She’s been called a Rebel with a Cause by the Global Innovation Policy Centre and one of Africa’s most successful women by Forbes. Growing up in Zenebwerk, an impoverished area in Addis Ababa, Bethlehem Tilahum Alemu wanted to turn the skills, traditions and creativity she saw all around her into a source of dignified income and pride for her people and her country.
With a humble start-up capital of 400,000 birr (approx. USD 10,000) and a radical entrepreneurial vision, Bethlehem Alemu founded Sole Rebels, a footwear company that blends tradition, innovation and shared value for producers in Ethiopia and consumers worldwide. Sole Rebels weaves traditional textile craft, a history of re-purposing waste which is common everywhere in Africa and a belief that fair opportunities can help people change their lives and the world.
I found the Sole Rebels shop in the Adams Pavilion on Sar Bet roundabout in Addis Ababa by chance. The lift up to my favourite café restaurant on the top floor was out of order. Walking up the narrow, chipped stairs, I suddenly found myself in front of a shop like no other I’d seen in Addis – a city not known for its shopping experience.
Thoughtfully laid out, glowing in colours, I immediately felt that this was more than a store – it was a story, an experience. With each visit, I learned more about that story from the staff, their stories of each design echoing with pride.
The two pairs I bought were some of the best shoes I’ve ever worn.
Bethlehem is now branching out into another Ethiopian historical tradition with pride – coffee!