Growing up in Addis Ababa for Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was challenging as she lived with people who wore makeshift sandals improvised from old lorry and car tyres, she ceased this opportunity of taking such innovations to a greater height.
Later, when she left college, she decided she would sell these handcrafted, recycled tyre shoes to the rest of the world. A decade on, she expects to turn over $6m of internet sales this year, has opened 11 shoe stores in the Far East and Europe and has plans for 50 more in the next three years.
Tilahun Alemu, a mother of three, is a woman with a soft voice that belies her verve and drive. Born in 1980, she grew up in Zenabwork, one of the most impoverished areas of Addis Ababa, where her father was an electrician and her mother cooked and raised the children.
Education was seen as the route to success and Bethlehem went to local primary and high schools and then to Unity University in Addis Ababa to study accountancy. In her student years and immediately after, she worked in leather and clothing companies learning marketing, sales, design and production.
Increasingly, she became frustrated by the dis junction between profitable companies in the formal economy and the unrewarded skills in her own community.
She had grown up watching members of her family spin cotton with an insert. she had spun rolls of fetel soft cotton, with her mother and watched weavers making netalla and gabbis (shawls and blankets), on traditional wooden looms.
Furthermore she had to cease such experience in bringing out her creativity to test which has paid her off over the years.
Her brand is called sole Rebel, a nod both to the freedom fighters and to the rebelliousness of the project. “I grew up hearing about poverty alleviation but even as a girl I had a strong feeling that the people doing the talking were not connected to the communities where they were trying to ‘alleviate poverty’. They were invariably prosperous themselves, so why set the bar so low for others? I became convinced that prosperity creation is the sole route to the elimination of poverty – and for that, you have to create something world class.” Inter brand estimates that the top 100 global brands are worth almost $1 trillion, equal to the combined GDP of the world’s poorest 63 countries.
While sole Rebels shoes are marketed for their style and comfort, the fact that they reuse old tyres is an important part of their backstory. Tyres take up a lot of space in landfill, more than half of which is void.