When the shoe fits

Old truck tyres never die, they just turn into sandals.

And now, thanks to a young Ethiopian 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 United States 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 (R250) and £40, goes on sale online in the United Kingdom and Japan on Amazon’s new footwear website javari.co.uk. The company’s sales target for 2010 is an impressive £300000, 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 about 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 six 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 sustainably she remembered the truck-tyre sandals worn by local fighters who repelled Italian soldiers many decades ago, as well as by 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 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 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 is inspired by from the classic Converse All Star “lo-top” trainer, with a piece of inner tubing for the toecap and organic cotton-covered footbeds. Almost 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 United States 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 with the shoes usually arriving by courier from Ethiopia within a week. But business really took off when Amazon signed up as a customer.

Its success has enabled sole-Rebels to begin constructing a solar-powered factory near the current workshop, to allow for expanded production and to showcase the company’s eco-friendly methods. These methods, however, are 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.”

How Addis Ababa is recovering
From the ground the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa can seem locked in a time warp. The taxis are decades-old Ladas that point to the country’s Marxist past. The single state-run cellphone network is so patchy that it seems stuck in 2002—the current year according to Ethiopia’s unique calendar.

But then you look up. Across the city buildings—offices, blocks of flats and hotels—are being erected on an astonishing scale. The scaffolding may be wooden poles but the finish is shiny glass. Money is flowing into Ethiopia, both from the diaspora and foreign investors, and the economy is expanding fast. There are many signs of enterprise: from the coffee chain mimicking Starbucks to the local car company building its own brand of sedans with Chinese components.

But if Ethiopia is to sustain and expand its growth—necessary considering the fast-growing population—it needs to heed the sole­Rebels footwear lesson and add value to its exports. Currently the bulk of the main foreign currency earners, including coffee and leather hides, is exported raw, so much of the profits still accrue outside the country to the companies that grind the beans and make the handbags.—

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