Stepping Out, Ethiopian Style

Shoemaker soleRebels, whose funky footwear is entirely designed and made in Ethiopia, is boosting its international profile

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Call it a small step for a brand, but a giant leap for Ethiopian business. Shoemaker soleRebels, whose funky footwear is entirely designed and made in Ethiopia, set up its second overseas outlet in the Taiwanese city of Kaoshiung last month. The brand already operates a store in Vienna.

Boosting its international profile is a distinct possibility for soleRebels, which sells the world’s only Fair Trade-certified footwear. The fashionably designed sandals, slip-ons, lace-ups and boots are handmade and feature organic cotton linings. They’re environmentally friendly too: many of the products have soles made from recycled car tires, as does a lot of the everyday footwear found in Ethiopia.

“We are working for change,” says CEO Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu. She started soleRebels in her mid-20s with five staff and a small workshop in her grandmother’s village of Zenabwork, outside Addis Ababa. Inspiration came from her homeland: poverty and unemployment indicated the need for new enterprises, and plentiful Ethiopian artisanal skills were indicative of unused talent. What won Alemu professional recognition and a string of awards, however, was her determination that soleRebels would subvert the image of Ethiopia so firmly established by the famines of 1984-5, and the international response of Band Aid and Live Aid. The brand’s foundation, says Alemu, is “trade not aid.” She adds: “We can produce and sell, and do it all by ourselves. We are not begging all the time.”

One key to achieving that ambition is the soleRebel look. Producing a pair of soleRebels takes plenty of traditional skill, andsome designs, particularly the tooToos (a kind of daytime, woolly slipper) definitely will be new to non-Ethiopians. But the idea was never to produce an ethnic novelty item. The sandals, for instance, are like Havaianas, but funkier. The suede sneakers and lace-up boots are pure urban hip. “I love to share Ethiopian’s artisan heritage with the world,” says Alemu, “but adding modern design sensibilities to give universal flavor and appeal.”

Though it presently sells mostly via its online store, the brand hopes to have 15 outlets around the world by 2020. It has also expanded into bags and will soon launch a range of hats. Back home in Ethiopia, Alemu employs 90 staff, but once she opens a new factory currently under construction, she expects to grow that to 300 employees. She is nothing less than ambitious. First, says Alemu: “We will be the best footwear brand in the world.” Second? “We will forever shift the discourse on development.”