#9Questions: Can ‘Small’ be Sustainable?

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No emerging economy can grow without a robust SME network which serves as a powerful catalyst for growth and development. Nonetheless, the relationship between sustainability and SME development as often been seen as a concept for ‘big corporations’ alone, even though the latter, if on the right footing, aims to become a larger business investment. This brings us to the question: Can ‘Small’ be Sustainable?
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and CEO of SoleRebels, one of the fastest growing African footwear brands, takes us on her journey of growth…

1. What is your opinion about the awareness and acceptance of Sustainable Development by Africans?
I believe that there is no other avenue for Africa’s long-term development and the creation of prosperity for our people except to develop in the manner SoleRebel has, which is by creating powerful global companies and brands that create market leading products that are in high demand for high quality jobs and the need for high quality material inputs that come from high value supply networks.
To be clear, my argument is that aid and charity in almost all their formats and configurations won’t ever create jobs, cannot and never will create sustained prosperity, especially in the Ethiopian or African context.

2. What is SoleRebels’ Future Global Business Strategy Beyond today?
SoleRebels is the first and only global branded retail chain from a developing country. To date, we have already opened 12 stand-alone retail stores around the planet and located in prime areas. We are on track to open over 150 to 175 stores, which will generate over $250 million USD in revenue by 2019/20!

3. How well is SoleRebels selling around the World?
We are targeting to hit over six million dollars in internet sales from our award-winning web-shop within 18-36 months and also SoleRebels branded retail stores.

4. What is your position on fair and sustainable labour practices?
As far as a fair trade,from day one of the founding of this company, our number one goal was to create a global world-class company that produces market leading footwear while creating prosperity and jobs. Thus, our DNA as a company, and as brand, is what I have termed ‘Fair Trade 2.0,’ which are the Fair Trade Principles inherent in an enterprise from its inception and fused with an organic high level business goal.

5. Do you consider yourself a designer and do you design your own shoes?
At our core, SoleRebels is an artisan driven company. We handcraft Abyssinian pure leathers, re-purpose materials like car and truck tires into soles and incorporate as many recycled plus sustainable materials as possible including Abyssinian hemp and pure Abyssinian kola. As other footwear manufacturers outsource their shoe design to big design firms, we conceive and develop everything we make by ourselves in-house in our workshop in AddisAbaba.

6. Does it affect your company’s profitability?
As a company, we are maximizing recycled and eco-sensible inputs and crafting our materials and products drawn 100% locally here, in Ethiopia. Our model draws on locally sourced inputs, locally worked and processed for our export output, instead of the other way-round. This model creates an elevated element of sustainability to the SoleRebels brand.

7. SoleRebels is clearly a different company with focus on sourcing and creating fashion items in a sustainable manner. How did you achieve that?
An interesting question; the best way of understanding who we are and why we do what we do is to say: SoleRebels is an innovative company committed to creating world-class footwear, apparel products and great community-based jobs that create sustained prosperity. We do this by utilizing the immense, diverse and sustainable materials and artisan arts of Ethiopia. We use terms like “historically eco-sensible” and “green by heritage” to describe this phenomenon.

8. How did you begin SoleRebels?
Five workers plus I were working inside a workshop situated on my grandmother’s plot of land inside our village of Zenabwork. But from an idea and vision standpoint, it was immense-to create, grow and control a world-class footwear brand right, that would grow and the workers’ prosperity by leveraging the artisan skills of the community and the natural resources of the nation. Over eight years later, we have grown to hundreds of workers and the vision lives on.

9. How did you raise capital?
From a physical standpoint, it was pretty basic- we self-financed.

Source: CSR Files™

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