Celebrated Ethiopian entrepreneur behind soleRebels reveals her next big idea

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is one of Africa’s most celebrated entrepreneurs. In 2004 she founded soleRebels in Ethiopia, and the company has since become one of Africa’s largest footwear brands with its range of artisan-made shoes now selling in over 55 countries globally.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder of soleRebels

According to Making It magazine, soleRebels is set to generate US$15m-$20m in revenue by 2015. Alemu’s success has led her to be named by CNN as one of 12 “smart women” entrepreneurs in the past century, alongside Coco Chanel and Elizabeth Arden. She has also been featured on the front cover of Forbes magazine and in 2011 was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Last week, Alemu officially launched her second company, Republic of Leather, an online startup that addresses the global trend of consumers wanting to have more control over how and where their products are produced. Republic of Leather allows just this.

Alemu told How we made it in Africa the idea stemmed from her love for leather products and the fact that her home country, Ethiopia, is a key source of quality hides and leathers used by many global luxury brands to craft high end articles.

“I have worked side by side with the producers of these very same fine leathers for years as I built my footwear brand soleRebels. I have deep relationships that span from the supply side – right from the origin and selection of the hides and skins themselves – through to our tanners network.”

The company’s online platform allows customers to select their products from a range of leather goods, such as jackets, bags and gloves. Customers can then use an online app to customise details, from the leather type and colour to the stitch patterns used, and can then choose the artisan and location around the planet where they want their designs to be handcrafted.

“I saw that there were many areas around the globe where leather crafting and production had been undermined and had withered, despite its economic importance,” explained Alemu.

“I knew that a platform that tapped into these rich global talents and resources would have the power to reinvigorate these centres of production and create fantastic employment opportunities in communities around the planet, while also reinterpreting how – and literally where – luxury goods are made.”

According to Alemu, the company also allows customers to choose from a list of 850,000 accredited charities around the world to which 5% of the purchase price will be donated on their behalf.

“Our vision at Republic of Leather is to re-imagine the luxury leather goods market by powering the creativity of our customers, creating jobs for craftspeople all over the planet, and energising the causes our customers are passionate about,” she emphasised.

At the moment, the Republic of Leather production sites are in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Nicaragua, the UK and the US, but Alemu aims to add 45 more country sites within the next six to 18 months.