Never heard of soleRebels? You will soon enough. Founded by female entrepreneur Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, it’s an eco-friendly Ethiopian shoe brand that is slowly but surely conquering the globe with its comfortable and attractive shoes.

Brightly colored shoes, boots and sandals, handmade in Ethiopia, nestle in tires and wooden pallets hung with ropes on the white walls of this former butcher’s shop in Gràcia, a fashionably bohemian district of Barcelona.

On a warm weekday afternoon, trade is quiet – but soleRebels footwear is gaining in popularity, staff say.

Fans include locals in their 30s, elderly people who find the shoes comfortable yet attractive, parents with adopted Ethiopian children, and Germans living in the city.

The shop opened three years ago, and is one of 20 stores worldwide selling distinctive shoes made from recycled tires, leather from free-range animals and cloth hand-woven by Ethiopian artisans in the poor community of Zenebework/Total, a suburb of the capital Addis Ababa.

“It is not footwear we are producing – it’s a kind of art,” explained Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, who founded soleRebels in 2005 in the neighborhood where she grew up, after realizing skilled residents lacked job opportunities.

“For people to be innovative… they don’t have to really travel a long way or copy somebody’s business idea. It’s right there,” she says.

The entrepreneur in her mid-30s is no fan of foreign aid, which she says has not helped her community. She prefers to see people im­prove their own situation through dignified work with decent pay.

At soleRebels, which employs around 420 people, workers on average earn four to five times the Ethiopian minimum wage, according to the brand’s website. It’s the only footwear company to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization, the site notes.

“What I want to see happen is that, in my company, people who are coming to work are able to go to school, are able to support their family, are able to live the life they want,” says Bethlehem.

Continue reading this story on The Star Online
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