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Conscious Consumers Love: Sole Rebels


In 2004 Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu started a small operation in her community of Addis Ababa. It was an artistic venture that was simple and made sense.


It is changing the world.


In her community, jobs were scarce and poverty was rampant. Bethlehem looked at the aid community around the capital city of Ethiopia and saw ineffectiveness. Highly paid ex-pats and agencies were fighting poverty with the wrong vision and the wrong tools.


Bethlehem’s answer was to create jobs and her medium was shoes.


Bethlehem and her brother started soleRebels by creating edgy, comfortable and stylish shoes using organic and recycled materials, notably used tires. Nine years later, soleRebels employs over 120 Ethiopians, paying them a rate three times the industry standard, with full access to healthcare. The shoes have been sold in 55 countries and are delivered free of shipping charges. They estimate sales of $15-20 million by 2015.


SoleRebels is a success story with a formula that is so seemingly brilliant and simple that it is changing the landscape of African development, from organizational priorities to perspectives on natural resource management.


The model for social entrepreneurship was recast. There was a growing and dire problem: joblessness, hunger, and the harshest forms of poverty. Yet, these obstacles were met with an uncharacteristic understanding of available resources, as well as a local focus partnered with a global vision.


It’s the work that the aid community idealizes, a collision of trending buzzwords: sustainable, community-based income generation done locally with a global focus. However soleRebels stands for far more than a great product and in-vogue buzzwords. SoleRebels has created jobs and improved the livelihoods of workers, and served as a prototype for change.


Bethlehem says it best herself:


“(Sole Rebels) has forever shifted the discourse on African development from one of poverty alleviation orchestrated by external actors, to one about prosperity creation driven by local Africans maximizing their talents and resources.”


These are resources not viewed in the traditional context, but those that could be seen through the ethos of a passionate entrepreneur. The community of Zenabwork had few jobs. It did possess however, skilled and flexible craftsmen; women weaving beautiful garments and men who repaired clothing and shoes on dilapidated sewing machines.


Perhaps soleRebels would not be so marketable if the shoes themselves were simply average. That is simply not the case. The lines of shoes, from the animal friendly loafers to boots and flip-flops and now bags and t-shirts are colorful, fun and fashionable in their own right. More importantly they tell a story that consumers love. They are Toms, minus the self-righteousness and guilt. They are cool.


SoleRebels is the first African product designed and marketed for global consumption. It is a model for future projects, and voices a lesson for the development community echoed recently by the likes of President Obama and Dr. Kim of the World Bank, summarized succinctly in a recent speech:


“Africa needs trade not only aid, investment not only assistance.”


For too long there has existed a scourge of low expectations in regards to Africa. The International community has become too accustomed to cries for help, and while there are areas in which aid is desperately needed, if countries such as Ethiopia are to fulfill their enormous potential to capitalize on their own resources, development must come from within. SoleRebels has begun this process by focusing on local talent, creativity, and resourcefulness.  Don’t just buy these shoes to help alleviate poverty, buy them because they are awesome.


As Bethlehem stated in an interview with the UN,

“Today, Africa accounts for a mere two percent of global trade. If sub-Saharan Africa were to increase that share by only one percent, it would generate additional export revenues each year greater than the total amount of annual assistance that Africa currently receives. “


SoleRebels is not asking for pity, but simply profits that like in any economy create jobs that can improve the quality of life for citizens.  Says Bethlehem, “We simply need the opportunity to increase our market share, something every good, strong, global business seeks to do.”


African businesses are simply asking for a seat at the table. SoleRebels is pulling up a chair.

Note: Nobody, not even Sole Rebels, is paying us to say nice things about this product.  We just think they're awesome.