Ethiopian tread shoes a hit

Ethiopian entrepreneur Bethlehem Tilahun
Alemu is selling thousands of her country’s
traditional shoes made from recycled tire,
to customers abroad.

• Bethlehem Tilahum Alemu
soleRebels Ethiopia
+251 0911 110848

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Nosimilo Ndlovu

Former accountant Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu founded soleRebels in 2004 to create jobs for people in her community. The company design traditional Ethiopian shoes made from recycled tires. Five years after opening shop, they have sold thousands of pairs to customers in Canada, Australia, England, and Japan and are now receiving major orders from the US.

A few weeks before Christmas, workers at the soleRebels factory based in on the outskirts of the Ethopian capital, Addis Ababa, were frantically cutting, sewing and gluing to fulfil internet purchases from customers abroad.

The young entrepreneur got the idea to start the company while brainstorming for an Ethiopian-flavoured product that could be produced sustainably. She remembered the truck-tyre sandals worn by local fighters. “Recycling is a way of life here, you don’t throw things away that you can use again and again,” she said. “I wanted to build on that idea.”

At the time, other Ethiopian shoe companies were struggling to compete with cheap imports from China. Alemu decided to concentrate instead on the export market, where she believed customers would be willing to pay good money for authentically designed products.

She found a supplier who could deliver old truck tyres and tubes. She then hired women to spin, weave and dye locally-grown cotton, jute and hemp using skills passed down through generations.

Determined to compete in the international market, Alemu did her research on the latest trends before starting to design her brand of unique and trendy sandals.

By adding funky cotton and leather uppers to recycled tyre soles, she soon found her own style of handmade flip-flops, boat shoes, loafers and Converse-style trainers.

Some are simple cotton-covered or leather-covered flip flops and sandals with names like Class Act and Gruuv Thong. The bestselling ones, called Urban Runner, are inspired by the classic Converse All Star trainer, with a piece of inner tubing for the toecap and organic cotton-covered footbeds.

“Almost all the materials are locally sourced, including the camouflage material used on some shoes, which is cut from old army uniforms,” she said.

Growing from tread to thread

When Alemu received an International Fair Trade certification, she began sending emails and samples to United States stores and websites. Shops such as Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters agreed to stock the shoes. They were imported duty-free under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act; this helped prices stay competitive.

The shoes were well received by the customers abroad and word spread. Alemu set up a website for soleRebles and individual customers began buying directly from the website. The shoes are couriered from Ethiopia, arriving to the various countries within a week.

Alemu said that her best move however was signing on an American-based online retailer. “Business really took off when Amazon signed up as a customer the company receives hundreds of orders per day. We are sitting in Addis Ababa but acting like an American company,” she said.

sole¬Rebels currently employs 45 full-time staff who can produce up to 500 pairs of shoes a day. Alemu is hoping to hire more people in a few months, once the footwear range, priced between R250 ($34) and R487 ($65), goes on Amazon’s new United Kingdom footwear branch website,

The company’s sales target for 2010 is at R3.6-million (US$492 428), but Alemu’s ultimate goal is even bigger. “We want to become the Timberland or Skechers of Africa”.