Co-founded by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu in 2005, soleRebels is a family owned brand and manufacturer of hand-crafted footwear based in Zenabwork village, Addis Ababa, in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Ethiopias).
Within a few years of its foundation, the small and medium sized enterprise (SME) had rejuvenated a community, invigorated a nation and revolutionized an industry. Based on Ethiopia’s long history of handmade goods built with recycled and environmentally friendly raw materials, soleRebels products – which include sandals, slippers, shoes and boots for men, women and children – are not only comfortable and stylish; they are also durable and affordable.
With a growing portfolio of trendy and high quality products and brands, soleRebels has created hundreds of jobs within a poor and marginalized community.
The company and its remarkable brand have expanded international market access for hundreds of Ethiopian artisans across Africa, the European Union (EU), North America and Asia.
As a result, the socio-economic wellbeing of thousands of people in Zenabwork and in the rest of the country has been improved while the region’s environment is being sustained.
Ethiopia has had a long history of making traditional, quality, hand-made crafts based on recycled and raw materials.
For centuries, craftsmen and women in the country have used manual looms (known as inzert in the local dialect) in order to spin plant fibers such as cotton, hemp and koba – a plant species indigenous to Ethiopia. These fibers and materials, in turn, have been relied on to create attractive, durable and useful products such as shoes and clothing.
Moreover, due to the country’s vast livestock culture, there has been an ever present resource for hides that innovators have relied on to develop new materials and everyday goods based on leather.
Furthermore, since the advent of automobiles in the country, Ethiopian artisans have incorporated modern technologies such as the rubber of used car tires in order to manufacture various handmade goods including the soles of footwear – or barabasso.
These creative workers, however, have often developed their skills and plied their trade in small-scale units without ready or direct access to the national or global market.
soleRebels has embraced the country’s craftsmen and women and utilized their rich and environmentally sustainable manufacturing tradition for handmade products to inspire new creations for a regional and international footwear market.
As Ms. Alemu said, “It’s always good if you start something new. It’s challenging [for] you [and it makes people] ask a lot of questions. Once you dare, it’s really good.”
Indeed, the SME has been able to revive and rejuvenate Ethiopia’s traditional crafts industry, expand and modernize its own product range and create well-paid jobs providing value-added, scaled production.
Named after rebel soldiers in the country who were renowned for wearing sandals made of used car tires, the SME has also relied on Ethiopian tradition and social history as a foundation for economic development.
Originally established via a bank loan of 580,000 Ethiopian Birr (approximately US$33,000), the company’s workshop in Zenabwork village began sourcing raw materials such as cotton from small-scale farmers in the country. With such raw materials, soleRebels has been able to manufacture a wide range of shoes for customers of all ages.
Indeed, every meter of fabric used to manufacture the company’s products has been spun on traditional, manual looms made of eucalyptus – a fast-growing tree that is commonly used in Ethiopia for timber-based tools.
In addition, the footwear maker has continued the long tradition in the country of collecting, sorting and recycling the rubber of used car tires and leather from the hides of cattle in order to inspire new creations.
Moreover, each sole of the company’s footwear is hand-cut and stitched to the top half of the product by teams of craftsmen in the soleRebels workshop in order to ensure a natural fit that is comfortable, attractive and long-lasting.
By combining traditional shoe-making crafts and locally sourced raw materials enhanced with modern fashion sensibilities, the company had been able to create contemporary, value-added products and brands for an international market.
As of 2012, soleRebels was in the process of establishing a modernized R&D production facility (that would be staffed with in-house product designers and artisans) in Addis Ababa. In the same year, the workshop in Zenabwork village employed 75 full time members and 120 part-time workers who produced 500 pairs of sandals and 200 pairs of shoes daily.
In order to win new customers and retain loyal clientele, soleRebels has focused on creating attractive brands and ecologically viable, value-added and quality goods. To promote these products, the company has utilized multi-media campaigns and collaborations with international industry partners.
For instance, the soleRebels brand – which is inspired by the country’s long history of independence – was launched in 2005 as a strategy for the SME’s entry into a competitive global footwear industry.
By 2012, soleRebels had created several handmade brands and 900 unique models within its expanding portfolio of products.
Some of the company’s brands include coZEES (boots for women in 15 models and various colors); Slip-Ons (comfortable and easy-to-wear shoes in 232 types and several colors); sandals and flip-flops (in 294 models and myriad colors); Lace-Ups (or laced shoes, in 212 models and a variety of color combinations); and, b*knd (a brand made of non-animal products that is aimed at a niche market of vegetarians and vegans).
Moreover, the company has made the strategic decision to develop an image for its products that is ancient yet young, independent and rebellious.
