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]