Only 32 years old, Bethlehem has won awards as the Young Global Leader, World Economic Forum, 2011, the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship 2011, Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, World Economic Forum on Africa 2012, and has been listed as one of Africa’s Most Successful Women, Forbes 2012. Did I hear you say what?! Who is she? What has she done? No, she did not invent great, new software, and no she is not a great economist although she is an Accountant.
Bethlehem makes and sells cool, trendy footwear made from recyclable materials which are 100% eco-friendly. The interesting thing is, I am 50% sure that there are local shoemakers in Nigeria who are doing exactly what she is doing, particularly in Aba, Abia State, but they have been unable to translate their workmanship into a brand. They rather seem more interested in passing it off as a product of some designer in faraway America. Perhaps this will turn that tide of thinking. People will buy good, quality products even if they don’t have Calvin Klein, Nike or Gucci emblazoned across it. At least, I will.
Anyways, SoleRebels came to be because 8 years ago, Bethlehem who lived in poor Zenebework in Addis Ababa observed that many skilled artisans in her neighbourhood lived in abject penury. She started the company with an investment of less than $10,000 (£6,400), put together by her immediate family. They use old tyres, natural fibres and hand-made fabrics – all locally sourced – to manufacture sandals and other shoes. SoleRebels has built a successful footwear brand utilizing a production process that is zero carbon production and very eco-sensitive.
The company is the planet’s first fair trade green footwear firm as certified by the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) – and is now one of Ethiopia’s most thriving businesses. Fair trade as defined by Wikipedia is an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries to make better trading conditions and promote sustainability. The movement advocates the payment of a higher price to exporters as well as higher social and environmental standards. It focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries.
SoleRebels has over 85 full-time employees, and more than 200 local suppliers of raw materials. They make around 800 pairs of shoes a day which are sold between $20 and $100. Its products are on sale in 55 countries, mostly through individual retailers, and its biggest markets are in Austria, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the United States. The shoes are also sold online via amazon and endless.
At a BBC interview, Bethlehem was full of zest as she said, “We are doing well. We are trying to do $2m this year. In 2016, we are planning to do $20m. So that’s why we are working hard and we are trying to expand our working facility. The demand is here. It’s up to us to take that advantage and to make it happen,” she added.
Any challenges? Sometimes foreign companies try to get their products at unfair prices. Says Bethlehem, “Since we are a fair trade organisation people want to buy fair trade shoes from us but they want to buy at cheap prices. That I don’t understand. I know that running a business is not that easy and there is always a threat, there is always a risk that we are going to take, but I love it.”
She now plans to build a bigger manufacturing plant where she hopes to employ up to 300 people. The factory will be totally ecological as SoleRebels wants to continue building on its reputation of being the world’s first fair trade green footwear company.
Alright, shut your mouth. I know it is amazing to be awarded for making shoes, but when you fight through the odds to do it, and enrich your community in the process, you deserve every accolade you get and then some.
Share your thoughts; how can you turn that “little” idea into a world class brand?
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