Reliving the horror of Gukurahundi

The Matabeleland Massacre has been the worst blot on an atrocious human rights record in Zimbabwe

People gather at the Joshua Nkomo statue ahead of Unity Day commemorations on December 22, 2017 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to commemorate the killings in Matebeleland in the early 1980s. – Troops from the notorious Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korean advisers, committed mass atrocities during the crackdown on a supposed rebellion in the western province of Matabeleland. ZAPU supporters, and many other villagers, women and children, were rounded up, tortured and killed. PHOTO ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP

In January 1983, Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF quashed what it called dissidence by supporters of its political rival, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

In an operation known by a Shona term Gukurahundi (the spring rain that washes away the chaff), the Zimbabwean military, in particular the Fifth Brigade, murdered up to 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland and Midlands.

The Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace reported widespread atrocities including as torture and extrajudicial executions.

The Habakkuk Trust has commissioned a series of videos to highlight the disproportionate impact of Gukurahundi on women in Matabeleland and Midlands.

This is the first in a series of three videos we will be featuring.

Below the video is a PDF on impunity and cycles of violence in Zimbabwe by Human Rights Watch.




Electoral abuse and a fearful electorate

Zimbabwe has found itself trapped in continuous protests and violence as citizens remain unsatisfied with electoral outcomes

ZANU-PF election rally in the Caledonia Farm area on the outskirts of Harare, 27 July 2018 Photo: Graeme Williams

Zimbabwe’s elections since 1980, when the country gained independence, have traditionally been a do-or-die affair characterised by extreme political violence, disenfranchisement of the electorate, election results contestations and echoes of political hypocrisy. Could there be something wrong with the country’s electoral system?

A fundamental bedrock of democracy is the election of political leaders through the electoral box, yet Zimbabwe’s electoral experiences have essentially impacted negatively on the country’s budding democracy. Zimbabwe’s “winner-takes-all” (WTA) electoral system used to choose the president suggests that it is not elections per se that promote democracy, human rights protection and good governance, but the quality of elections held.

Drawing lessons from Zimbabwe’s electoral experiences, we argue that the country’s WTA electoral system has often been abused, produced a fearful electorate, fear democracy and a fear governance system. Zimbabwe’s WTA politics inspire political parties’ xenophobic and malign strategies to win elections at any cost and it suffocates cohesion and the drive towards inclusive politics. In proffering policy options, we suggest electoral reforms, including proportional representation, coalition governments and more political inclusion to improve Zimbabwe’s electoral governance processes.

Zimbabwe held its first democratisation elections in 1980 when the country gained its independence from white minority colonial rule. Since then, it has been an electoral democracy that consistently holds elections after every five years without fail, a principle of which former President Robert Mugabe has always been proud. The country uses the WTA electoral system, commonly referred as a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, when choosing its president. However, Zimbabwe’s first independence election in 1980 was conducted using the proportional representation (PR) system, but the system was changed to adopt the WTA approach ahead of the 1985 elections.

Major electoral reforms, however, took place in the 2000s, when there was a transition from an election management body (EMB), which had four separate structures, to a harmonised system that followed recommended SADC Guidelines on the Conduct of Democratic Elections. In 2004, two electoral laws were passed, the Electoral Act (Chapter 2:13) and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act (Chapter 2:12). The latter led to the formation of the independent electoral commission known as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The existence of an independent electoral body represents a departure from periods when, by law or de facto, electoral processes were managed in or from government departments by the very individuals responsible for manipulating elections. Though this might be the hope, electoral governance in Zimbabwe remains highly fragile and subject to manipulation.

The 1985 electoral system reforms (adopting the WTA) set the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) on its course towards consolidating political power. The amendment of the electoral Act from the PR system, which was used once in the 1980 elections, served ZANU-PF well as it garnered 64 parliamentary seats in the 1985 elections compared to the 57 seats in 1980, while the Patriotic Front-Zimbabwe African People’s Union (PF-ZAPU) declined from 20 seats in 1980 to 15. 

By the time elections occurred in 1990 there had been mass incarcerations and killings of members and leaders of opposing political parties such as PF-ZAPU and the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) led by Edgar Tekere, a breakaway cadre from ZANU-PF. Though ZUM won 20% of the votes, the elections were far from being free and fair; it witnessed violence being unleashed through state security agents on key opposition leaders such as Patrick Kombayi, who was shot and crippled. We would assume that the WTA became a tool to garner a majority vote through any means necessary to fulfil the ZANU-PF interest of establishing a one-party state.

