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Ethiopia's soleRebels fair trade shoes: green by heritage

Founded in 2004 by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, her husband and brother Kirubel to bring jobs to their community in Zenabwork, Ethiopia, soleRebels is the first Ethiopian IFAT Fair Trade footwear firm and one of the only ones globally.

While still completely family owned and operated, they have gained international recognition from publications like The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Treehugger and Worldchanging.

The over-arching business is called bostex plc, which stands for “By Ourselves textiles”- a nod to the fact that the company makes most of its inputs by itself and by hand. soleRebels is the  company’s core brand and focuses on footwear, apparel and accessories.

The brand is now stocked by many leading retailers including Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods, Amazon and Endless, among many other web retailers. soleRebels b*knd label is for vegans and veggies and can be found at UK veg-friendly shoe retailer Veganline.

Less than four years ago there were hardly any jobs in the founders community, but now soleRebels have given over 40 people full-time dignified well paying work and a further 100 part-time jobs. This is just the beginning as the company is now in serious expansion mode.

Zero carbon output manufacturing for a recycled tire sole shoe

soleRebels has achieved all this by re-imagining the traditional selate and barabasso shoe, a traditional recycled tire sole shoe found in Ethiopia for generations.

They’ve taken this age-old recycling tradition and elevated it to new heights by marrying it with Ethiopian artisan crafts and modern design sensibilities. In doing this they have turned the soleRebels brand into a market-beating footwear brand that is retailed in countries around the world, including the USA, the UK, Japan, Canada, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Portugal and Germany.

One of the truly exciting things about soleRebels is that they are green by heritage and not, as they point out , because some marketing whiz told them  to be.

They maximize recycled inputs and craft their materials and products in the traditional manner as they have always been made in Ethiopia- by hand. So that means authentically and historically zero carbon output in their manufacturing process.

As Tilahun Alemu explains, “Here in Ethiopia recycling things is a way of life; in fact we’ve been recycling for years without ever calling it recycling. When you have limited resources everything is valued and valuable, everything has a purpose even if not the original purpose it was intended for.”

Heritage organic Ethiopian cottons and traditional spinning and looming

soleRebels also uses many traditional inputs like heritage organic Ethiopian cottons which they source from small scale cotton farmers and then spin and loom by hand. Spinning and looming in the traditional handcrafted manner means a few crucial things are achieved: the company preserves and promotes important Ethiopian artisan crafts while also ensuring that the small cotton farmers of Ethiopia can continue growing an historic crop in the traditionally organic manner they have been doing for centuries.

“Stepping into a soleRebel, like our pureLOVE series for example, which is entirely made from our famed handspun and handloomed organic Abyssinian pure cottons, is truly a decadent treat– it’s like slipping your foot into your softest socks,” Bethlehem proudly explains with a laugh.

Fair trade with no middleman

soleRebels are pioneers and big proponents of producer direct Fair Trade where there is no middleman to absorb profits. They do this with many global customers including amazon.com, endless.com, Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods to whom they ship directly, handling all the account functions- from order intake, to production, media, marketing and invoicing- in-house right at their headquarters in Ethiopia, by themselves.

This is truly pioneering fair trade and the company believes it’s the best way to trade as it both maximizes the producers benefits while simultaneously giving maximum value to the retailer and the best price to the final consumer.

Bethlehem observes that, “in a time when supply chains are still so dislocated and disconnected from the producer to the consumer, I think we provide an interesting and viable alternative. We believe that consumers connect to our model  of business as they can see the producer controlling the brand and also reaping the benefits. In other words they see truly sustainable development in action. So soleRebels resonates with important values while providing amazingly stylish and cool footwear products and a chance to represent those values- so it’s a double win for the consumer and us.”

An example for African development

Creating a market leading eco-ethical footwear brand in this manner, and one that is retailed around the world, is also an important first for both the company and for Ethiopia. Bethlehem believes their story heralds truly sustainable development both for the community where soleRebels is based and for Ethiopia as a nation.

“To best appreciate the significance of a global brand emerging from a country like Ethiopia, pause and imagine the deep economic uplift and distributed benefits that become possible as soleRebels becomes a brand as prolific as Timberland or Adidas or Puma. Building and controlling and owning 100% of a global brand as we have been doing, holds exactly these types of exciting possibilities. And that is real and true and lasting and sustainable development”.

The soleRebels model is a real example of what can happen when young and motivated and talented African entrepreneurs like Bethelehem, take on the global market, compete and win. Bethlehem believes her company can set a more sustainable standard for African development.

“Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, desperately needs more trade and not aid or charity. Only then, with sufficient financial resources evenly spread, can we begin to bask in the self satisfaction that comes from financing the solutions to our own problems and not having them always financed from outside. Trade is such an essential key to Africa’s upliftment as it is the key to job creation, income realization and ultimately, if conducted on the right terms, that all too elusive thing that sustains us all– hope.”