By Samson Berhane
Leather made traditional footwear are falling apart in the age of synthetic products. However, new entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the opportunities left behind.
One surprisingly obvious opportunity was discovered by Bethlehem Tilahun.
As a founder and manager, she has successfully built SolRebels, a producer of eco-friendly shoes that are sold by renowned large retailers globally such as Whole Foods and Amazon as well a growing number of the company’s own outlets.
The 38-year-old was born and raised in Addis Ababa, along with her husband and brother, the family founded the first Ethiopian IFAT Fair Trade footwear firm 14 years ago.
“I wanted to do something that would give me job opportunities and the people around me, I immediately thought of starting a small business.” Tilahun, a mother of three, recounts.
With the aim of creating job opportunities and fighting unemployment and poverty in one of the most drought affected countries globally, her finding about the remarkable artisan skills possessed by her community prompted the internationally acclaimed entrepreneur to establish SolRebels- a company once described by Forbes as one of Africa’s most recognizable footwear manufacturers.
Such a move, made with a capital obtained from her husband and families, helped her to establish a firm generating revenues and wealth for her community. To be precise, it started with a bank loan of $33,000.
Solerebels, which turns scraps of rubber from old tires and other recycled material into stylish footwear, commenced operation with five employees in a slum area of Addis Ababa, which is a home of more than half a million unemployed youths.
It has created job opportunities for 1,200 employees and aims to have 3,000 full time employees by the end of this year when its new production facility becomes operational.
The company produces local footwear that features a mix of ancient Ethiopian culture with modern and western design influences.
In fact, all SoleRebels shoes are inspired by the renowned Barabasso shoe, a traditional recycled tire sole shoe that has been amongst casual wear of Ethiopians for over half a century.
“When you have limited resources everything is valuable,” said Tilahun in her interview with Faircompanies, when she was explaining the importance of recycling to her business.
Aside tires, SolRebels also employs traditional inputs, including cotton sources from farmers and then whirled and loomed by hand.
As one of the Ecommerce pioneers of the African continent, Tilahun made several retail partnership to boost the sales. This includes her pacts with ecommerce giants such as Amazon, Endless, Javari, Amazon UK and the EU’s #1 online footwear retailer spartoo.com, a move said to have helped SoleRebels become a world class brand and hailed as the Nike of Africa.
Bethlehem’s company currently sells its footwear in over 30 countries and plans to increase that to 50 by the end of this year, with a projected revenue of almost 12 million dollars during the same period.
“We aim to be possibly the next Timberland or Adidas or Nike or Puma,” Tilahun, whose company sold over 125,000 pairs of shoes in the past year alone, hopes.
Besides creating the fastest growing consumer brand from Africa, Tilahun, who thinks conventional wisdom is the antithesis of entrepreneurialism, is now considering diversifying into the coffee sector, which is the number one GDP contributor to the economy of Ethiopia. She has created a new venture known as Garden of Coffee.
“I opened Garden of Coffee to help people across the globe experience the magic of hand-roasted Ethiopian coffees. My driving passion as an entrepreneur was always about sharing Ethiopian culture with the world and finding exciting ways to keep this culture vibrant and fully relevant,” remarks Tilahun, who won 2016 businesswoman of the year award from AALBA, CNBC & Forbes.
In spite of being skyrocketed in the global arena, Tilahun’s faith in her community did not faded away. The best road to true and lasting prosperity lies in communities that produce world class products that leverage local talents and resources,” she concludes.