soleRebels: Lessons From Ethiopia’s Fastest Growing Shoe Brand

Roots. Culture. Tyres. A simple summary of what has become an internationally recognised shoe brand. Founded by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, operations began in 2005 in Zenabwork on the outskirts of Addis Ababa; where soleRebels continues to design and produce today. Back then, they were only five employees but the brand has steadily grown to produce 125, 000 pairs of shoes in 2016 alone. According to CNN money, the brand has created 1,200 jobs and although they have 200 employees now, their new production facility set for completion in late 2018 will have more than 3,000 full-time Ethiopian employees. Currently, soleRebels has 18 branded standalone retail stores globally; from Singapore and Taiwan to Austria, Spain and their flagship store in Addis Ababa. And the brand empire is still expanding. According to Forbes, the brand envisages 500 standalone retail stores worldwide by 2022. Just what makes this shoe company tick?

[Image: Sole Rebels]

Fair Trade

We have to start with the most outstanding USP any brand can have; it’s a brand of firsts. soleRebels is the first and only WFTOFair Trade-certified footwear company. Add to that fact that it’s the first African consumer brand to open standalone branded retail stores worldwide, this is pretty impressive. Bethlehem Tilahun started the company to create sustainable prosperity and employment opportunities without compromising human rights. Unlike the quota system that is common in the fashion business – payment for targets achieved – they wanted to motivate their workers to achieve targets in a humane working environment. Employees of soleRebels earn straight wages which are three times the industry average and four times the legal minimum wage in Ethiopia.

[Image: Sole Rebels]

Most people would pat themselves on the back for creating jobs where there were none and leave it at that. But understanding that human resource is your brand’s greatest resource, they provide a medical coverage for their employees and their families, as well as, offer transportation from and to work. The brand, which is artisan powered, wants its consumers to know just who exactly makes their products. You can see tier faces that make up their local development and supply chain – from their fabric creation and inspection team to their technology, marketing and transportation team – here. You can go to their 10 principles of fair trade on their website to learn more about what it takes to be WFTO Fair Trade certified.

[Image: Sole Rebels]

Cultural Preservation

As specified in their ethos, “Everything we do is aimed at applying the unique cultural arts we have practiced here in Ethiopia for millennia.” The initial designs of the soleRebels shoes are based on the traditional Ethiopian car tyre-soled shoes known as “seleate” or “barabasso”. These sandals are said to b have been worn as far back as the Ethiopian soldiers fighting off colonial occupation. While they remain the staple design element, they have incorporated different styles and colours to be competitive on the international stage. Styles available include tootoo, sandals, lace ups, slip ons, and even practical winter boots complete with pure leather body and wool lining. Modern sensibilities expand into their “walk naked kiosks” concept that allows customers to customize shoes in real time.

[Image: Sole Rebels]

They’ve also looked to keep traditional artisan skills alive and incorporated in their production process. They’ve tapped into their unique heritage by using techniques such as hand spinning organic cotton with colourful accents, hand-looming fabrics with traditional eucalyptus looms, and Handcrafting footwear.

easy RIDIN comeback in sunset red, Vegan Men’s Sandal [Image: Sole Rebels]

Eco-sensibility

Footwear was an excellent platform to launch her empire on because of the indigenous eco-sensible craft heritages in Ethiopia. When you have scarce resources, you learn to make the most of what you have. Consequently, they source all their materials from Ethiopia to make their product 100% local. Recycled tyres, which were also used with the traditional barabasso, make up majority of their soles. Functionally, the tyres add comfort and durability to the shoes, while keeping the landfills less clogged and keeping CO2 emissions low.

Men’s slip on LUXE reimagined in caramel brown [Image: Sole Rebels]

Speaking of CO2, their low-impact production process has zero carbon output due to the fact that’s its mostly hand-done. This goes back to their historic eco-sensibility of handcrafting shoes and hand spinning cotton using traditional wooden hand drop spindles such as an Inzert.

Then there’s the use of Abyssinia leather. What makes this different from other leather is the fact that this relies on the traditional small-scale free-range animal raising of livestock. Ethiopia is said to have the largest population of livestock in Africa yet they lack animal factories. Instead they tradition of keeping free roaming and grazing livestock continues to thrive and produce high-quality leather.

mocUP dar in sunflower yellow woman’s slip on [Image: Sole Rebels]

If animal products aren’t up your alley, they have a unique array of natural fibres in their production process. Their Koba plant fibre, from the indigenous and exalted Koba plant in Ethiopia, is incorporated in many of their products such as in their mid-soles. It’s a hardy plant that is self-regenerating, requires little water and absolutely no chemicals to thrive. Abyssinian Jute is a strong, durable fibre often used to make bags used to export coffee from the Kaffa province. They’ve incorporated the same material in their HOMEGROWN series footwear in homage to tradition and coffee lovers worldwide. The use of hand spun Abyssinian Heritage Organic Cotton is in recognition of the fact that Ethiopia is said to be the birthplace of cultivated cotton. They keep it organic by sourcing from small scale heritage organic + traditional growers and use it in shoe interiors and strap linings. If strictly vegan shoes are your way of life, they have products that are clearly highlighted on their website too.

vegan loop FREEDOM fweeeky in pink woman’s sandal [Image: Sole Rebels]

Their eco-friendly approach extends to their packaging and shipping process, using recycled shipping cartons and re-usable hand-loomed cotton bags. Their displays are often made using repurposing of production waste material to reduce the waste production.

[Image: Shiftbalance]

Bethlehem’s approach is one that is needed across the continent. The promotion of trade instead the reliance on charity. Like the Koba tree on the soleRebel logo, the brand is enduring and naturally efficient. Also known as the ‘tree of hope’ or ‘freedom tree’, the brand embodies this spirit by empowering artisans to not only make a worthwhile living, but embrace their tradition while protecting their environment for generations to come. Proof that an African company can be fast-growing without compromising their beliefs or identity.

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