Gazing into a Bright Future

Having excelled to prominence with her entrepreneurial drive in less than a decade, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, 33, has proven her business acumen to the world. From being featured on Forbes’s ‘Top Lists’ repeatedly, to receiving global repute for her innovative enterprise, she has garnered enormous recognition She has also been featured in several international Media including the BBC, CNN, Le monde, and various others. The emerging business leader has much more prospect than what she has proved so far. In her own terms, her success is yet to be proved if she manages to open 100 stores worldwide by 2020.
Bostex PLC, the company she founded in 2004 with her husband and serves as its managing director, produces soleRebels, which is a brand of the eco-sensitive shoe produced from organic Ethiopian materials. The brand has now become trendy and is available through high streets and online retail stores in more than 60 countries. soleRebels has truly become successful, sustainable, and unquestionably world- class for its authenticity, style and value. Amanyehun R. Sisay, Executive Editor of Ethiopian Business Review sat down with Bethelhem to discuss where the company heads, among others: Excerpt:

EBR: Tell me about yourself in brief?

Bethlehem: I was born and raised in Zenebework, Addis Ababa. I have three brothers and I am the eldest. I am 33, married and a mother of three.

Your parents used to work at Alert Hospital; were they medical doctors?

No, my dad was an electrician and my mom worked in the Kitchen. Now they are retired.

Tell me about your upbringing; what was the most important lesson you took from your parents?

I grew up like an ordinary child. I at- tended public schools and then joined Unity University College to study Accounting. I didn’t have any exposure to business.

My parents always thought us to get our money in the right way, which is through work; no short cut at all.

Were you an active student in your school years?

Not as such; but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my own dreams. I like history class more than other subjects. I was not that much interested in subjects like mathematics and physics.

Do you have any further education beyond your diploma in Accounting?

I have gone to Harvard to attend a course on Business Leadership. I have also taken several courses online.

Who owns soleRebels?

Me and my husband own the company, but my family and the staff at soleRebels are a big support.

How much was your initial capital and where did you get it from?

It was less than 5000 dollar and I got it from my husband.

Your husband, does he work with you and what are the roles of you two?

Yes, he works with me. I am the man- aging director. He is everything: an accountant when we don’t have one; a marketing manager; a lawyer whenever we need such a service, practically he is wherever we need him.

So behind the successful Bethlehem is her husband; right?

There is always a fantastic team of people that I have put together; my husband is part of it. That team is always focused on making soleRebels stronger. By the way I don’t feel successful [yet] as I have a long way to go to realize my goal.

What is your goal?

My goal is to open 100 standalone soleRebels retail stores around the world by 2020 and generate over 100 million dollar in annual revenue.

When you achieve that, how will things change statistically?

By 2020 we will have 6000 local production staff along with 500 support staff. We will export close to 3,000,000 pair of shoes. At the moment, we are working to get land for our expansion around Ayer Tenna.

You are always under the media spot light. Does this put you under any pressure?

Media is giving us coverage because we are trying to do things differently. The attention doesn’t make me under any pressure. I just keep on dreaming and working hard to achieve my goals.

How was it like when you start soleRebels?

It was so challenging; we didn’t get buyers who appreciate handmade shoes locally. So we shifted our target market outside. This was a good solution as foreigners appreciate handmade products.

Our first shoe was very heavy. It weighed almost three kilo each. And I had to wear it to show it to people. But I was not able to walk. However we learnt through the process by hiring a professional shoe maker.

Why did you choose shoe as a product? Did you have a prior training in the area?

I have been looking what people do with local materials in my community. We also wanted to use locally available materials to produce the shoe, and then we started to renovate the Berebasso shoe, which is made from recycled tire. So we do all the spinning, weaving and everything ourselves. It is 100pct produced with local resources. That is why we chose shoe.

And before I establish soleRebels, I had worked with various companies in the leather and garment industry in the areas of marketing and sales, design, and production. This gave me an insider knowledge.

Why did you name the brand soleRebels?

As you know people in Ethiopia wear Berebasso. In fact, it was the footwear that our forefathers wear back in the days when they fought the Italian invading forces and kept Ethiopia as the only African nation uncolonized As these Ethiopians rebelled against the colonizers, we also rebelled against poverty. So we named our product soleRebels as homage to them.

Do you work with other small enterprises in your locality?

In fact we have worked and continued to work extensively with micro and small enterprises around us. From day one we have had local community sup- pliers, some of whom have built up to become a substantial outfits as a result of the business opportunities we have given them. In addition, we have always recruited and trained many highly marginalized individuals, particularly women, to work as contractors for the company.

