Old truck tyres never die, they just turn into sandals. For decades that has been the tradition in Ethiopia, where everyone from farmers to guerrilla fighters has fashioned worn-out road rubber into cheap, long-lasting footwear.
But now, thanks to a young woman entrepreneur who has combined the internet‘s selling power with nimble business practices more often associated with Asian countries, the idea has been turned into an unlikely international hit. By adding funky cotton and leather uppers to recycled tyre soles, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu has sold many thousands of pairs of handmade flip-flops, boat shoes, loafers and Converse-style trainers to foreign customers.
In the run-up to Christmas, workers at the soleRebels “factory” – a small house on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital – were frantically cutting, sewing and gluing to fulfil internet purchases from customers as far away as Canada and Australia. Alemu’s brother packed pairs of cotton and suede trainers into a box about to be couriered to Amazon.com, the company’s main customer, which receives the shoes in the US three to five days after placing its bulk order. “We are sitting in Addis Ababa but acting like an American company,” said Alemu, an excitable 30-year-old former accountant who is fond of reeling off the numbers that illustrate her firm’s rapid growth.
Just five years after start-up, soleRebels employs 45 full-time staff who can produce up to 500 pairs of shoes a day. More will be hired after next month once the footwear range, priced between £21 and £40, goes on sale online in the UK and Japan on Amazon’s new footwear website javari.co.uk. The company’s sales target for 2010 is an impressive £300,000, but Alemu’s ultimate goal – one she seems deadly serious about – is far loftier: to become “the Timberland or Skechers of Africa”.
The success of soleRebels, which has thrived in the global market with no outside support other than a government line of credit to help meet large orders, is challenging preconceptions both about Ethiopia and the best way to lift its people out of poverty.
Abroad, the landlocked country still suffers from an image of a hungry and often helpless nation, with 6 million people requiring food relief and billions of dollars of aid each year. But where some might see despair Alemu saw inspiration. While brainstorming for an Ethiopian-flavoured product that could be produced in a sustainable manner, she remembered the truck tyre sandals, which were used by local fighters who repelled Italian soldiers many decades ago, as well as the rebels who marched into Addis Ababa in 1991 and today run the government. “Recycling is a way of life here – you don’t throw things away that you can use again and again,” she said. “I wanted to build on that idea.”
At the time other Ethiopian shoe companies were struggling to compete with cheap imports from China. SoleRebels decided to concentrate instead on the export market, where Alemu reasoned that customers would pay good money for uniquely designed products. She found a supplier who could deliver old truck tyres and tubes, and hired women to spin, weave and dye pieces of locally-grown cotton, jute and hemp using skills passed down through generations.
Tracking international shoe fashion trends on the web, Alemu designed a range of footwear. Some are simple cotton-covered or leather covered flip-flops and sandals with names like Class Act and Gruuv Thong. The bestselling Urban Runner takes inspiration from the classic Converse All Star “lo-top” trainer, with a piece of inner tubing for the toecap and organic cotton-covered footbeds. Virtually all the materials are locally sourced, including the camouflage material used on some shoes, which is cut from old army uniforms.
After receiving international fair trade certification, Alemu began bombarding US stores and websites with emails and samples. Shops such as Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters agreed to stock the shoes, which were imported duty-free under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, helping prices stay competitive. As word spread, individual customers began buying directly from the soleRebels website – the Christmas order from Canada included a scanned trace of the customer’s foot – with the shoes usually arriving by courier from Ethiopia within a week. But business really took off when Amazon signed up as a customer. Alemu is an evangelist for the online business model, saying it allows the company “to understand the market needs and demands in real time”. SoleRebels negotiates directly with retailers, doing everything from ordering processing to credit collection itself, and ensures most of the final sales price remains in Ethiopia. As a result, Alemu said, she can pay her staff between £1.20 a day for trainees and £7 a day for experienced artisans – good wages by local standards. In turn, the government earns more taxes, spurring more development.
“In Ethiopia we have become used to taking money from the west, to always getting help,” said Alemu. “That does not make for a sustainable economy. We need to solve our own problems.”
The success has enabled soleRebels to begin construction of a solar-powered factory near the current workshop, to allow for expanded production. While it will better showcase the company’s eco-friendly methods, that’s not the main reason customers like the shoes, Alemu said. “People buy soleRebels because they are good, not just because they are green or from Ethiopia. Our product speaks for itself.”