Ethiopian firm turns recycled tires into global brand
Addis Ababa, Dec. 2, 2017 (AltAfrika)-Having founded her shoe company more than a decade ago in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Addis Ababa, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu has reached a global audience and is now seeking to expand exports beyond 50 countries.
The company she founded in 2004 — soleRebels — produces handcrafted, ecofriendly footwear from recycled tires and other local material.
Based in Zenebework, one of the Ethiopian capital’s poorest neighbourhoods, the company has thrived and is expanding to meet demand from ethically- and fashion-conscious customers around the world.
“SoleRebels is a story of a creative vision, empowerment and sustainability,” Tilahun, 36, told Anadolu Agency recently.
“We are not selling a product but a story.”
The soleRebels brand is currently sold in 50 countries, as well as online, in slip-on, sandal and lace-up form and Tilahun, a mother-of-three, wants to double her market.
The product is one of the fastest growing African footwear brands and Tilahun employs around 200 staff. “We are going to employ 200 more to work in our expansion,” she said.
The company is a month away from opening a new factory built at a cost of $20 million.
“It combines the handmade tradition of the company with automation and would multiply production capacity,” she said.
The factory is at the heart of a plan to expand the number of shops around the world and boost revenue into the tens of millions of dollars.
“We are encouraged by local demand,” Tilahun, who, for her entrepreneurial talent was named among Forbes magazine’s 100 most powerful women to watch in 2012, said.
“Previously the majority of our local buyers were people who passed by Addis Ababa and tourists but now 55 percent of the buyers are locals.”
Anadolu Agency met Tilahun in one of her shops in Addis Ababa, where a framed copy of the Forbes article hangs. A year before that accolade she was named a young global leader at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
She recounted the story of soleRebels from its origins in Zenebework, where poverty and unemployment had left many people filled with hopelessness.
However, many of the community’s unemployed were skilled in traditional Ethiopian craftsmanship.
“After I finished school, I began contemplating ways of transforming the creative skills of the artisans and available materials to a product, hopes and a job,” Tilahun said.
“SoleRebels was an idea to be able to find job opportunities for myself and people around me and the idea came from recycled tires.”
She explained that Ethiopian Selate and Barabaso style of footwear were made from the rubber of used tires. With five staff and little money, Tilahun set out to reproduce and upgrade these shoes using old tires for the soles and handspun cotton or other local material for the upper.
Each pair was embellished with eye-catching designs by traditional artisans.
“When we began to enter into the global market, some rebuffed our sales requests,” she said. “Others said ‘How come you try to make shoes when you have nothing to eat in Ethiopia…’.”
SoleRebels currently produces around 800 pairs of shoes a day, each priced at $35 to $95.
The company makes up part of Ethiopia’s $39 million shoes exports, according to the Ethiopian Leather and Leather Products Institute.
Spokesman Berhanu Segebo said soleRebels filled a unique niche in the industry.
“SoleRebels is building a big factory with big investment,” he said. “We are supporting them, and when it begins production, it would increase export volume and earnings.”