Africa's Most Successful Women: Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu - Forbes
Mfonobong Nsehe, Contributor
January 5, 2012
Every now and then, I profile outstanding African women who’re making giant strides in business, politics, technology, entrepreneurship and leadership on the continent and elsewhere around the world. This week, I profile the spectacular Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, an Ethiopian entrepreneur and the founder of SoleRebels, a thriving eco-sensitive footwear brand that pundits hail as Africa’s answer to brands such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas.
Entrepreneur Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was born and raised in Zenebework, a small, impoverished rural community in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. As a child, she discovered that people of her community were living in abject squalor because there were very few jobs available.
While the most of the locals were unemployed, Bethlehem discovered that several of them possessed remarkable artisan skills which remained largely unexploited. This observation drove her to brainstorm on ways through which she could transform the skills of her community members into a sustainable enterprise that could generate livelihoods for them, and create wealth over the long term.
By 2004, armed with startup capital sourced from her husband and members of her immediate family, Bethlehem mobilized artistically-gifted members of her community and founded SoleRebels- which has become one of Africa’s most recognizable footwear manufacturers.
Basically, SoleRebels produces footwear locally that often features a strong infusion of ancient Ethiopian culture with subtle undertones of modern, western design influences. Practically, all SoleRebels shoes are redesigns and reimaginations of the famous Selate and Barabasso shoe, a traditional recycled tire sole shoe which has been worn by Ethiopians for a very long time. The Selate and Barabasso shoe was famously worn by Ethiopian rebel fighters who vehemently opposed western forces from colonizing the country. As matter of fact, that’s where the name ‘soleRebels’ emerged from.
SoleRebels manufactures comfy sandals, slip-ons and lace-up shoes hand-crafted from recycled, weather-beaten tires and an assortment of locally-sourced natural fiber ingredients such as the ancient Koba plant (an indigenous plant which has been cultivated in Ethiopia for over several thousand years) and organic Abyssinian jute fiber which are used mainly in creating the mid-soles of SoleRebels shoes. By blending this ancient recycling tradition with contemporary, western-influenced, hip shoe designs, SoleRebels has built a successful footwear brand utilizing a production process that is zero carbon production and very eco-sensitive. All of SoleRebels shoes are hand-crafted by Bethlehem’s staff of over 100 people strictly using Ethiopian craft practices such as hand-spun organic cotton and artisan hand-loomed fabric. And the company sources all of its raw materials locally.
Today, shoes under the SoleRebels brand are sold in over 30 countries around the world and through various e-commerce sites like Amazon and Endless. SoleRebels also sells its products through its own e-commerce site. Prices vary, but you can get a pair of SoleRebels for anywhere from $20 to $100.
SoleRebels has become a hugely successful, sustainable, truly world-class enterprise. I asked Bethlehem sometime last year for revenues of her company. Like most African entrepreneurs I’ve encountered, she refused to divulge the numbers. But SoleRebels takes in at least $1 million in annual revenue. I know this because the company was among the top 5 finalists of the 2011 edition of the prestigious Legatum Africa Awards For Entrepreneurship. One of the criteria for the finalists was that their companies had proven annual revenues of $1 million – $15 million.
Bethlehem has earned significant international recognition for her work at SoleRebels and is now one of Africa’s most recognizable female entrepreneurs. Early last year, she was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. In June she won the award of ‘Most Outstanding Businesswoman’ at the annual African Business Awards organized by African Business Magazine, and in November, she was named the ‘Most Valuable Entrepreneur’ at the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW).
A lady of grandiose ambitions, Bethlehem is relentlessly pursuing her dream of building an international footwear brand right from the heart of Ethiopia. And she’s making significant progress. SoleRebels has opened up a retail outlet in Taiwan and has franchise proposals for Canada, Italy, Australia, Israel, Spain, Japan and the United States among other countries. In a recent interview with Tadias Magazine, Bethlehem estimated that revenues from Sole Rebels retail operations will hit the $10 million mark by 2016. Considering the exceptional success she’s achieved in less than 8 years, she’ll probably exceed her estimations.