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Shoes with Sole: Ethiopian Web Success Story

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Ethiopia’s bustling capital, Addis Ababa, is experiencing a building and business boom. Foreign investors and Ethiopia’s entrepreneurial and widespread global diaspora are investing again in the country. But Ethiopia still relies for most of its foreign currency wealth on exports of unprocessed coffee beans and leather hides — a model that leaves the bulk of the profits made outside of Ethiopia.

But one shoe company provides an example of a home-grown business that is finding success in the international marketplace, while repatriating most of the profits for its goods back to Ethiopia, creating jobs and local wealth.

Ethiopia’s economy is mostly dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 60 percent of exports and 80 percent of employment (CIA World Factbook). The country has a tiny private sector and high youth unemployment. It is difficult to find funding for small businesses. Yet, because of the high population growth, the country needs to create more jobs.

The Economist magazine has forecast Ethiopia’s economy will grow by 7 percent in 2010, becoming the fifth fastest growing economy in the world, and on course to surpass Kenya to become East Africa’s biggest economy. While this sounds impressive, the country has to run hard to create enough jobs to meet its growing population and still faces significant food security problems.

One company, soleRebels, is combining a clever twist on a local tradition – recycling rubber from old truck tires into shoes, locally known as selate shoes – with sophisticated design concepts and high quality craftsmanship to make a global footwear hit.

Co-founder and managing director Bethleham Tilahun Alemu, a 30-year-old African web-vending entrepreneur, has turned this local craft into a global fashion design hit by adding colourful cotton and leather uppers to the tire shoes. The recycled rubber shoes come in many styles: from handmade flip-flops to boat shoes, loafers, and athletic trainers resembling the popular American sports shoe, Converse (http://www.converse.com/).

SoleRebels’ (http://solerebelsfootwear.weebly.com/index.html) shoe factory is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in the historic village of Zenabework. Despite its location, it is reaching the international markets through online retailers like Amazon.com. Shipments take between three and five days to arrive in the United States.

And the secret to this small start-up’s success? Apart from great shoes and funky design, Alemu puts it down to this: “We are sitting in Addis Ababa but acting like an American company,” she told The Guardian newspaper.

It doesn’t hurt that Alemu is also money-smart: she is a former accountant.

Started five years ago, soleRebels now employs 45 full-time staff making 500 pairs of shoes a day. The shoes cost between US $33 and US $64. They are also being sold in Japan and the United Kingdom on Amazon’s shoe-selling website, http://www.javari.co.uk.

In 2010, Alemu hopes soleRebels will make US $481,000. But soleRebels has an even more ambitious goal: to become “the Timberland or Sketchers of Africa.”

Timberland (http://www.timberland.com/home/index.jsp), an American shoe and boot maker, has been a pioneer in high-quality leather footwear, breaking new ground in adopting green manufacturing processes and exploiting the power of the web by allowing customers to customise their footwear.

SoleRebels has cleverly exploited the advantages of the global marketplace to grow its customers and profits. The business has done this with just one leg-up: a line of credit from the government to help with large orders. With 6.2 million people out of a population of 80 million needing food aid, Ethiopia is still highly dependent on international aid. But Alemu is showing there is a way to build a sustainable successful business.

Inspiration for Alemu came about when she was thinking what Ethiopian product could be produced in a sustainable way. She remembered the sandals worn in the country.

“Recycling is a way of life here – you don’t throw things away that you can use again and again,” she said. “I wanted to build on that idea.”

Ethiopian shoe makers have had a difficult time in recent years, trying to compete with cheaper Chinese imports. But rather than just trying to come up with a shoe that was even cheaper than the Chinese ones, soleRebels decided to build a business selling shoes to the more lucrative export market.

Alemu reasoned that good design would attract a higher price. She did research on the internet to find out which designs worked well and what were the latest trends in footwear.

This research formed the basis of her range of shoes, which have catchy names like Class Act or Gruuv Thong. The sandals and flip-flops are either cotton-covered or leather covered. The Urban Runner shoe sells best and is inspired by the Converse All Star sneaker.

SoleRebels has a regular supplier of old truck tires and inner tubes and has women weave and dye the cotton, jute and hemp uppers for the shoes. Almost all materials are locally sourced. Old army uniforms are cannibalized for their camouflage pattern.

SoleRebels has also been canny in seeking Fair Trade certification (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk) to help with marketing and selling the shoes.

To increase the market for the shoes, Alemu bombarded American retailers with emails and shoe samples to pique their interest. Because of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (http://www.agoa.gov), soleRebels’ shoes can be imported into the United States duty-free: a big price advantage in the U.S. marketplace which has helped grab the interest of retailers like Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters.

