Seven years ago, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, then 25, founded a shoe company – in Addis Ababa. Now she overseas a booming company with over 100 full-time employees in Ethiopia alone. Alemu belongs to a new generation of female African entrepreneurs who’re building their own success in a globalized economy.
Cool people in Japan wear SoleRebels shoes. So do cool Austrians and Americans. Indeed, the colorful shoes (purple, anyone?), made almost exclusively from recycled materials, light up sidewalks in metropolises around the world.
To visit SoleRebels’ factory and headquarters, one drives out of Addis, finally reaching a dirt road lined by shacks. Then one reaches an even smaller dirt road, passing children and even the head of a dead goat, stops and knocks on a metal gate.
This is where Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu reigns. “In Ethiopia people wear footwear made from recycled tires”, she explains. “Recycling is part of life here. I took that idea and made modern shoes out of it.” She taught herself shoe-making, designed shoes that feature not just recycled tires (the soles) but also recycled jute and discarded new blankets (as padding) – and even old army uniforms. In fact, over 50% of the materials in SoleRebels’ shoes is recycled.
Sounds perfect, right? But being an African entrepreneur is “tough, tough”, Bethlehem says: “It’s 20 times harder to run a business here. As an Ethiopian company it’s really hard to find a market.” (Ethiopians are usually referred to by their first names.) But in some ways, Africa is fertile ground for green companies like SoleRebels. Bethlehem gets her blankets and used uniforms from local markets; her employees collect the tires from the truck route leading from Addis to neighboring Djibouti.
The list of female entrepreneurs is impressive: Bethlehem’s countrywoman Eleni Gabre-Madhin founded the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, while Divine Ndhlukula founded and runs one of Zimbabwe’s leading security companies. Jacqueline Musiitwa, a young Rwandan, has founded one of the country’s leading law firms. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Africa Commission Report, “women make a greater contribution to economic life than their menfolk”. In Cape Verde and Botswana, women now own more than half of all SMEs (but less than 10% in Nigeria and South Africa), according to figures from Enterprise Survey. And like Bethlemen, the female entrepreneurs are young: on average four years younger than their male counterparts.
At the SoleRebels factory, employees wash the tires and cut them to sole shapes. In one room, a group of middle-aged men weave fabric from organic cotton. Several women dye the fabric with soil and flowers and then cut and sew the fabric, while another room features a virtual assembly line of young men and women who put the shoes together. “We do have a lot of people around us here in Ethiopia”, explains Bethlehem. “And it wouldn’t make sense to make the shoes anywhere else. The material comes from Ethiopia.” Next to the human assembly line is a pile of shoe orders, placed via the internet; SoleRebel shoes are also sold in several shoe stores in the West. But internet access has been down for a week; Bethlehem has had to use a mobile internet stick.
There may be impoverished children and heads of dead goats in front of her factory, but she’s just been named a Woman To Watch by Forbes Magazine and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Soon SoleRebels will open its first own shops abroad, in Taiwan, Canada, Austria and Switzerland; another one is planned in Brooklyn. “Then I want to develop SoleRebel kiosks in different cities”, says Bethlehem. “You step on it, choose your style and size, and the order is automatically transferred to our office.” It’s a good thing she has a mobile internet stick.