In realising the increasing erosion of electoral values and principles in the 1990s, Jonathan Moyo wrote a book, Voting for Democracy: Electoral Politics in Zimbabwe, in 1992. He reflected on how the “right to vote” lies at the very core of Zimbabwe’s liberation history in which the slogan “one man, one vote” was a central guiding principle for freedom and equal representation. Moyo emphasised that, “in the post-colonial Zimbabwe that right should not be taken for granted”. At the behest of this argument was an interest to protect the electorate against the impeding one-party state.

Zimbabwe, Harare, 1 August 2018. Running battles in Harare between disgruntled MDC supporters and the police /army. Fires we lit throughout the city.

A strong opposition movement, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was established in 1999. The MDC was a formidable political force that pushed ZANU-PF into making the electoral environment extremely repressive. According to Makaye and Dube, “ZANU-PF employed youths and war veterans to unleash an orgy of violence on the people.” In the 2000 referendum, fear tactics were used to arm-twist citizens to vote “yes” towards the state interest to change the Constitution. Though in the following elections deaths and injuries were recorded in both ZANU-PF and MDC camps, the latter suffered the most. The 2008 run-up June elections witnessed gross violence, which witnessed members of the MDC being injured, displaced and killed. Morgan Tsvangirai had to announce his withdrawal from the run-up despite having won the first election.

Zimbabwe uses the WTA as an electoral formula to elect its president as opposed to proportional representation and semi-proportional representation, which are used in other polities. The WTA electoral system involves “two distinct but interrelated elements, namely, (a) a single winner plurality voting system for majoritarian rule and (b) the partisan monopolisation of state resources and exclusion of political opponents from national governance.” The election system manifests a zero-sum tendency that excludes other political opponents and ascribes state control to the ruling party, as has been the case in Zimbabwe for the past three decades.

Proportional representation, on the other hand, “is an electoral system that seeks to secure a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive, usually in the legislature.” PR can be through a party list or single transferable vote (STV) approach. In terms of a party list, voters vote for a list of candidates rather than a specific candidate, while under STV the voters use preferential voting to determine the results of elections. PR is used in more than 70 countries while WTA is used in about 43 countries globally, whereas others use hybrids.

Through its 2013 adopted Constitution, Zimbabwe adopted a mixed electoral system. It introduced elements of PR, whereby all senatorial seats are voted through PR and 60 permanent parliamentary seats are reserved for women from any contesting political party. Despite these slight changes in the electoral system, Zimbabwe still largely upholds a WTA approach in all the presidential, parliamentary and local government elections. 

The WTA formula has always been commented for potentially having higher levels of electorate participation and accountability for the elected. However, it creates room for contemptuous marginalisation of the opposition parties and allocates state resources control to the ruling party, as has been the case for Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s elections have continually been a mercy affair with political campaigns being decidedly violent, dirty, ruthless, fierce and intense with perpetual unyielding practices throughout the electoral cycle. This implies WTA limitations of its democratic representation capacity as it can be unfair and highly manipulated.

It is essential to note that Zimbabwe’s political elites have always sought to manipulate and control the electorate through any means possible. The WTA electoral system has served these interests well as it has always awarded them the credibility to justify legitimacy based on the electoral numbers despite the questionable means and way in which the numbers are attained. In most cases, fear has been used to force citizens to vote and legitimise the interests of the ruling government in Zimbabwe. As such, having multiparty democratic elections without a proper transference of citizen participation in governance and state affairs as a democratic right dismisses the whole reason of elections entirely.

Since 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence, the country has experienced violent elections leading to deaths, the destruction of property and multiple displacements. The electoral processes have been associated with electoral autocracy, with the ruling party, ZANU-PF, aggressively maintaining an electoral hegemony, which sought to establish a one-party state through violence and any means necessary. The most violent elections were experienced in 1990, 2000, 2002 and 2008. Fast forward to the post-2018 elections and the country has found itself trapped in continuous protests and violence as citizens remain unsatisfied with the electoral outcomes and the continuously deteriorating economic situation. As such, the WTA formula may require alterations.

The root causes of Zimbabwe’s WTA presidential election system is the country’s Constitution, which suggests the need for alteration.

The WTA formula has shown that it cannot yield democratic development in Zimbabwe, given past electoral experiences. This election system made Zimbabwe’s elections a mercy affair characterised by violence, contemptuous marginalisation of the opposition, and state control of national resources by the ruling party.

