Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Everybody in Addis is wearing soleRebels shoes or sandals, the fair trade shoes developed a few years ago by young woman entrepreneur Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu. At just 32, she is collecting young entrepreneurs’ awards for the first ever footwear company to be Fair Trade certified which she set up in 2005.
From very modest beginnings in the neighborhood where she grew up in Addis Ababa, she has built up a successful brand and is now exporting worldwide through major retailers, as well as selling online. Her initial idea was to bring jobs to her community, Zenabwork, a small village in Addis, where her family and neighbours were struggling to make ends meet. She wanted to harness the community’s artisan skills and channel them into a sustainable, global, fair trade footwear business. For her, shoes were an obvious choice because she could use local skills and material 100% produced in Ethiopia. Her idea was to recreate the traditional “selate” shoes made from recycled car tyres, but update the style to make a fashionable, yet alternative product. She says it was the shoes the rebels wore when fighting the invading forces; they kept Ethiopia as the only African country not to have been colonised. Unlike the generation just before her, Bethlehem never felt the need to leave her country. She was still a child when the repressive Derg regime fell in 1991, and therefore was less affected by it.Twenty years previously, in the 1970s, a whole generation of Ethiopian left in search of a better life in Europe or America. Today, they are referred to as the Ethiopian Diaspora.
Now a few years later, Bethlehem has succeeded in her shoe venture by combining attractive Ethiopian artisan skills with the age-old recycling tradition that exists in the country. The soles are genuinely made from recycled car tyres, while the body of the shoe is made from pure Ethiopian leather or Abyssinian hemp woven by her own artisans. She pays a lot of attention to the quality of the manufacturing process. All her artisans are trained directly in-house, they make each pair by hand, one at a time, making it a truly zero carbon production process. Being a true entrepreneur, she won’t stop here. She has plans to increase her workforce by one thousand full time employees in the next couple of years, from a current figure of 100 staff, who can already produce about 300 pairs of shoes or 500 pairs of sandals per day. She also wants her workers to be well paid so they can truly improve their livelihood. She says she pays them about three times the industrial average. Recently, she started diversifying into casual clothes using the cotton and hemp woven by her workers, and opened a second boutique in Addis just next to her shoe store in the Adam’s Pavilion shopping mall.
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