Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu's childhood village in Ethiopia taught her a sobering economic lesson: "We had lots of artisan talent, but no job opportunities," she says. So, on a plot of her grand-mother's land in Addis Ababa, she created a small-scale solution: soleRebels, a shoe company that pays fair wages and uses locally sourced materials such as organic, hand-spun cotton.
Materials cost less here--"Most cotton farmers never use anything more than animal dung as fertilizer," she says--and the soles are constructed from recycled tires. The shoes have been carried in Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods, and this year, Alemu will open stand-alone boutiques in Germany and Sweden--with eyes on the U.S. In the new stores, customers will be able to select shoe colors, accents (such as local Abyssinian leather), and trims; Ethiopian artisans will make and ship the creation within 24 hours.
"We don't want to make a pity product; we want people to buy our shoes because they look good," Alemu says.
[Ed. note: A claim that soleRebels is the world's only Fair Trade-certified footwear company was removed from an earlier version of this story; rather, soleRebels is the world's only WTFO-compliant footwear company. The current version also clarifies that soleRebels has been but is not currently carried by Urban Outfitters.]
[Photos by Jiro Ose]