Thursday 15 April 2021
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A sole rebel called Bethlehem

Business people say open-minded people don’t impose on others – they accept life’s perspectives and realities and soldier on.
This is the case with entrepreneur Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu who grew up in a small village of Zenabwork in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
From a young age, Tilahun-Alemu had a passion for entrepreneurship, but found it difficult to pursue because funds for a start-up were not readily available. She came from a low income family background.
She, however, did not allow that to hold her back. She dreamt big and worked extra hard. Fast forward to now – many pitfalls later – she is a proud owner of a successful eco-friendly brand – Sole rebels. She shared her inspirational story at the recent Old Mutual women’s leadership dialogue.
Sole Rebels is a shoe manufacturing business brand that focuses on manufacturing shoes out of old unwanted tyres. The business has so far opened 20 stand-alone shops across the world and produces about 75 000 pairs of shoes every year.
Making reference to her countrymen’s cultural way of recycling used products and turning them into different creative items, Tilahun-Alemu revealed that this was how she too started off.
“I was inspired by how Ethiopians were able to turn old broken goods into products that would be useful to the next person.
During my free time I started assembling tyres for fun not knowing what I was going to do with them. One day a light bulb went on in my head and I decided to start making shoes.
The first cut did not come out as I expected, it weighed about 3kgs which was way too heavy for one to walk in. My brother asked if I was trying to build a walking gym, we laughed about it but that pushed me further, I told myself that I was not going to stop till I got it right,” she said.
Over the course of continuously crafting shoes out of tyres, Tilahun-Alemu soon became very skilful within the area of making shoes out of tyres.
In an effort to try and get her idea of crafting tyre shoes out to the rest of the world, she failed miserably at it for about three years as no one was willing to assist her.
She then took it upon herself to search for people outside of Ethiopia, who would be more likely to buy and promote her brand. She started off by sending out emails to potential clients, however the feedback was all negative.
“In one of the responses, one of the clients asked me why I was looking to sell shoes instead of looking for ways to get money to feed myself. People have this notion of Ethiopians needing food, little did they know that this was not the case,” she highlighted.
Alemu noted that starting-up a business was quite a challenge because institutions refused help her.
Ultimately Alemu’s breakthrough came. She landed the opportunity to travel to Europe to market her products.
“When I got there, I surprisingly landed my first order.
I was asked to create about 2500 pairs and it had to be done in 20 days.
At the time we were only a team of five people and this made it difficult for me to imagine meeting the deadline that was given.
I then had to make use of my entrepreneurial skills, by employing 20 more people to work on the order which eventually took 16 days. I was filled with so much anxiety as I did not know what the client’s response would be. To my surprise they ended up loving the items,” Alemu explained.
Her good work of creating tyre shoes eventually paid off when the word spread about it and Sole Rebels became popular.
“I then started selling the shoes online through Amazon which led me to creating over 300 jobs at Sole Rebels. Part of creating jobs, I wanted to take care of people and in return wanted to feel that Sole Rebels was contributing to the community. So, in this instance I am happy to say that I have managed to help the community by putting up a day care centre,” she noted.
Throughout her journey she found that Ethiopian products and materials have been sold outside Africa by other people without her country people having a hand in it.
“I believe that it’s about time we took charge of our culture, ethos and creativity. My main objective was to create products in a unique way and share them world-wide; be it shoes or coffee.
One thing I always have in mind is that everything should be 100 percent handmade; then I don’t have to spoil the world, the environment, because that is where my heart is,” she added.
Her main focus is on green production and for that matter she doesn’t use machines; she only works with her team. The coffee brand that she has is 100 percent handmade and from natural products.
“The other thing I want to focus on is that for a long time other people would come to the continent to exaggerate our problems and create an environment that is non-existent. So, if we don’t speak up now it’s going to be late, not only for us but also for future generations,” she said.
She had to find different ways to back herself up so what she did first was to find ways of paying her employees and then she went around looking for partners to scale up her business.
When people place orders, she makes sure the products are paid for in full.
It was tough, taking her 10 years to hire 300 people. The situation was bad in Ethiopia as the policies, the infrastructure, the mindset was not there to support businesses like hers.
To her entrepreneurship is a challenge and a journey that doesn’t happen overnight; one should be willing to take risks, and know themselves and sometimes money comes in late. “You first have to build the brand and it pays off at the end,” she said.
“When I wake up I grind and pray, I thank the Almighty for seeing another chance to do something good that day, so I always feel blessed to be alive and whatever challenge comes that day it is up to me I see how I handle it – that is what keeps me going.
When I take my children to school I see huge amounts of people on their way to work; that inspires me. Maybe they are not doing the same work as me, but you have to do something. Basically, my inspiration in life is making a difference, being bold and being unique,” she expressed.
“My leadership style is very friendly and again the way I make a difference is by sharing what I have with people I work with, so that’s basically my contribution to the community.
One would get tough and very rough at times but at the same time people understand why I am doing it. If the company is dead, 300 people will be out the gate without work,” she said.

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