Ethiopian shoes find world market

2012-03-15 11:47

Addis Ababa - A small Ethiopian company has taken a traditional local shoe design based on recycled truck tyres and turned it into an international success which in turn is providing jobs in the hometown of its founder.

Recycling is a well-known and widely practiced concept in Ethiopia, a poor country that embraced democracy in the mid-1990s after a coalition of rebel forces toppled the socialist government following a long period of uprisings, droughts and massive refugee problems. The connection between these developments and the shoe company is the rebels who overthrew dictator Mengistu wore rubber-soled shoes in the war.

"They couldn't afford anything else," said Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu who got the idea for the shoes about seven years ago. She further developed and modernised them and now the 31-year-old is the director of one of the few shoemaking companies with a fair trade seal. Made of recycled or natural material and tyre treads, the shoes can be spotted in trend-setting metropolises such as New York and London.

The shoe brand name is soleRebels and the success story behind the company based just outside the capital Addis Ababa is testimony to the belief that products made in one of the poorest countries in the world can establish themselves in the fashion market.

Alemu founded the company in 2005 with five employees. Since then 70 000 pairs of shoes have been made. Today there are 300 people, half of them women, involved in production and supply. Fifty-five employees formerly suffered from leprosy and although they have lost fingers and toes they are skilled cotton weavers, according to Alemu. They receive a regular wage for their work.

"Our workforce earns a fair wage for making the shoes 100% by hand so that the production leaves no CO2 footprint," said Alemu. The company offers an assortment of shoes from flip-flops to slippers and lace-up shoes to boots. The "poor person's sole" is covered in hip designs made from materials produced in Ethiopia such as jute, leather and cotton.


The shoes have been largely an export hit, having made a name for themselves in 33 countries worldwide. To serve these markets, 90% of the production is exported. Priced locally at 450 to 800 birr ($26 to $46), the shoes are too expensive for many Ethiopians. Nevertheless, a few months ago soleRebels opened its first store in Addis Ababa - a smart boutique in the Adams Pavilion shopping centre. Customers outside of Ethiopia can order the shoes on the internet.

Alemu says she gets very excited when she is in New York and sees people wearing soleRebels, which sell on the soleRebel website for about $75 a pair.

"The secret of our success is we act like an American company and use all kinds of media for our marketing," said Alemu. The company would like to become a sort of Ethiopian Nike. That worldwide sportswear giant also started small.

Alemu comes from Zenabwork on the western edge of Addis Ababa. The town of 5 000 is poor and there is little work and therefore little hope. The mother of three children said she believed the community must have its own local product made with local materials in order to alter the image of Ethiopia as a country of hardship and poverty.

She began to travel the world, including large markets such as the US, the UK and China, to study their shoe markets. What she saw and learned she mixed with Ethiopian culture and the traditional Ethiopian selate shoe, or rubber tyre soled shoe, adding dynamic colours to the materials combined with the sole.

"The hardest thing at the beginning was convincing foreign customers of the quality of our products," said Alemu. But an American company believed in the potential of the shoes and was the first buyer.

"My life is a lot better"

Alemu has received many international awards, including making the 2011 Forbes list of the top 20 Youngest Power African Women.

In the small factory in Zenabwork in which organic slippers are made, workers busily hammer, cut and sew. They seem contented.

"Before I started here all I did was sit around at home because there was no work," said Maaza Teshome, lacing a yellow shoestring into a dark-green wild leather shoe. "Now my life is a lot better. I can eat more healthily and buy myself clothing."

Anchinaiu Dane, another employee, added that relations between workers at the company also is good. "The work environment is simply great," Dane said.

There is no end in sight for the company's offensive into the fashion market. Alemu has a lot of plans. In the next six months soleRebel shops are to open in Canada, Japan, Spain and Taiwan. She also wants to broaden the product palette by adding handbags made using the same concept: organic material on the outside and, of course, recycled truck tyres inside.