By utilizing the symbolic power of the koba tree (a plant that has been indigenous to Ethiopia since time immemorial and resonates with the country’s history), the soleRebels’ logo/icon and slogan (“roots; culture; tires”) has conferred an image of durability and self-renewal whilst encapsulating the company’s corporate ideals: deep and enduring roots that are self-generated, youthful and ever flourishing.
Indeed, soleRebels has been keen to attach its corporate logo to its brands, and is proud to advertise the company’s self-sufficient capability based on locally procured assets that have been developed through traditional, native ingenuity.
As the company’s co-founder said, “Our model maximizes local development by creating a vibrant local supply chain while creating world class footwear that are loaded with style, comfort and appeal.”
The company, furthermore, has relied on Internet based commercialization tools in order to enhance its brand presence and reach a growing, global clientele.
Since 2011, the soleRelebs brand has been commercialized via an interactive company website (a first for an Ethiopian company, according to the SME).
soleRebels’ user-friendly website permits customers to view all its brands (including pricing) via interactive photographs of its goods (which can be viewed from multiple angles), videos and product search functions.
In addition, the website not only allows soleRebels’ clientele to customize products according to color and foot size; it also permits the company to keep an eye on its stock while making real time adjustments to supply and demand fluctuations of its goods.
Indeed, the convenient website encourages customers to upload pictures of the company’s products as worn by the customers themselves. Via the company’s efficient e-commerce facility, soleRebels has been able to tap into the international, multi-billion dollar world of Internet-based footwear sales.
Mindful of the power of the Internet, in 2011 the footwear maker launched a publicity campaign and competition on its website – called walkNAKED – which encouraged customers from around the world to submit photographs of the company’s products as worn by themselves in a variety of locations. Winning entries to the campaign would receive a free t-shirt branded with the walkNAKED logo.
The soleRebels website also attracts Internet savvy customers via its incorporation of high traffic social network websites such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.
The company’s clients are further attracted by a customer satisfaction assurance – called the happySOLES guarantee – which promises to replace goods free of charge for buyers who are unsatisfied with soleRebels’ products.
In support of its branding and online commercialization strategy, soleRebels has focused its market entry on the eco-ethical (or ecologically and ethically sound) niche market in collaboration with established international partners.
In order to improve the livelihood and well being of its artisans whilst enhancing its corporate image and ethical credentials, the company has worked with the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) – an international body that ensures fairness and trust between producers and manufacturers.
As a member of the WFTO, soleRebels has had to adhere to the organization’s 10 principles of Fair Trade which cover a range of categories such as work conditions, wages, the environment and gender equality.
Through this partnership, the SME became the first footwear maker in the world to receive the WFTO’s Fair Trade certification – an independently audited accreditation that certified soleRebels as fully satisfying all of the organization’s Fair Trade principles.
soleRebels’ entry into the international market has also benefited from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – a trade and development law of the US government. AGOA allows businesses from certain countries, including soleRebels in Ethiopia, to export goods tax-free into the United States of America (USA).
With a growing portfolio of well-made and ethically sourced and produced brands, the company has been able to enter the North American footwear market via a number of shops and Internet based outlets including Amazon.com Inc., Endless.com and Urban Outfitters Inc.
Moreover, soleRebels has developed its market presence in the EU via a number of retailers including Spartoo.com, an established online shop founded in the French Republic (France). The SME has also expanded into the Asia-Pacific region via several retailing partners including Rakuten, one of the largest online shopping agents in Japan.
As of 2012, soleRebels’ products were commercialized in several countries around the world including Canada, France, Japan, the Kingdom of Denmark, the United Kingdom and the USA.
In order to enter and thrive in a competitive global footwear market, soleRebels has developed a robust intellectual property (IP) strategy secured via the IP system.
To ensure its entry into the lucrative USA market, the company registered a trademark for Sole Rebels in 2010 at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). With that registration, the SME became the first privately owned company in Ethiopia to register a mark in the USA.
In the same year, soleRebels made a trademark application for its corporate name (which was registered in February 2013) in the EU market via the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market. Shortly thereafter, the SME secured the Walk Naked brand via another trademark registration at the USPTO. soleRebels, furthermore, has relied on domain names registrations in order to protect its IP assets while keeping its future avenues for expansion open.
With a growing and global customer base, as of 2012 the footwear manufacturer maintained two websites that allowed it to develop a global brand presence on the Internet: solerebels.com and solerebelsjapan.com (for the Japanese market).
Although Africa’s share of global trade increased slightly in the 2000s, the continent’s exports amounted to less than 5% of the international total (World Trade Organization, 2007).
With an annual growth rate of 10.4% and US$2 billion in exports (US Department of State, 2009/2010), Ethiopia, meanwhile, began to make rapid economic progress following decades of decline.
In order to compete in the global market and increase the country’s contribution to international trade, soleRebels has not only produced quality products; the company has also supported its human resource base and utilized the country’s natural assets and culture in a sustainable way.
