Ethiopia’s Golden Girl Takes On Coffee

June 09, 2017

Ethiopia’s Golden Girl Takes On Coffee

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
Garden of Coffee on Rwanda Street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, is lively, although it’s a Monday afternoon and the shop has only been open for two months.

I can barely find a free table – luckily I don’t have to worry, as I am here to meet co-owner Bethlehem Alemu. We sit among the patrons, rather than go to her office. Besides, it’s all about the atmosphere.

“Ethiopia’s business landscape has greatly improved since I started my first business. I have seen a growing respect for entrepreneurs and how people view business is shifting. This gives me much hope,” says Alemu, 36, over a cup of single-origin Ethiopian coffee.

“Many young Ethiopians are asking important questions, trying to do something new and working on their ideas.”

Perhaps she has provided some inspiration for this positive change through the numerous international awards and titles she’s garnered, most notably making the Forbes World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list and being named Business Insider’s top entrepreneur in Africa. Not only has she turned the spotlight to Ethiopia, she has also become a national symbol of entrepreneurial success since her Fair Trade-certified footwear brand Sole Rebels became a global brand, sold in over 30 countries.

The trendy, colourful shoes are made from discarded tyres, other recycled materials and indigenous plants. “Being a responsible company is in our DNA. We don’t have to correct our mistakes, we simply do it the right way from the start. That’s the difference between me and others,” says Alemu.

Twelve years on, she employs 200 workers, mostly female, and will soon be opening a new factory in Addis. She is known for being a generous employer, who often pays three times the industry standard.

“I did not only want to provide employment opportunities, I also wanted my employees to be independent individuals who do not have to be supported (by men or family members),” she explains.

It’s one of the reasons why her staff turnover is so low.

“Sole Rebels is not just my brand, it’s the workers’ brand, it’s the people's brand. We build it together. They are the creative force behind me and I believe it’s very important to recognise talented people and give them what they deserve,” Alemu says.

But it hasn’t always been easy or as glamorous as it seems. The qualified accountant laughs when I ask how she came to leave her job to establish Sole Rebels. There’s been debate about whether she was fired or quit. It was somewhere in between, she admits.

“I wanted to quit and was looking to do something on my own I did not want to spend my time doing something that would not change my life nor the lives of people around me. And that remains the driving force behind me today.”

The transition from employee to employer made her realise entrepreneurs need to have a unique way of thinking. She explains: “Being an entrepreneur is different from running a business because you are not a trader and have to see opportunities through solving problems.”

Alemu believes female entrepreneurs should not be treated differently. “Women are fed the wrong information about what we should or can do. It’s all about the mindset. We need to see ourselves as a person, not as a woman or man, so we don’t tell ourselves we can do this or can’t do that.”

Though it remains one of the continent’s poorest countries, Ethiopia has experienced economic growth averaging 10.8% since 2005, according to the African Development Bank. Alemu excitedly tells me about the country’s industrialisation policy and how it’s bringing business opportunities and investors.

“The middle class is steadily growing. We have a lot to offer the world. And we have coffee; let’s start from there,” she laughs.

We pause for a moment as one of the coffee roasters comes around to the tables with a clay pan of beans that still have smoke dancing off them. The coffee house fills with the aroma that has become synonymous with Ethiopia. Clients waft the smell towards themselves with their hands as Alemu recollects childhood memories of waking up to her mother or sister roasting and grinding coffee.

“Then we sit and talk to each other as we drank it. Even when we do business, it is always over coffee.”

Alemu admits running a business is challenging, especially when you’re out of your comfort zone and trying something new. Running Sole Rebels inspired her to start Garden of Coffee.

“This time around it’s not going to take me 10 years, as my hard work, name and brand already have a certain value.”

And what better way to grow her brand than focus on the country’s largest foreign currency earner, which accounts for close to a third of Ethiopia’s export earnings and employs 20 million people.

Alemu wants to revolutionise the seed-to-cup journey of coffee and is doing so by creating what she calls, a “fourth wave of coffee” that supports Fair Trade practices and creates employment by processing coffee locally before exporting it.

“Ethiopia, as the birthplace of coffee, has been supplying the world with green coffee but has never had the chance to build its own brand at the source.”

Alemu is not fazed by the competition from more established local coffee brands because while there are more than 10 000 varieties of coffee in the country, she focuses on the five most popular Arabica varieties. Customers (whether they come to the café-shop or buy online) can choose one of six roast levels from light to dark. They can watch the coffee beans being hand-roasted before being packaged and labelled.

The ambitious entrepreneur is also in talks with the government, after the recent re-establishment of the Ethiopian Coffee and Tea Development and Marketing Authority, to get permission to source green coffee beans directly from farmers and pay them decent prices. Her objectives are in line with those of the regulatory body, which also aims to increase coffee-growing land and productivity to go from being the world’s fifth largest coffee exporter to the second, after Brazil, in the next five years.

Alemu, among others, is also campaigning for the government to make first-grade, green coffee beans available to the local market, instead of prioritising them for export to international markets.

She won’t be supplying big coffee chains and international brands, as she wants to create her own sustainable coffee brand with stores and roasteries around Ethiopia and the world and perhaps franchises. She hopes to have outlets in the UK, Germany, China, Japan and Australia in the coming years.

“We are looking for a partner to expand Sole Rebels or Garden of Coffee, so please drop by and let’s talk business over coffee!”

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