This interest soon snowballed, and people were placing orders through the soleRebels website (http://solerebelsfootwear.weebly.com/index.html). Orders come by courier from Ethiopia in about a week to the United States.

With all this interest building, Amazon, the leviathan online retailer, decided to become a customer for the shoes. Online retailing has been a huge boost to the growth of soleRebels. According to Alemu, it has enabled the company “to understand the market needs and demands in real time” — a huge advantage to a start-up company far away from its markets.

There is another advantage to using the web to grow a business: it has enabled soleRebels to take greater control of the whole process. The company negotiates directly with retailers, handling orders and credit collection, and this makes sure most of the profits of the business return to Ethiopia.

Making soleRebels quickly profitable has been a benefit to its workers. Starters at the company make US $1.92 a day, while experienced shoe-makers earn US $11 a day (a good wage in Ethiopia).

“In Ethiopia we have become used to taking money from the West, to always getting help,” Alemu told the Guardian. “That does not make for a sustainable economy. We need to solve our own problems.” And what does success enable them to do? SoleRebels are now building a solar-powered factory to replace their current workshop. And there is a steely pride in the firm’s success: “People buy soleRebels because they are good, not just because they are green or from Ethiopia,” Alemu said. “Our product speaks for itself.”

Resources:

1) The online service CafePress is a specially designed one-stop shop that lets entrepreneurs upload their designs, and then sell them via their online payment and worldwide shipping service. Website: http://www.cafepress.com/cp/info/sell/

2) Once inspired to get into the global fashion business, check out this business website for all the latest news, jobs and events. Website: http://us.fashionmag.com/news/index.php

3) iFashion: This web portal run from South Africa has all the latest business news on fashion in Africa and profiles of up-and-coming designers. Website: http://www.ifashion.co.za/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1

4) The red dot logo stands for belonging to the best in design and business. The red dot is an internationally recognised quality label for excellent design that is aimed at all those who would like to improve their business activities with the help of design. Website: http://www.red-dot.de

5) Dutch Design in Development: As a matchmaker, DDiD puts together European clients, Dutch designers and small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries. The designers share their knowledge of European consumer tastes, product development, design and quality standards. Website: http://www.ddid.nl

6) ShopAfrica53: Pledging in its motto to reach “every African nook and cranny,” ShopAfrica53is an online shopping portal similar to famous brands like Amazon or eBay, but focused entirely on giving African traders the ability to sell across the continent and to the world online. Website: http://www.shopafrica53.com/

7) Havianas: A Brazilian global fashion success with its rubber flip flops. Website: http://www.havaianas.com/

8) Arise Africa Fashion Week: The place to be seen and to see. Website: http://www.africanfashioninternational.com/africaFashionWeek/

As featured in Southern Innovator Issue 2: Youth and Entrepreneurship. Designed and laid out in Iceland using 100% renewable energy.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

Categories
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Turning African Youth on to Technology

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

An African NGO believes the Internet is the single biggest key to rapid development in Africa – and it is working to connect youth, women and rural populations to the web, and in turn, switch them on to the vast resources stored across the world’s Internet sites.

After initial successes with a youth project and with farmers, Voices of Africa (VOA) (http://www.voicesofafrica.info) is now seeking to scale up its work to fan out across Africa – and take its services to the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. 

The youth and technology empowerment NGO has developed a business model to deliver low-cost Internet access and e-resources to Africa’s slums and rural farmers.

VOA argues that “the digital divide, defined by a lack of access to information for a specific population, symbolizes the largest difference between developed and developing countries: the opportunity to obtain and utilize information.”

“The digital divide runs much deeper than hardware and software,” it says. “While equipment is necessary it is not sufficient. The real heart of the digital divide is that those without access to information resources often suffer needlessly while the solutions to their problems are floating in the air.”

But why is the Internet so important?

“The internet puts the choice of content at the fingertips of the user,” explains executive director Crystal Kigoni. “Traditional media is one way communications. Internet is bi-directional.

“Our NGO is completely grassroots. We train the people who train the people. It is an each one, teach one philosophy and is highly effective. We also design our projects to be self-sustainable after one year of successful implementation.”

The philosophy behind Voices of Africa – “Sustainable Development through Information Empowerment” – is to give people the information and resources to take better control of their lives.

Access to the Internet in Africa is patchy and, for the poor, an expensive resource. The penetration of mobile phones in Africa has been spectacular in the past five years. But there are limits to the resources people can afford to access with their phones. Issues abound about data costs, mobile phone networks, and mobile phone capability.

VOA targets youth and women in sub-Saharan Africa through online educational resources offered on their e-learning website (http://elearning.voicesofafrica.info/). The resources have been certified by Nazarene University (http://www.anu.ac.ke), a private university in Nairobi, Kenya.