I am really proud that soleRebels has built its supply chain from scratch, using local materials, local contractors and has, in the process, created a thriving network of suppliers.

Have you approached NGOs or embassies for support, at least when you started?

I have approached the USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and DFID [Department for International Development] because they say they support such initiatives. But I didn’t get a Diem. When I begin the work, I needed support, and I was knocking several doors. In the process, I realized that I have to provide the answers to my questions myself. Then I stopped going to any offices seeking- support and concentrated on working with what I have.

Later I approached Development Bank of Ethiopia because they give credit guarantee facility. So whenever we have an order, they put forward the money we need to produce the shoe; and after we get our payments, we re- turn the loan. We have been working this way for long. But now we receive payments in advance.

What do you feel when you look back that time where you were unable to get the support you wanted?

That situation opened my eyes. If the NGOs assisted me, my success would have been a success of the NGOs. But look what we have now; look how our ideas evolved and where our products have reached. Now people from over 60 countries buy our shoes.

So, if the NGOs had assisted me, I wouldn’t have become a brand on my own. Simply, I would have been a poster child of the NGO; nothing more.

If we hadn’t dealt with our problems every day, we wouldn’t have achieved the strength that we have now. If we had received everything we needed from the NGOs, we wouldn’t have utilized our talents too. At that time, we were trying to sell that talents. Thanks to God, the NGOs were unwilling to buy it. That way, they pushed us to the edge; that we have to do it on our own. That talent is not for sale anymore.

So, I would advise others that if they have an idea, then it is their responsibility to make it a reality. They shouldn’t wait until they get enough resources they need to start. This however, doesn’t mean they should jump into risks without carefully scanning their environment.

Whenever you appear in the media, you usually narrate how you help your community through the business; in fact, you say little about your product. This gives an impression that you are rather a social activist. What do you say?

You guys give me the name; but I do my job. My idea is that we are better than what others think about us. We have talent. We can work and prove what we are capable of like others who have prospered. What we have missed is an opportunity. And people don’t understand that if we get the same chance they had, then we can be much better than what our situation looks at the moment. So whoever comes under the banner of helping, then they should know that we don’t need more than opportunities, period. But the thing is, they come here and try to tell us to do this or that and take our opportunities.

To answer your question; I am a business woman, but at the same time, I have to speak that it is enough with poverty. We need to tell those who are telling us to do this or that to develop; hey you guys, we just don’t need that, we know what we need and what is good for us. Just, don’t take our opportunities and talents. If doing this makes me a social activist, you may call me so.

Bety, you yourself sell your product in the name of helping your community; Or are you promoting creative capitalism in a sense like TOMS Shoes, the American shoe manufacturer with the motto; Buy One Donate One. I just don’t get it?

Look, I have to tell a story to whoever comes to talk to me about how we start- ed; what inspires me every day.

At the end of the day, what we put on the table is the product, which is the shoe. If the product doesn’t fit into a certain market, then the buyers won’t buy it. People are not buying the product because we are a poor company helping a community. We are simply selling a product which fits their needs.

The buyers have to know who makes the shoe before they buy it because that is the fashion; that is fair trade. In fact, they ask what is special about this shoe. So, we have to explain what distinguishes our product from others. That includes the people who produce the shoe and how we pay them, the material we use, the process, and everything. That is how it works; it is international approach.

The company you mentioned runs on a business model that cynically tries to convince the world that Ethiopians are not even capable of putting shoes on their feet. They ask people to buy their shoes so that they can give an Ethiopian a free pair of shoes. Such companies are simply the respond versions of the AID industry model that has paralyzed Ethiopia by constantly presenting the country as weak and helpless; always needing external assistance. There is nothing common between soleRebels and this company.

Tell us where you have opened stores so far?

We have opened five soleRebels stores in Taiwan; we have opened one in the heart of Vienna, Austria; we have opened the first of two stores in Singapore; we will open another in central Madrid this week (March 25); and we have our flagship store here in Addis.

We will continue to open soleRebels stores in the US, Canada, Australia, It- aly, the UK, France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Israel and other countries later this year.

To how many countries have you con- signed so far? And how much worth was it?

soleRebels is sold in over 60 countries. In the coming year, we will generate over 3 million dollar in revenue. This figure is expected to grow to 20 million dollar by 2015.

What are the challenges you face to sale your products online?

