Certainly for those of us of a certain age, what one thinks of Ethiopia is rather more weighted in the direction of aid trucks and starving children than shoes and solar powered factories. 80 million people live in the country and it is one of Africa’s poorest nations and still subject to famine, drought and the repercussions from a long border war and junta.  The long trail of globalisation has been particularly unkind to African nations.  But one ex-accountant and entrepreneur is taking a globalised economy and attempting to turn it to her favour.


Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu grew up in Addis Ababa watching members of her family hand spin cotton with an inzert (a traditional wooden drop spindle).  In her childhood she watched as the rebel army fought off invaders wearing shoes made out of old car tyres.  She watched friends and neighbours struggle to make a living and came up with the idea to use the traditional artisanal talents of Ethiopia – the last place where authentic organic cotton is still grown – and the idea of recycling car tyres to produce a range of footwear, known as SoleRebels, for the export market. 


Individually these elements of her idea are important.  Why for export?  Local shoemakers were struggling against the influx of cheap imports from China; Alemu saw that overseas markets would pay better for a unique product with an interesting provenance.  She was clear that she wanted to produce a high value branded finished product, rather than low value commodity exports. The car tyres use a recycling ethos – avoiding the need to manufacture from other more scarce materials, and using a cheap source of what would otherwise be landfill (or worse).  The local artisans were very skilled but often had no outlet for their skills.  In global terms these workers are cheap, though Alemu pays her 45 full-time staff nearly four times Ethiopia’s average monthly wage – which for some of the artisans is almost ten times what they were earning in other manufacturing associations.  They get health insurance and are encouraged to develop their own businesses from skills developed at SoleRebels.  But just to make sure of her reputation, Alemu has received Fair Trade certification.  She estimates over 140 jobs have been created in the area of Addis Ababa where the company is based.


Alemu is passionate about the internet as a trading tool, again turning many other arguments about global trade on their heads.  She says it allows the company to meet market demands and needs in real time.  SoleRebels does everything from order processing to credit collection itself and negotiates direct with retailers, so most of the final sales price stays in Ethiopia.  There have been a few helpful initiatives:  SoleRebels have a government line of credit to help meet large orders, and the shoes are imported duty-free into the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which means prices stay competitive.  Shops in the US such as Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters have stocked the shoes – but the range is about to go on sale in the United Kingdom and Japan on Amazon’s new footwear site  The aim is to build and control 100% of a global brand and the equity developed in it.


One of the cornerstones of the company and its marketing is that they are sure people care about the planet and therefore they want to buy zero-carbon products, but they also care about conditions for workers.  They think that people need more compelling reasons to buy products.    Alemu dislikes the term “green business” as she feels it is a bit of a faddish label.  She prefers terms like “historically eco-sensible” and “green by heritage”.  SoleRebels embrace deeply sustainable and traditionally zero carbon methods of production not because of a trend but because they are integral parts of Ethiopia’s cultural fabric.  The suede and leather come from traditional herds and are manufactured in traditional ways; the fabrics are all important and culturally specific elements of the culture which date back millennia.  The Ethiopian heritage has not been subverted or submerged by the industrial revolution as were those of many Western countries, so it can be used as a tool, an impetus, an inspiration.


Having said that, the ethos of eco-sensitivity continues in the newer aspects of the company, with packaging made from recycled shipping cartons, display units made from scrap and natural materials, and production waste materials being “repurposed” into production inputs.  The company has just built a factory from indigenous materials and which will be 100% solar powered. Of course these initiatives save money as well, but the marketing of the ethos kills two or more birds with one stone.  The symbol of the company is the koba tree, an indigenous plant cultivated in Ethiopia for over 10,000 years.  Every part of the koba plant has its use – the fibres are used, the roots provide food in times of crisis, it is self-regenerating when harvested, and it requires little water and no chemical inputs.  It is called the freedom tree and the tree of hope.


Today Africa accounts for only 2% of global trade.  If sub-Saharan Africa were to increase that share by 1%, it would generate export revenues each year which would be greater than the total amount of annual assistance Africa currently receives.  For many, that really is a vision of hope.