Brightly coloured shoes, boots and sandals, handmade in Ethiopia, nestle in tyres and wooden pallets hung with ropes on the white walls of this former butcher’s shop in Gràcia, a fashionably bohemian district of Barcelona.
On a warm weekday afternoon, trade is quiet – but soleRebels footwear is gaining in popularity, staff say. Fans include locals in their 30s, elderly people who find the shoes comfortable yet attractive, parents with adopted Ethiopian children and Germans living in the city.
The shop opened three years ago, and is one of 20 stores worldwide selling distinctive shoes made from recycled tyres, leather from free-range animals and cloth hand-woven by Ethiopian artisans in the poor community of Zenabwork/Total, a suburb of the capital Addis Ababa.
“It is not footwear we are producing – it’s a kind of art,” explained Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, who founded soleRebels in 2005 in the neighbourhood where she grew up, after realising skilled residents lacked job opportunities.
“For people to be innovative… they don’t have to really travel a long way or copy somebody’s business idea. It’s right there,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The entrepreneur in her mid-30s is no fan of foreign aid, which she says has not helped her community. She prefers to see people improve their own situation through dignified work with decent pay.
At soleRebels, which employs around 420 people, workers on average earn four to five times the Ethiopian minimum wage, according to the brand’s website. It is the only footwear company to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization, the site notes.