WTA gives room for the dominant parties to engage in excruciating violence and ethnic politics. The case of the violent polarity between ZANU-PF and the MDC is a case in point.

The WTA formula turns the country into a single-member constituency; minority groups and regions become less important, regardless of ethnic vote significances.

Given Zimbabwe’s history of electoral violence and governance intricacies, there is need to adopt a proportional-representation election formula when electing the president, as it is with the members of parliament. The ruling party may need to consider appointing government officials from other opposition parties and any other realms outside their party to create greater representivity. Establishing coalition governments may also be an option in cases where more than one party has close vote tallies as opposed to going for run-offs. However, coalition governments are often unstable.

Chapter seven of the Zimbabwe Constitution of 2013, Article 156c(i) stipulates that “at every election and referendum, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission must ensure that appropriate systems and mechanisms are put in place to eliminate electoral violence and other electoral malpractices; and to ensure safe keeping of electoral materials.” From this, we interpret that it is possible to engage an electoral system that protects the citizens’ vote, restores constitutional dignity and human value, and ensures a fair and accountable representation of the people’s progressive and peaceful will without fear of victimisation or manipulation, hence the significance of the above reflections and recommendations.

EDKNOWLEDGE MANDIKWAZA is a PhD student at the Durban University of Technology and leads the policy advocacy and research unit for the Heal Zimbabwe Trust. He holds a MSc in development policy, practice and process, a MSc in international relations and a BSc Hons in political science.
GILBERT TINASHE ZVAITA is a PhD candidate at the Durban University of Technology. He is a peace-building researcher with interests in African peacebuilding, politics, governance, non-violence, elections and democracy. He holds an MSocSci in conflict transformation and peace studies (CTPS), a BSS Hons, CTPS and a BSS in political science and development studies.




An ailing system of water provision

Zimbabwe’s Constitution clearly stipulates the right to clean, safe, potable water but poor governance makes this a pipe dream for most citizens

A family fetching water at a borehole water pump in Highfield, Harare. Photo: Sadat Sanhehwe

Most major cities in African countries are currently characterised by significantly large population increases. This is attributed partly to rural-urban migration as urban centres are perceived as having better standards of living and a myriad of opportunities. Population figures are expected to continue to climb due to both natural growth within cities and as people from elsewhere seek better lives. The rural-urban movement has also been attributed to changes in climate; in some instances, extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods have impacted food production and this has forced rural populations to seek alternative forms of livelihood.

The problem lies in that African cities have not developed their infrastructure beyond what was left by colonial governments. In some instances, the infrastructure is derelict, worsened by industry that is either stagnant or not growing in proportion to the burgeoning population. Other cities are in countries that face political upheavals of various kinds that adversely affect the economy, let alone developmental work. A combination of factors such as poor or a lack of governance, a weak economy and a  lack of development have rendered most cities ill-equipped for the rise in population and the requisite infrastructural rural demands to cater for the increase. This is in spite of the bodies of fundamental principles that should ideally be used to govern states.

Using Zimbabwe as a typical example, the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment Act 20 of 2013 in its Declaration of Rights clearly stipulates the right to water among other rights, and section 77 distinctly outlines the rights to water for all citizens by stating that: “Every person has a right to (a) safe, clean and potable water and the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.”

In line with this, the state has a responsibility to ensure the right to water is fulfilled, promoted and protected. There are Acts in place that include, but are not limited to, the Public Health Act, the Water Act of 1998 and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) Act of 1998 that address the significance of the right to water. The Public Health Act has sections that stipulate the provision and maintenance of sufficient sources of pure water for drinking and other domestic uses by all local authorities. The ZINWA Act focuses on ensuring exploitation, conservation and management of water resources in Zimbabwe. Its objectives include ensuring equal access, allocating water efficiently, distributing and providing enough water at reasonable costs, to cite a few. 

The right to water, among other rights, is undoubtedly central as the essence of life hinges upon water. Water is intricately linked to other rights such as the right to health or the right to a safe and clean environment, and all these aspects are crucial elements that allow people to live in dignity. Against this backdrop of rights, according to UNICEF Zimbabwe, the country experienced a cholera outbreak in 2008-2009 in which 100,000 people were affected and 4,000 died, despite such explicit provisions in the Constitution and in the Acts. UNICEF points out that 25% of households in the country do not have any type of toilet facility, according to the 2012 National Population Census data. The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, carried out in 2014, showed that open defecation, mostly in rural areas, was at 31.7%, but such practices also extended into urban centres due to dysfunctional service-provision structures.

