Success Story from Ethiopia: Bethlehem Alemu’s Fair Trade Businesses

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was born in the impoverished Zenebework area near Ethiopia’s capital city in 1980. She is the oldest of four siblings. Ms. Alemu graduated from Unity University in Addis Ababa in 2004, where she studied accounting. In 2005, using a plot of land owned by her grandmother, Ms. Alemu started a workshop in her neighborhood. Her idea was to use local talent and to create ecologically and economically sustainable jobs. Ms. Alemu paid workers four to five times the minimum wage and hired leprosy survivors and others that might find it difficult to secure employment.

Ms. Alemu’s workshop rapidly morphed into a footwear company named soleRebels, so named because Ethiopia was one of the first African countries to successfully fight off colonialists. SoleRebels uses recycled tires for the soles of sandals and shoes, which benefits the environment. In nine years soleRebels grew from a company that employed five people to one that employs over 120. SoleRebels currently distributes to over 30 countries. Amazon, Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods all sell soleRebels products and franchised and company-owned stores recently opened in Spain, Austria, Taiwan, and Japan.

Part of Ms. Alemu’s rationale for creating her company was to challenge mass media depictions of Africa and Ethiopia as in need of outsider assistance. She has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (2011), as a “Woman to Watch” by Forbes (2012), as one of Africa’s Top 5 Female Entrepreneurs by Business Insider (2012), a New York City Venture Fellow by Mayor Bloomberg (2012), and among “100 Dynamic Women” shaping modern Africa by Arise Magazine (2012).

In 2013 Ms. Alemu was a Counselor at the One Young World Summit and she was invited to join the Advisory Board of the Green Industry Platform by the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. In 2014 she was named one of CNN’s “12 Female Entrepreneurs Who Changed the Way We Do Business.”

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has Bethlehem Alemu (and soleRebels) been so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:


Ms. Alemu FOCUSED ON ETHIOPIA’S STRENGTHS, namely the ability of its people to make quality hand-made goods and then researched fashion trends to make the company’s products competitive.

Ms. Alemu is a LIFELONG LEARNER who is always looking for ways to IMPROVE HER COMPANY AND HER PRODUCTS. In 2012 Ms. Alemu met with Jorgen Vig Knudstorp the CEO of the Lego Company, the world’s third largest toymaker. During their meeting in Denmark, Mr. Knudstorp encouraged Ms. Elemu to “listen to the complainers” and to not grow complacent, now that her company was experiencing considerable success. That same year, soleRebels became the world’s first green footwear company certified by the World Fair Trade Organization.

In April 2014, Ms. Alemu announced the launch of her newest business venture, The Republic of Leather that focuses on high quality leather goods. Ms. Alemu’s goal is that her new company brings about a total re-imagining of luxury leather products along the lines of what soleRebels accomplished with footwear. She is off to a great start. The Republic of Leather, like soleRebels, is BASED ON THE IDEALS OF ECONOMIC AND ECOLOGICAL SUSTAINABILITY. The new company also allows consumers to select the artisan that produces their product and the recipient of a charitable donation that is equal to five percent of the product’s purchase price.

By Heidi G. Frontani


One comment

  1. Marta Tsehay · · Reply

    She is a role model for many young people in Ethiopia keep the great job. Because of the social and economic factors it is rare to find a successful and passionate young women like her. Congratulation to Bethlehem keep inspiring others


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