« 100 Years – 100 Lives » | ETHIOPIA - “I always wanted to produce locally and sale globally”

A successful businesswoman from Ethiopia who benefitted from ILO training explains how she managed to deploy local resources while creating a market-leading global brand.

Reportage | Ethiopia | 31 juillet 2019
ADDIS ABABA – “It was pretty basic. We self-financed. Five workers plus myself working inside a workshop situated on my grandmother’s plot of land inside our village of Zenabwork,” recalls Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, now CEO and managing director of soleRebels, one of the first global footwear brands to emerge from a developing country.

“Right from the start of 2004, we aimed to create, grow and control a world class footwear brand that would bring even more jobs and prosperity for the workers by leveraging the artisan skills of our community.”

Alemu, 34, was born and raised in Addis Ababa’s impoverished and marginalized Zenabwork area. Her mother and father, who worked as a cook and an electrician, respectively, had a huge influence on this woman who became later a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship.

Today, the eco-sensitive company she runs sells shoes through numerous retail outlets across Europe and Asia, and employs workers locally who are paid over three to five times the local industry average.

“There are people who started with us earning a modest training salary of about ETB 900 (US$ 45) and now earn more than a (medical) doctor,” she said.

Creating jobs, empowering communities

Before starting her business, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu – also known as “BTA” – went to college at Unity University in Addis Ababa and worked with various companies in the leather and apparel sector.

But after working in the private sector for a while, she developed a strong desire to focus her business skills on her community.

“I knew that there were so many talented people out there who could do great things if only given a chance. However, due to extreme poverty, stigma, and marginalization, many of them could not even get simple jobs. This was devastating for me, as I had grown up with them. They were my neighbours, my family members.”

“That’s why we have always said that this company is about maximizing local talent and local resources to create good paying jobs, that in turn would create extraordinary footwear,” she added.

« BTA » also joined the senior management team of the Ethiopian Women Exporters Association. Between 2007 and 2011, the young businesswoman and her colleagues could benefit from several training sessions implemented by the ILO on issues such as business management, exhibition and fair skills and the development of strategic plans for the Association

The ILO involvement made it possible for them to further increase their skills and become even more efficient.

Be a global leader from Ethiopia

Named one of the top 12 women entrepreneurs of the last century by CNN, Alemu knew that the initial designs of the shoes (inspired by the selate/barbasso sandals worn by Ethiopian soldiers against the colonial occupation) needed to take advantage of the creative platform of the footwear industry.

The shoes are made of non-traditional materials, such as recycled tires, organic cotton, jute and hemp. And they are handmade through a low-tech, zero-carbon production process.

“I wanted to show that it is possible to be a local person, in Ethiopia and in Africa, and to be globally successful,” she said. “It is possible to deploy local resources while creating a market-leading global brand, and to do it all from scratch.”

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