Exactly 10 years later, Zimbabwe is faced yet again with another cholera outbreak, and this raises genuine concerns. Cholera is caused by ingesting bacteria found in contaminated food or water. Zimbabweans find themselves tangled up in water constraints to the extent that cities and rural areas face cholera outbreaks in spite of the constitutional stipulations and various Acts. Instead of improving from its 2008 plight, the country is entangled in a reoccurrence within a space of nine to 10 years. Past experiences have not led to preparedness or an understanding of the consequences of failing to meet the right to water and this has manifested in a disease outbreak that could have been easily avoided.

Many areas within the urban centres have gone without piped water for years and are filled with raw, untreated sewage along the streets, which begs the question on how the sanitation facilities have been running. On one hand, water-access issues in the rural areas are ignored and concealed from the public while, on the other hand, the cities have defunct infrastructure.

The Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe border

According to a 2013 UNICEF Zimbabwe report, over four million people in Zimbabwe, about a third of the population, lack safe drinking water. This is tied directly to ReliefWeb 2018 statistics, which show that in the period between January to May 2018, 177 cholera cases were reported as well as 17 deaths. By September 2018, 1,901 cases had been reported, with 58 confirmed cases, 1,843 still under investigation and 24 deaths. Zimbabwe has reported cholera cases for the past three  years, albeit on a lower scale. A correlation exists in that cholera cases were reported in areas hardest hit with water shortages such as Budiriro and Glen View in Harare, but extending to areas such as Buhera, Chitungwiza, Shamva, Gokwe North, Makoni and Masvingo districts. The number of people estimated to be at risk is 200,000 as cholera is endemic to the country.

A number of contributory factors, such as the unpaid water accounts in urban areas that were written off in politically motivated campaign initiatives in 2013, played a part in infrastructural collapse. Most residents also queried paying for services they were not getting. On another level, the city authorities disconnected water services for anyone who was unable to pay, forcing people to use unsafe water options. The water charges have also proved untenable for most residents, who in some areas face perennial water shortages. The few payments that are made have not been channelled back into water provision but instead diverted to other uses in violation of city-budget guidelines. Most local municipalities are, therefore, in dire straits and cannot meet their obligations to the general populace. This state of affairs has contributed to local authorities’ failure to purchase the required chemicals used in treating water, a situation perpetuated by the state of the economy and ultimately resulting in less potable water.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Zimbabwe rightly cites corruption and government mismanagement (at all levels – local, provincial and national) as some of the major contributory factors to the water crisis and consequently to cholera outbreaks. A HRW survey found that residents had resorted to drinking water from unprotected shallow wells and defecating in open spaces, conditions conducive to disease outbreaks and which are in direct violation of the rights to safe water. An unsettling account in the HRW report describes a household of 21 people with one toilet that does not flush, leaving them to use buckets to flush the toilet or resorting to using the bush. Residents had also resorted to using boreholes as these were perceived to be safer alternative sources of water.

Zimbabwe has provisions to control borehole drilling and drillers, which ordinarily would not be a problem. These, however, expose the failure of the state and its instruments to provide basic water services, thereby forcing residents to seek alternatives. According to HRW, 200 boreholes were drilled by international agencies in the aftermath of the first cholera outbreak, but these do not take into account the numerous boreholes residents have drilled for themselves. It is unsurprising, therefore, that tests conducted by Harare Water revealed that the water from a third of these boreholes was contaminated, given that the sewerage system as a whole is dilapidated and seepage from broken pipes easily compromises borehole water.

A lack of investment in water and sanitation systems in Zimbabwe has led to the water-related crises the country faces. The response of the ruling party and opposition in the recent cholera outbreak has been discouraging, hurling blame at each other without actually addressing the situation. The lack of water extends to health facilities within the country, posing an additional threat to an already precarious situation. The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), which is meant to supply and manage domestic water in urban areas, has failed to properly carry out this mandate. The water from the taps is dirty, discoloured, and has contributed to the outbreaks of disease and stomach problems. In as much as the legislation and policies on WASH (water and sanitation hygiene) are unquestionable, they are not fully implemented amidst an ailing system of water provision. This has left citizens vulnerable, regardless of the commendable legal stipulations existing within the country.

PRUE MUTUMI has a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies. She also has a MA Heritage degree from Wits and a BSc in tourism and hospitality management from the University of Zimbabwe. She has served as a board member of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

Zimbabwe’s elephant in the room


The contemporary political history of southern Africa has placed constitutionalism at the forefront of the struggle for good governance. The social contract between the state and its citizens has a chequered career in those lands where an anti-colonial liberation movement has come to power, often in the form of a de facto one-party state, claiming a legitimacy which has overridden the democratic essentials embodied in charterism.