As Ms. Alemu said, “[soleRebels believes] that saving the environment plus concern for workers never goes out of style.” Moreover, the entrepreneur added, “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.”
Since its foundation, the company has been committed to developing human resources and implementing environmentally sustainable practices. To this end, the SME provides work training for its employees as well as instilling a strong work ethic among them.
In addition, soleRebels promotes zero carbon emissions in its workshop as a means to sustain the country’s ecology while securing vital resources for its production processes and products.
By recycling used car tires and its inner rubber tubes, the company has utilized materials that would otherwise be discarded in environmentally unsustainable land-filled sites (where they contribute to pollution by being burned or buried).
Indeed, because all of the company’s products are handmade with raw materials (such as organically grown cotton and leather derived from free-ranging cattle) using manual tools (which requires a minimal use of electricity), soleRebels has been able to save energy and keep its carbon foot print to a minimum.
The company has also made the strategic decision to procure all of its materials from within Ethiopia (rather than importing it via airplane or ships which leave a high carbon footprint). To this end, soleRebels has sourced many of its materials from a growing network of local suppliers.
The company, furthermore, uses recycled materials throughout its operations (by packaging products using recycled shipping cartons or re-fashioning the used clothes of Ethiopian military personnel into materials for making shoes).
As the entrepreneur said, “Ethiopia is a poor country where nothing is thrown away. Everything will be recycled over and over again.”
Apart from implementing ecologically sound policies and creating jobs in a marginalized community, soleRebels has implemented a generous rewards scheme for its workers which include high pay and health insurance.
Craftsmen and women in the workshop in Zenabwork (some of whom work from home), for example, earn a monthly wage of approximately 3,000 ETB (US$174 in 2011) – or roughly four times the national average and three times that of similar workers in the industry in Ethiopia. soleRebels has also provided 100% medical coverage for its employees and their families.
Further, the company has employed historically marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities (who receive a transportation service to and from work), and implemented systems to ensure workers’ rights (including the right to collective bargaining).
The SME also enhances links within the community in order to spread the benefits of its success. By establishing an artisan education fund (which provides for the education of workers’ children and close relatives), for example, soleRebels has been able to improve educational and employment prospects within the community while sharing the benefits of its success with the people at the heart of its operations.
In its meteoric rise to success, soleRebels launched a global brand and opened international market access for many of Ethiopia’s artisans. With estimated earnings of between US$500,000 and US$1,000,000 (2009/2010 financial year), the company became Ethiopia’s number one footwear brand export to the USA. The SME, moreover, has been expanded to include a sister company in Asia – soleRebels Japan.
As a mark of its global success, soleRebels won the Green Award for best footwear (2010) by EcoBold – an online retailer of environmentally friendly products based in Mountain View, the state of California, USA.
Moreover, in recognition of her company’s remarkable growth, Ms. Alemu has been invited to give a number of prestigious talks around the world.
At the same time, the entrepreneur has won several prizes including the Outstanding African Business Woman (2011) award by the African Business Awards – an annual event that commemorates the continent’s leading entrepreneurs. Indeed, soleRebels’ co-founder was named among the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa (2011) by Forbes Magazine.
The entrepreneur, furthermore, was voted a Young Global Leader (2011) at the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit held in Davos, the canton of Graubünden, in the Swiss Confederation. In the same year, Ms. Alemu was named as a Founding Curator for the WEF’s “Global Shaper” community – an initiative that supports some of the world’s youngest social pioneers aged 20 to 30 years old.
From humble beginnings in a small village in Ethiopia, as of 2012 Ms. Alem was continuing to win international acclaim – including winning Social Entrepreneur of the Year at the WEF (2012) and being selected as "The World's Most Powerful Women to Watch," a platform she shared with only 12 other women, by Forbes magazine.
In the same year, the soleRebels footwear was commercialized in several retail outlets (including the company's flagship store in Addis Ababa) and the company was negotiating franchise agreements with several stores in over 10 countries while projecting annual revenues of US$15 million by 2015.
Indeed, the soleRebels brand is expected (by 2015) to have created over 600 jobs in countries outside of Africa – a first for a brand from the continent, according to Ms. Alemu.
By leveraging Ethiopia’s human, cultural and natural resources, Ms. Alemu has been able to develop a powerful brand that has created jobs not just in her community but also internationally.
Spearheaded by soleRebels footwear, the SME further ensured its entry into the gloabl market via strategic use of the IP system.
In doing so, soleRebels has helped to sustain manufacturing traditions and skills in Ethiopia while preserving the country’s natural environment and improving its international competitiveness.
Like the koba tree at the heart of the brand, the SME has established deep roots within the land, supped the country’s natural springs and began a new era of flourishing in parts of Africa.
This case study is based on information from:
Date of publication: August 24, 2012