Online business is new in Ethiopia. The process is challenging. We have to get export permit for each shoe. These costs 200 Br for each shoe at the cus- toms. This makes it difficult to satisfy markets located in the different corners of the world. It would be better if we had one license for a month or so, which maintains the export flow. On line business is the future for everyone [every business] and we need to make it easy.

How many pair of shoes did you sell oversees, last year?

It is close to 40,000.

Tell me about the fair trade registration.

This idea came from European countries; they have formed the World Fair Trade Organization. The organization certifies companies for fair trade. They check how much you pay your employees, the material you use and everything. We fulfilled the requirement and got the certification. Now we are the first and only company certified in the whole shoe industry, globally.

How much do you pay your employees?

Our core philosophy at soleRebels is that we pay for performance. We wanted to establish a system of rewards right from the outset of the company that gives due incentivize for people to work hard, acquire skills and move themselves up the internal value chain of the company.

We want people to come into soleRebels as a simple helper and then evolve into a full fledged shoe assembler making a salary comparable to a bank supervisor. So far there are people who started with 600 Br and now get 15,000 Br a month.

We always work with our staff. There is nothing we do behind the scene; they know everything. We plan and make things happen together. They are the biggest asset that we have.

How do you explain the changes that your employment opportunity has brought about in the lives of individuals and the community at large?

People have started making their own money and are in positions where they can support their extended families; people are buying their own houses and condominiums; their children go to better schools and they can afford to send them to private colleges. People also have changed themselves through the different training we have given: there are some who dream doing their own businesses.

Who are your global competitors?

Rainbow and Sonic are our major competitors; they are American companies with similar products.

What is the recipe of your success?

We ensure that everyone at soleRebels is always focused on continually giving our customers awesome footwear. We maintain the highest levels of customer service. In fact, we are not interested in selling a customer a single pair of shoes, we work to ensure that our customers become customers for life.

We continue to ensure that our workforce come to work every day ex- cited not simply because we pay high wages or have a relaxed work environment, but because they maximize their potential and be part of the experience of building a global brand. We work to make soleRebels the best company to work at. These are in part what contributed to where we are today.

You are selling the shoes to local market at the same price you are selling it abroad. Don’t you think 60 dollar or so is expensive for a local market?

Is it? For a fair trade labeled handmade and branded shoe, it is not. How much do you pay for Nike? We are in a retail market and that by itself forces us to sell our product with uniform price everywhere.

Who is your role model?

Steve Jobs, Apple’s late CEO is my role model. I want to follow his footsteps.

Do you plan to use machinery, as the number of your customers is growing fast?

We have millions of people without jobs here. We want to give chance for people to work.

Wouldn’t that make you rather a social activist than a business woman? Machineries obviously would boost efficiency and that is directly related to profit.

For a country like Ethiopia, which has lots of labor without jobs, it is better to give them the chance to work than in- vest millions on machinery Using machines is not a guarantee to make profit.

Which senior government officials have so far visited your workshop?

Their Excellencies Dr. Tewodros Adhanom, the Foreign Minister and Ato Tadesse Haile, State Minister of Industry have visited our workshop. The President of the World Bank has also visited us.

You have received a number of international awards. How about locally?

So far, nothing.

How does it feel to be very much recognized elsewhere but not in your home country?

It is good if people recognize you here. But the recognition elsewhere gives you the leverage to sell your product inter- nationally.

Can you explain what your taglines mean- Be Kind and Walk Naked?

Be Kind – is related to the fact that we don’t use any animal components to produce our shoes and that is becoming the trend internationally. Walk Naked – tells the comfort of our shoes. They give the sense that you are not wearing anything.

What do you think is the challenges for an aspiring entrepreneur in Ethiopia?

The bureaucracy- it takes too much time to get a simple thing done in this country. Many offices don’t get information ready as you need them. Some- times different people in the same office may say different things about the same issue. This is really a challenge.

How about lack of access to finance, market and consultancy services?

You may be right, but as to soleRebels, we feel we didn’t even touch the market. The potential is still big. That is why we are expanding. But many people say that they don’t have market linkages; perhaps their approach is not right. So they may need to think differently. If they go the same old way, there is no possibility that they would get a different result.

Regarding the financial access, what makes the money is the business idea. So, if you know what you want to do, the finance issue will not be as such a big challenge. You can start with whatever you have and grow step by step. We have tried to access loans by the time we were set to start but we were not successful. So, we started with what we had and moved forward. Now we are in good position and we don’t look for external financing. But from what I hear repeatedly, access to finance is indeed a challenge in Ethiopia.


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