South Africa is a pre-eminent example. The fight against predators who have sought to capture the state for purposes of self-enrichment has drawn upon the armoury of that country’s 1996 Constitution, where citizens are empowered via a free press and an independent judiciary to assert their rights therein enshrined.

Constitutionalism in Zimbabwe has failed. It is of great significance that the political earthquake of the overthrow of Robert Mugabe was heralded by this statement from his key power base, the Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association: “We note with concern, shock and dismay the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle in utter disregard of the Constitution.”

This special edition of Africa in Fact considers the ways in which the lack of respect for the 2013 Constitution lies at the heart of the breakdown of public services, the abandonment of
the rule of law and the ensuing drastic decline in the quality of life for the mass of the people.

The voices here are of those on the ground and well informed on the current state of governance. They are courageous voices, in a polity marked by continuing repression.

A consistent thread of argument in this edition relates to the breakdown in public services and the quality of life in Zimbabwe, the failure of the rule of law and the lack of proper respect for the 2013 Constitution.

Providing context for what is to follow, Sharon Hofisi and Eldered Masunungure give a summary and analysis of political culture of constitutionalism, a key ingredient missing
in Zimbabwe today. This article prepares the groundwork for further inquiry into how Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution can be mobilised effectively.

Tamuka Chirimambowa argues that the pursuit of inclusive state-society and economic relations will mean the creation of an inclusive growth model that will address poverty and
inequality. The article outlines the constituent elements, which make up what is termed economic constitutionalism, but questions remain. What exactly are the political obstacles against their implementation?

Ray Ndlovu attempts to answer why new president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s pronouncements on constitutionalism amount to empty rhetoric. Was he ever really serious at all about the proposed reforms? Is he unable or unwilling or simply compromised in his ability to confront the vested interests which inhibit reform? What are these interests, why is he unwilling or unable to step forward and over them?

The collapse of effective local governance is clearly at the heart of what has been, and is, going wrong in Zimbabwe. Our article on a recent GGA – Zimbabwe Citizen Engagement
study in Harare, Masvingo, Bulawayo and Mutare on basic services and how wards are managed shows that the majority of citizens are unhappy with service delivery, despite a high level of access to services. Barnabas Thondhlana’s article touches on some of the key reasons for this, namely the arrogation of power and privileges to the centre, starving the lower tiers of society of resources and concentrating wealth among the administrative and political elite.

Musa Kika examines the role of the Zimbabwean courts and the separation of powers, arguing that if Zimbabwe is to be true to its democratic identity, the courts and the rule of law are indispensable in facilitating economic development.

Reason Beremauro examines the ways in which different forms of social protection or social security are recognised in Zimbabwe’s Constitution and how these provisions find expression in the everyday lives of individuals, giving form and shape to the nature of contemporary political and social affairs in Zimbabwe.

Veteran Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono provides an excellent review of the embattled relationship between press freedom and repression, and the changing picture brought about by new communication technology.

The rise of the one-party state and the destruction of free and fair elections have been central to the decline of the polity and economy of Zimbabwe. Edknowledge Mandikwaza
and Gilbert Tinashe Zvaita summarise the key steps in this process, making a good case for a change in the electoral system to that of proportional representation; does this run against the grain in a country with such a sharp urban/rural divide?

Zimbabweans in the diaspora have accused the government of discriminating against someof its citizens by allowing only a small minority holding diplomatic posts the privilege of voting abroad. Chipo

Dendere tackles the complex and vexing relationship between Zimbabwe’s reliance on remittances, while denying those in the diaspora the opportunity to vote.

With mining so important to the national economy, human rights lawyer and environmental activist Nyaradzo Mutonhori warns that key pieces of legislation are found wanting when
addressing recent environmental concerns such as hazardous waste, the emission of “greenhouse” gases, leaking underground storage tanks, or environmental emergency “preparedness” plans.

The progressive provision on environmental rights in the Constitution, Mutonhori says, can only be realised by aligning key environmental legislation to the Constitution.

Prue Mutumi’s article on water provision goes to the heart of the failed relationship between those concerned with the administration of public goods and citizens, particularly
in urban areas.

