Fairtrade Pioneers – soleRebels – Shoes for Heart and Soul

Posted on October 27, 2011


This year, TEDx a non-profit events organisation devoted to “ideas worth sharing”, and bringing together Technology, Entertainment and Design, collaborated for the first time with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to bring a truly inspiring conference to Geneva on the 13th of October 2011.


This conference brought together forward thinking individuals who “shared their endeavours and insights (scientific, adventurous, artistic or otherwise) that question and change the way we think, live and work to meet the challenges of living on our one planet.” (WWF website). One such speaker was founder of  soleRebels and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader 2011, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu. This is an exciting recognition of her work not only for the Ethiopian footwear industry but also ethical and environmental standards in the global footwear industry as a whole.

SoleRebels began in 2004 in Zenabwork in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where unemployment levels were extremely high. Alemu saw a gap in the market that could be used to help solve the unemployment issues by creating work for the many unemployed talented artisans. She saw trade as the answer to Ethiopia’s development issues and not aid or charity.

“For us here at soleRebels, creating great footwear is also a way of creating hope”

(Alemu – soleRebels website)

soleRebels shoe being made

The company began with a recreation and re-imagination of the traditional “Selate” and “Barabasso” (shown above) shoes commonly made and worn in Ethiopia and made from recycled tires. They collect and sort used tires, then hand-cut each and every one into soles. This type of shoe is even said to have been worn by the original “sole rebels” who fought off invading forces and kept Ethiopia Africa’s only non-colonised nation. An inspirational background to an inspirational brand! This also means that soleRebels incorporates and even conserves local culture in their enterprising business, something that became a feature of their roots-culture-tires campaign.

soleRebels shoe sole – tire base
solerebels – recycled tire sole being made

SoleRebels is both WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) and IFAT (International Fair Trade Association) certified and the first footwear brand to be so!!

Workers are paid four times the legal minimum wage and around three times the industry average for similar work. They are also free and encouraged to exercise their right to organisation and trade unions, a good sign of a company truly committed to putting their workers first.

I’m proud to say that we’ve managed to get some great accolades along the way. Like in August when Hilary Clinton hailed us in the recent 8th African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum held August 5th in Kenya mentioning our status as Ethiopia’s pioneering and to date ONLY footwear exporter to break into the US market! And then we were chosen as Africa’s #1 COOLEST FAIR TRADE BRAND by DISCOVERY CHANNEL presenter Summer Rayne Oakes on the HUFFINGTON POST. Who says you can’t be eco AND fair and COOL!!

(Alemu – soleRebels website)

Another reason Alemu choose the footwear industry for her business was that 100% of the inputs could be sourced locally, providing the maximum benefit possible from an export product for the Ethiopian economy whilst also minimising its carbon footprint. They hand-loom every single meter of fabric that makes up their unique shoes using traditional eucalyptus looms that have used here in Ethiopia for centuries.

Some of the very same looms and even some of the VERY SAME talented artisans that wove the finest fabrics for His Imperial Majesty Emperor Hailie Selassie I, are right there in their home village of Zenabwork!

             SoleRebels – Koba Plant Fiber braid         The ancient, exalted koba plant. An indigenous plant cultivated in Ethiopia for over 10,000 years

Recycling +locally sourced materials +talented hands =environmental respect + low-carbon footprint + cool products – As calculated on the soleRebels website.

soleRebels features collections of various shoes from a variety of ‘eco’ materials such as those made from recycled car tire soles and other recycled and sustainable ingredients like hand spun + hand loomed organic fabrics and unique natural fibers including organic pure Abyssinian Jutes – a strong, durable and very comfortable plant fiber grown in Ethiopia and also PURE Abyssinian KOBA.

Today soleRebels is the only Ethiopian footwear brand to date to break into the US market and is sold in over 30 countries worldwide. It was voted Africa’s no.1 Coolest Fair Trade Brand by discovery channel presenter Summer Raynes Oakes and are set continue reaching great heights, especially with their jazzy designs, check out these for example.

SoleRebels and Alemu are true fair trade pioneers!

soleRebels image source world vision

To read more about soleRebels or even get your hands on your own soleRebels, visit their website by clicking here.

(All pictures unless mentioned, courtesy of soleRebels)


Author: Imogen Butler

Posted in: Crafts, Fashion, Textiles