is pure ‘BS’.”
“We strongly believe that people have to get a certain salary, so we don’t want to produce our products with cheap labour,” she added.
The first certified fair trade shoe company in the world, SoleRebels proudly pays their employees five times the minimum wage in a country where average per capita income is less than $1 per day, according to the World Bank.
The secret to her success lies in large part in her perseverance. She faced many financial and administrative challenges early on but refused to give up.
Bethlehem also stands out in a country where business is dominated by men.
She built her company up from scratch with an initial investment of $5000. Today, she is aiming to build the company’s net worth to $250 million by 2020.
Having received accolades internationally, including from Forbes and the World Economic Forum, Bethlehem admits she is sometimes surprised at how successful her business is, but having gained momentum in recent years, she is set on expanding her global empire now.
“I am dreaming about it all the time,” she said.
SoleRebels will open over 50 stand-alone retail shops abroad over the next three years, adding to the 11 already in Taiwan, Singapore, Austria, Japan, Spain and Ethiopia. Her dream is to see Ethiopia’s economy transformed by supporting more businesses like her own.
“Imagine we have hundreds or thousands of SoleRebels…,” she said, with a sly smile.