The e-learning resources include high quality training videos, presentations and screencasts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screencast) – like a movie, it is a digital recording of changes on a computer screen and is used to teach software – to share on the web. The resources are also shared through compact discs (CDs) and iPods (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod).

Project coordinator Nick Kungu coordinates the staff working on the pilot Kenyan projects: a Rural Internet Kiosk; a Youth Empowerment Center; and KiberaNet, which launched in August 2011. VOA uses a part-time and volunteer staff of more than 20 Kenyans and four international ‘virtual’ volunteers.

The group is also working with farmers in Kutus, central Kenya, to help them get a better price for their products and introduce sustainable agriculture practices. This is done through online courses so the farmers do not need to travel. It is hoped by doing this they can improve the supply of food for the country.

The Youth Empowerment Center in Webuye constituency of the Western province of Kenya involves a partnership with the government of Kenya to teach computer basics, research and data collection, social media, ICT (information communication technology) for development, social business and community health.

In rural areas, the need for information cannot be overestimated. In the remote countryside, there are few schools with adequate resources and almost no community libraries. The lifesaving knowledge the people require has to date been completely beyond their grasp. As one rural woman in the Western province of Kenya exclaimed to VOA after encountering the resources on the Internet, “It is like being brought from the darkness into the light.”

Another project in development is SlumNet, which seeks to combine the Internet with low-cost devices like tablet computers and netbooks. Its pilot scheme, KiberaNet, launched this month in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya to test the business model. VOA hopes to then expand it to Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It is using a business model to bring low-cost Internet access to Africa’s slums that is fully funded by the local communities and the users.

It has identified the key needs of youth in slums that need to be met: a way to access the vast resources available on the Internet; a way to generate income, undertake low-cost learning, and organise for social justice; ways to overcome social, economic and political isolation; a way to access affordable equipment and resources to improve their quality of life in the short-term.

To make it a sustainable business model, the community takes a 60 percent stake in the incorporated entity. Voices of Africa will select six local civil society organisations to take another 10 percent stake in the business. VOA takes 10 percent and the remaining 30 percent will be open to outside investors.

It involves setting up a closed intranet system and Internet access covering the entire Kibera slum, which has an estimated population of 2 million, a majority under the age of 30.

KiberaNet hopes to act as a community hub for socialising, education and generating content. A key part is creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to novices. The business model is about delivering the bandwidth of Internet access and simultaneously generating a sustainable source of income to keep it going. Partners in the business include Promote Africa, Plexus Group and Future Optics Networks.

VOA also has been blogging about its time in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16) at their website, www.voicesofafrica.info, and has been developing plans to expand services to the camp, home to over 400,000 refugees from drought and famine in Somalia. The camp was only designed to hold 90,000 people. The chronic food insecurity has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, leaving over 10 million people in need of help.

“There are plenty of resources going in but it is aid business as usual,” claims Kigoni. “You see lots of waste in many areas, and a lack in others that would be extremely beneficial. Hence, why Voices of Africa has come up with the youth technology and empowerment plan that accompanies a general information and communications system, DadaabNet.”

DadaabNet will be a youth-run community Internet service and education service. VOA plans to use a wireless intranet, internal communications systems and low-cost internet access in the refugee camp.

The project is the first of its kind in Dadaab and a first in Kenya, claims VOA, allowing free educational content without needing to access the Internet

The intranet will host free educational videos that can be accessed by mobile phones and computers. The topics covered in the videos include health, nutrition, sanitation and computer training and how to use technology for sustainable development.

The curriculum is also approved by Nazerene University to certificate level.

The system is supervised and would be able to offer resources to other NGOs seeking to provide services to the camp’s residents. The intention is to open up opportunities for education and employment youth who are currently unemployed.

At present the youth in the camp, many of whom have not completed secondary school, get by ‘hustling’ for work, according to VOA. By being left to their own devices, there is a risk they will fall into negative behaviour like crime and drug use or be preyed upon by terrorist organisations operating in the area like al Shabaab, they maintain.

“In our dreams, everyone everywhere in the world can have the opportunity to develop their minds. It is through this creativity that Africa will rise,” concludes Kigoni.

Resources

1) The Impact of Mobile Phones on Profits from Livestock Activities by Roxana Barrantes. Website:http://www.mendeley.com/research/impact-mobile-phones-profits-livestock-activities-evidence-puno-peru-14/

2) 2011 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Kenya. Website: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16

3) Southern Innovator magazine: New global magazine Southern Innovator’s first issue is out now and is about Mobile Phones and Information Technology in the global South. Website:http://www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021