Responsible business practices are often thought to be a luxury that only first-world multinationals can afford. However, creative new ways to combine profits with respect for workers’ rights and environmental sustainability are just as likely to come from entrepreneurs in poor countries, that are used to overcoming severe challenges to doing business. One of the most exciting examples comes from Ethiopia, where soleRebels makes trendy footwear which is also Fair Trade certified.
Until recently, Ethiopia was not a well-known example of economic dynamism, but the country’s government is currently pursuing a proactive strategy to diversify its economy. The onus is on providing supportive policies that provision incentives for investment, facilitating logistics and making it easier to do business. An integral part is to build on the country’s resource endowment to channel private sector investment to commercializing agricultural goods. One of the government’s goals is that Ethiopia should build on its strong livestock sector and top-quality leather to produce shoes for the world.
While considerable investments have been pouring in from China, the most innovative products are arguably home-grown. The local entrepreneur Bethlehem Alemu started soleRebels in 2004 and sells made-to-order shoes, sandals and trainers all over the world, including to the United States and Europe. Aside from local leather, her firm soleRebels uses local cotton, jute and hemp, all “vegan friendly”. At the same time it pays its workers almost four times the average monthly wage in Ethiopia.
Turning a profit while providing employment opportunities with good working conditions and respecting the environment would satisfy most socially-conscious entrepreneurs. But Ms. Alemu has a grander vision: to show the world that Africa can produce an attractive global brand that can rival firms like Nike and Adidas. She wants to achieve this by showcasing distinct Ethiopian strengths: its natural materials, weaving and sewing.
All of these qualities are encapsulated in the firm’s motto: “making the world a better place… one step at a time.” soleRebels is ultimately out to show the world that Africa can produce powerful brands that achieve international notoriety while making the most of local strengths and empowering local workers. Combine that with stylish shoes and you’ve got one sexy company.