Bethlehem Alemu is an African businesswoman from Ethiopia. She is the founder and executive director of soleRebels, Africa’s “fastest growing footwear company”. Bethlehem Alemu has received honors and accolades for her business acumen, as well as her efforts to shift the discourse on Africa away from poverty to the continent’s entrepreneurial spirit, social capital, and economic potential. Alemu launched “The Republic of Leather”, designing sustainable luxury leather goods, and “Garden of Coffee” retail outlets to promote Ethiopian coffees.
BETHLEHEM ALEMU: BACKGROUND AND BUSINESS VENTURES
Bethlehem Alemu was born in the Zenebework area of Addis Ababa. Her parents worked at a local hospital. She attended public primary and secondary schools, and then went on to study accounting at Unity University, graduating in 2004.
In early 2005, she founded soleRebels to provide ecologically and economically sustainable jobs for her community. Seeing that many skilled artisans in her small community in Zenebework were living with chronic unemployment, she wanted to showcase their skill and offer work to those in her community.
The company began out of a workshop on a plot of land owned by Alemu’s grandmother in Zenebework. SoleRebels has since flourished, growing to 300 employees in Ethiopia, with distribution to thirty countries worldwide, selling to market kingmakers Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters and Amazon.
Franchised and company-owned stores were planned to open in Austria, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK. Bethlehem Alemu aimed to create well-paid jobs which could create prosperity using the artisan talents and natural resources of Ethiopia. The selection of footwear as the launch product for the company came later. She was inspired by the seleate or barabasso, the traditional recycled tire sole shoe crafted in Ethiopia, and footwear became the locus around which she chose to build the company.
In 2016 the company sold 125,000 pairs of shoes and it had created 1,200 jobs.
In 2014, Alemu announced a new business venture, The Republic of Leather, via a blog post on the soleRebels website. Alemu identified the luxury leather goods industry as being “ripe for a total re-imagining,” along similar lines to what she had accomplished with soleRebels and the footwear industry. Besides espousing the same ideals of ecological and economic sustainability as soleRebels, The Republic of Leather is centered on principles of customer choice—customer choice of design, producer and receiving charity of 5% of the price they pay.
In 2017, “Garden of Coffee” was added to her companies, beginning with outlets in Addis Ababa.
Bethlehem Alemu seeks to challenge the traditional narrative about Africa and in particular, Ethiopia, “countering the idea that Africa and Africans don’t know how to create their way to prosperity.” She believes Ethiopians must wrest control of their own narrative from the “people and elites with a vested interest in positioning Ethiopia as ‘needing help’ and specifically needing the ‘help’ they happen to be offering,”. The global success of companies like soleRebels helps to dispel these old narratives and allows for Ethiopians to shape their own international image.
Bethlehem Alemu was recently named into the Avance Media list of 100 Most Influential Women In Africa 2021.
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi
Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.