Bethlehem Alemu has proven once again that she is one of the Ethiopian entrepreneurs with the fastest-growing business in the world, for not only founding the flourishing shoe company but also for breaking barriers with her specially-made home-grown coffee, currently serving the global market.
Coffee is arguably believed to have originated from Ethiopia in the 15th century, and the country has since been recognized as the home of coffee, as people brew and consume the beverage in large quantities.
Establishing her coffee brand, the Garden of Coffee in 2016, Alemu wanted other coffee lovers around the world to have a taste of her country’s specially-brewed coffee and her latest market is China, a population of tea lovers currently witnessing an increased demand for coffee.
Alemu’s company uses the local method of individually hand-picking beans to source, process, roast and package the coffee. This method of processing coffee helps preserves the quality of the product for the final consumer while reducing ecological footprint associated with factory roasting. It is also a way of creating a business model that values local manufacturing, Alemu told Quartz.
Through a deal reached with Suzhou Reyto trading company, Garden of Coffee is expected to ship 12 tons of hand-roasted coffee to China in the first five years, and launch an advertisement on messaging and social media app we-chat.
By 2022, the company is hoping to have over 100 café roasteries across China and a subscription service that would enable customers to receive their favourite coffee in two to three weeks of making an order.
Currently, the Ethiopian company has twenty workers at its atelier in Addis Ababa in charge of production. The figure might rise to 300 by 2021 due to increased demand, Alemu said.
Ethiopia, one of the best places to grow coffee beans on the planet is fifth in the world in total production, according to statistics from the International Coffee Organization, with its product highly sought after across the world due to its quality, and that is what Alemu is taking advantage of.
The global footwear brand icon recently opened the 22nd global store for her branded shoe, soleRebels, a shoe company considered one of the world’s fastest-growing businesses. Her story is one of resilience and determination.
Born in 1980 in one of the poorest sections of Addis Ababa, Alemu learnt early on of the absence of an Ethiopian brand in the pool of companies that wanted to empower Ethiopians in the country.
“I was born here in Ethiopia and I grew up here so I saw the state of people — the way they lived and the way they worked, and I felt if I had a company (it) should pay a certain amount of money so the employees can take care of themselves and their families,” she said to the CNN.
She founded soleRebels to provide solid community-based jobs. Before this, she was an accountant at one of the private companies in Addis. She came up with a plan and took $5,000 of her own money to set up a workshop.
Why shoes? According to Alemu:
“We selected shoes because we saw that footwear was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous eco-sensible craft heritages and artisan talents that we have here in Ethiopia with the world! It also meant that based on the approach we were taking to footwear creation – that being hand crafted and eco-sensible – that we could source and make almost ALL our materials locally, thereby creating an export product from 100% local inputs.”
The company recreated and re-imagined the “selate” and “barabasso” leather-soled shoes, whose history can be traced way back to the Battle of Adwa, which saw soldiers wearing these shoes fight off Italians, and beyond.
It would take her two years to create a suitable prototype; previous prototypes weight six kilograms.
“The shoes were really heavy, as I didn’t know how to cut the tire. They looked really funny. I kept trying and trying to develop the perfect product,” she said to Forbes.
What makes soleRebels stand out from the rest is its ethical nature as well as the combination of old recycling tradition and modern Ethiopian designs that have made it a hit for all, including vegans.
From a company that started at the backyard of Alemu’s grandmother in Zenebework, soleRebels has grown to hire at least 100 employees and created at least 1200 jobs.
With the new store opened in Hamburg to add to the others in Silicon Valley, Athens, Barcelona and in Taiwan, Alemu is not stopping any time soon. She wants to have 500 stores globally and a revenue of $1 billion by 2028.
Alemu has also expanded her portfolio by venturing into other businesses including the above-mentioned Garden of Coffee and The Republic of Leather, a bespoke leather company.
These companies, for Alemu, show that Ethiopians and Africans can control their narrative and shape their image without depending on external forces interested in displaying the continent as needy and desolate.
Alemu has earned accolades and awards across the globe, including Face2face Africa’s very own FACE List Award for entrepreneurship in 2014.
She has also been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum; listed as one of the most powerful women in the world by various organisations; and awarded a PhD (Hons) in commerce from Ethiopia’s Jimma University.