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Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is the founder and Managing Director of Sole Rebels (Bostex PLC) here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an internationally renowned Ethiopian footwear brand. The company is responsible for designing, manufacturing and marketing footwear from Ethiopia to 55 different countries. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie sat down with Bethlehem to discuss her company’s activities and its future plans for Ethiopia and the international market.
Capital: What inspired you to start producing footwear from burnt out tires?
Bethlehem Tilahun: The behavior of people living around my area. They were working very hard but they still struggled. When they did try to start a business it was difficult for them to find a market and they didn’t know how to sell their products. I also wanted to show the world that what we have here is really important and can be a gift to the planet. The other reason is people don’t know Ethiopia with regards to branded footwear or branded finished goods, so that was my focus. As you see most of the materials come from Ethiopia; the leather, the cotton, and recycled tires. The handmade and artisan crafted footwear also comes from Ethiopia. It is a great platform to share our ideas and demonstrate we have the material right here in Ethiopia.
Capital: What challenges have you faced?
Bethlehem: Penetrating and being competitive in the global market is really tough. Right now people don’t really think of Ethiopia when they think of finished leather products.
Capital: What types of footware do you make right now?
Bethlehem: We have over 600 different styles here at Sole rebels. We are the first brand footware in Ethiopia and maybe even Africa. In the future we want to open really nice, beautiful shops in major cities around the world.
In the next two months we plan to open a shop in Switzerland and then the second global shop in Zurich, Switzerland. The third one is going to be in Taiwan. It’s going to help us really focus on what we’re doing, to be able to manage our own business and to be in control of our destination. If there’s going to be a distribution agreement it’s going to be a bit difficult for us to deal with but if we have retail shops like this we can manage everything.
Capital: In the near future how much money do you expect to be earning?
Bethlehem: By 2016 we expect to reach USD 10 million; we are working very hard to reach that goal and bring in more foreign exchanges to the country.
Capital: What is different about Sole Rebels?
Bethlehem: There are many components that go into making a shoe. We want to make a finished shoe fully in Ethiopia. We are a 100 percent profit oriented business; we are not a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) or other entity. We’re focused on the business and we believe in it strongly. If people really work hard they can make it like Sole Rebels. We want to bring dignity to our people instead of waiting for someone’s help. We want to use our own material and manpower along with our unique marketing strategy to make a locally manufactured product competitive on the global market.
Capital: How have your products been received globally and locally?
Bethlehem: We have not been selling in Ethiopia. We wanted to focus on the international market first. Our plan was to bring in more buyers from outside as well as foreign exchange. That was the focus for my company; but now that people are getting to know Sole Rebels we opened a shop here and feedback has been really great.
Capital: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
Bethlehem: Implementing an idea is harder than having it but I would say that young people need to stick to their ideas and be brave. To not fear risk because everything you do in business is taking risk, so don’t be afraid of taking a risk.
Capital: Could you tell us about some of the recognition you have received?
Bethlehem: We’ve gotten a lot of awards and many people worked day and night to make that happen. We’ve won Outstanding Business of the Year in 2010, the Global Entrepreneurship Week award Ethiopia edition for 2011. We’ve won a lot of things but the fact is we are able to be in different networks like the World Economic Forum, like being invited to a fellowship by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And we do get a lot of response from people around the world because of these kinds of recognitions.
Capital: Who is your role model?
Bethlehem: I’m sorry I don’t have female role models for me. But I admire Steve Jobs, founder of Apple. I see my brand to be just like Apple. Apple is in everybody’s hands, alright so we want Sole Rebels to be worn throughout the world like that, that’s my aim; to be like him because I admire him so much.
Capital: The World Economic Forum (WEF) is going to take place in Ethiopia. Indeed you are one of the guests of honor. What do you want to say to entrepreneurs?
Bethlehem: Through hard work we can grow even more rapidly than the current fast paced growth rate we have. To grow like that people have to work hard, that’s where the support of WEF comes in. It’s not money, not aid that we need but instead we need to train skilled workers.
Capital: Many leather factories in Ethiopia have issues with environmental management. What steps are you taking to minimize or stop environmental harm that may come out of producing shoes or leather products?
Bethlehem: Actually we buy the leather from the tanneries. My factory is a member of the fair trade organization that shows that we don’t harm the environment. The way we produce it zero carbon emission, which means no carbon footprints. We do have a lot of labor here in Ethiopia, and if we minimize cutting trees and such types of environmental degradation, I think we’re going to do good. But I’m showing each and every day through my steps, through the way I’m doing things how I’m really conscious about the environment.
Capital: In terms of corporate social responsibilities or giving back to the community, what measures are you taking to help the community while helping yourself and the company?
Bethlehem: The main thing is as you know in Ethiopia there are a lot of people who don’t have job opportunities. As a person, my goal is bringing in more people to the company, so that people can earn a really good wage, and then they can live their life in a proper way. So that’s the give back plan that I have, this business is not only about selling products, but also about people around me, so giving them an opportunity to work in the right way is giving back to the people; that’s my main focus. We already have people working for Sole Rebels but we want to add more people that’s going to be more important than focusing only on aid or promising I’m going to give this and that. But if people are mobilized in the proper way and work for themselves they know what they are doing.
Capital: Sole Rebels, as we know has good products, but it’s mainly focused on export market. Do you have plans to make your products widely available at an affordable price with retail outlets all across Ethiopia?
Bethlehem: As I said, it is already in the market here. And I believe in one thing, if you’ve got a strong brand, if people really know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter where you’re located. It’s not about the location, it’s about what you do and the good will that you have, anybody who wants it can come here and buy it at anytime at an affordable price.
Capital: Are you planning a solar powered or related factory?
Bethlehem: We are an eco-ethical company and the factory is going to be a green factory. Which means we are going to produce our own energy to reduce our carbon footprint, so we’ll see that when it comes to fruition in the future; a state of the art green technology building.