Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu: World-Class Products from Ethiopia with Love

Off the bat, let’s just say it’s incredibly challenging to write something new and insightful about a woman who, among many other accolades, was nominated as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, has been labelled CNN’s Top 12 Women Entrepreneurs of the Last Century, and made it to the Forbes World’s 100 Most Powerful Women and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business lists. But I guess you could say Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu has made it a little easier for us because the pioneering Ethiopian entrepreneur is at it again, this time making waves in a completely new industry. 

Springboarding off her success at soleRebels, the world’s fastest growing African footwear label, last year Bethlehem launched Coffee Garden, the first artisanal coffee company to source, process, roast, and package its beans in Ethiopia. Controlling all facets of the brand allows Coffee Garden to preserve quality and pay a true premium to local farmers and roasters that they deserve but have never been able to command from other brands. 

“If ever there was a category ripe for a radical re-alignment and disruption, the coffee market is it. It doesn’t make sense for Ethiopia to ship our magical raw green beans thousands of miles for roasting when we can produce the absolute finest roasts right here using our own talented roasting artisans. We’re excited by this movement because it enables us to exert direct control over the Ethiopian coffee experience instead of having it interpreted by others. This includes the history, context, varieties and origins, the methods – everything from growing to roasting, and the outcomes that are all integral parts of the experience of drinking Ethiopian coffees.”

Bethlehem is all about disruption. Straight out of college, where she studied accounting and worked with various companies in the leather and apparel sector, she launched soleRebels in her home town of Zenabwork, one of Ethiopia’s most impoverished and marginalized communities. The name was inspired by Ethiopian rebel soldiers’ rubber tire sandals – selate and barabasso shoes – which the company reimagined with fabulous designs, but it is also a nod to the founder’s rebellion against the false narrative of poverty alleviation.

“I saw the devastating effect that aid and charity had in terms of making people complacent and dependent. I knew anything I did for the community had to be truly business-oriented. I wanted to show people that if we all worked hard we could have jobs that pay decently and with regular work could feel the pride that comes with financing ourselves and not waiting for handouts. It became clear to me that prosperity creation is the sole route to the elimination of poverty. To create sustained prosperity you have to create something truly world class.” 

So she did just that. From a bank loan of ETB580,000 (US$33,000) and five employees, Bethlehem created the first global-branded retail chain to emerge from a developing country. To date, soleRebels has over 400 employees, 18 standalone retail stores in places like Barcelona and New York and is sold in 30 countries around the world, numbers that are growing all the time.

A few years ago, another creative brainchild of Bethlehem’s was unleashed. The Republic of Leather is an online platform that lets customers custom design their own leather products and select the craftsperson they want to make it. At the same time, the buyer can designate any organization or cause to which 5% of the purchase price is donated. “The vision was to re-imagine the luxury leather goods market by powering the creativity of our customers, creating jobs for craftspeople in Ethiopia, and energizing the causes our customers are passionate about,” she explains.

With Coffee Garden, Bethlehem continues her theme of proving to the world that it is possible to deploy developing country local resources to create a market-leading global brand. The company recently became the very first Ethiopian coffee roaster to be admitted to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. 

“My mom taught me the same virtue that every Ethiopian learns growing up: the more perfect the green coffee bean, the more even the roast, and the better the taste. Our artists personally select each and every green bean for every order ensuring they are smooth and perfectly shaped. They also inspect every roasted batch for cracked or burned beans as any imperfect beans affect the taste of the final coffee. Our unique one of a kind hand roasted-on-demand model means that our gifted coffee artists roast only for your specific order. This is not small-batch coffee roasting – this is personalised roasting – the ultimate roasted coffee experience.” 

Bethlehem has invested a 7-figure sum in Coffee Garden and is expecting to be profitable at the end of Year 1. An interactive 7000 square foot café-roastery opened in Addis Ababa in early 2017 and will serve as the launchpad for a global rollout of Garden of Coffee café-roasteries worldwide, starting with the US and expanding to Europe and Asia in the coming months. 

Taking a page from the Republic of Leather mission, Coffee Garden customers can select not only the beans and the type of roast but also the roaster. The company currently employs a team of 40 of the finest hand-roasting, mostly female artisans who, until the Coffee Garden model, have never been able to leverage their immense knowledge into a profitable livelihood. Each roasting team member earns on average the equivalent salary to a bank management employee, a practice carried over from soleRebels.

“My driving passion as an entrepreneur is about sharing Ethiopian traditions with the world and finding exciting ways to keep these cultures vibrant and fully relevant while providing a platform for high quality job creation. At soleRebels, we witnessed the magical effect of artisans making their own money and being in a position to purchase homes, send their children to good schools, and support extended families. With Coffee Garden, we are continuing that tradition.

“These business models, and I suppose even my own success, have provided a much needed, real example for up-and-coming young people here in Ethiopia and across Africa at large that local Ethiopians (and local Africans by extension), can develop world-class brands while empowering local communities.”

In her success, Bethlehem has proven a simple yet infrequently practiced premise in development: people need opportunity, not charity. Be it fashion, food, sports, or education, talented people can do great things if only given the chance.

Tips from Bethlehem:

  • Your workforce is your biggest asset. Know how much money employees need to take care of their family and take that into consideration while setting remuneration.
  • Create truly awesome products that your customers will love; deliver these products with equally awesome customer-focused service so your customers will love you in return!
  • Market honestly. No one likes being scammed.
  • Stay agile. Never allow complacency. Always be eager to examine ALL your assumptions and, if need be, to react immediately if those assumptions come up short.
  • Be open and transparent and above all responsive – companies are posting, tweeting all over the place but many never take time to listen and respond when contacted.

Ana Bela’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.