Africa’s Female Entrepreneurs Defying Perceptions, Stereotypes

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Far too often, in the view of Africa’s budding female entrepreneurs, their continent is characterized as the recipient of aid that enables residents just to struggle by, and as a place that mistreats and marginalizes its women.

Late in 2010, after a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on sexual violence called that country the “rape capital of the world.” Last month, a South African politician named her own country the “rape capital of the world.”

Data analysis from Google shows that since 2004, the most common single term related to searches from the United States for “Africa” has been “AIDS.” This year, the charity Save the Children named Niger the “worst place to be a mother.” On the United Nations’ Web site, Africa is the only continent listed under “Issues.”

It was into this world, and against it, says Bethlehem Tilahun, that her shoe company SoleRebels was born.

“I kept hearing over and over the phrase ‘poverty alleviation,”‘ said Ms. Tilahun, now a footwear mogul whose company grossed $2 million in sales this past year. “The media, preoccupied with a singular narrative about ‘Africa’ that missed the story of Africa – part of a larger spectrum of endless entities that have monopolized Africa’s image, our brand.”

With SoleRebels, she said proudly, “We’ve inverted the whole paradigm.”

Ms. Tilahun, 33, is one of a cresting wave of African entrepreneurs who are harnessing Africa’s businesses and brands as the continent enjoys its greatest economic success in generations. The International Monetary Fund now forecasts, admittedly in a recession-plagued world, that Africa will have the fastest-growing economy of any continent over the next five years.

Many of the new entrepreneurs of Africa are women.

Ms. Tilahun became one with shoes.

Beginning in 2004 as a recent college graduate in Ethiopia with a handful of artisans from the neighborhood and a workshop on her grandmother’s plot, Ms. Tilahun has built SoleRebels (pun-intended) from a handmade sandal shop into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, whose iconic footwear – still handmade and eco-friendly – sells abroad for $60 and up.

Now her company employs roughly 100 workers, and it recently opened its flagship store in central Addis Ababa, where SoleRebels’ Ethiopian-branded fusion of Abyssinian and Western taste is on display. With each pair of shoes, she said, she seeks to change people’s minds about Africa.

“We’ve flipped the concept of non-Africans writing the script,” Ms. Tilahun went on. “We’ve basically taken back control of our destiny by controlling the marketing message.”

Indeed, Africa may not be as badly off as indexes sometimes imply.

According to a World Bank report released this month, more than 20 sub-Saharan African countries, totaling more than 400 million people, have gained middle-income status…

Read more: Josh Kron, NY Times


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