Finally, Yunus Momoniat, in reviewing a recently released book written by Ray Ndlovu, in his article Senility, a Doting Mad Wife and an Indulgence in Spies, describes the self-serving
tyranny which brought about the collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy.

DR SHOLTO CROSS is special advisor to GGA.

Heart and sole

Ethiopia’s footwear marches on

Bethlehem Alemu is making great strides in creating employment and developing artisanal skills

The flagship soleRebels store in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is a hipster shoe haven. A lilting reggae soundtrack pervades the air. The wooden décor is splashed with Ethiopia’s warm national colours: green, red and yellow. Hundreds of funky shoe designs, their price tags ranging from $40 to $100, festoon the shelves.

In its midst sits Bethlehem Alemu, 34, the company’s founder and owner, sipping Ethiopian black coffee and boasting breathlessly about the fast rise of her foot- wear empire. “Our business model centres on eco-sensibility and community empower- ment,” she explains with self-confidence. “Our model maximises local development by creating a vibrant local supply chain while creating world-class footwear.”

Ms Bethlehem launched soleRebels with only five employees in 2005. She now employs more than 200 people who make shoes from Abyssinian hemp, organic cotton and recycled car tyres. These shoes, a combination of Ethiopian heritage crafts and modern design, are exported to 55 countries and sold in more than 65 stores. Ethiopia’s 20th century anti-colonial fighters, who wore sandals with rubber-tyre soles, inspired the shoes’ design and name.

Today, in addition to the flagship store in Ethiopia, 13 stand-alone soleRebels stores are selling shoes in five countries: Canada, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan. Last year’s company sales reached $2m. Ms Bethlehem says she is expecting $5m in store sales this year as well as more than $6m in online sales over the next 18-36 months. Ms Bethlehem was born and raised in Addis Ababa, the daughter of a cook and an electrician. After gaining a degree in accounting from Unity University in 2001, she worked for three years in the apparel and leather sectors, gaining experience in production, design, marketing and sales. It was during these years, she says, that she developed a strong desire to focus her business skills on helping people from her community to escape poverty.

Footwear became her platform to harness the local artisanal workforce. With a $5,000 loan from her family, she opened a workshop in 2005 with five employees on her grandmother’s plot of land on the leafy edge of Addis Ababa.

For the first six years soleRebels produced shoes for large online fashion retailers such as Amazon, Endless, Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters. In 2011 Ms Bethlehem opened her first store in Addis Ababa. The next year, the company launched an outlet in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, followed by a shop in Vienna, Austria.

Ethiopia is today one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Since 2004, its GDP has grown at an average of more than 10% a year, according to government figures. Conversely, its per capita income remains one of the world’s lowest and it is also one of the largest recipients of development aid, according to the OECD, an international think-tank.

Despite Ethiopia’s impressive economic growth, investors are grappling with a less impressive business environment. In the World Bank’s 2014 “Doing Business” survey, Ethiopia slipped one place to a lowly 125 out of 189 countries. In the bank’s “Ease of Starting a Business” index it fell four places to 166.

Graft, corruption, cronyism and a byzantine regulatory environment explain the country’s low ranking. Corruption permeates many of Ethiopia’s major institutions, with energy, tax, financial and transport sectors identified as having the highest levels of sleaze, according to a draft report released last January by the World Bank.

“Ethiopia suffers from high corruption risks because of the private sector’s dependence on the government,” says Ed Hobey, east Africa analyst for Africa Risk Consulting, a pan-African consultancy based in London and Nairobi. “Under Ethiopia’s state-led business and fiscal model, close contact with government officials is necessary for big businesses to operate successfully,” Mr Hobey explains. Local investors complain that the government continues to offer favourable treatment to certain ethnic groups. Ms Bethlehem is uncharacteristically silent when asked if the government was a help or a hindrance in starting and maintaining her business.

Ethiopia’s textile sector is the nation’s third-largest manufacturing industry after the food and beverage and leather industries, according to Bantihun Gessesse, spokes- man for the Ethiopian Textile Industry Development Institute. Over the last five years the government has offered many incentives to promote textile businesses, he adds.

“Ethiopia offers textile investors free factory rent, cheap electricity, duty free import of machinery and goods, favourable rules and regulations and cheap air freight,” Mr Bantihun says.

By adding value to raw materials and localising production, soleRebels is challenging the overwhelming propensity of African countries to export raw commodities that are manufactured into products overseas. This business ethos is in line with the Ethiopian government’s goal to transform the country to middle-income status by 2025 by boosting private investment, increasing trade and industrialising the agriculture-based economy.

As a successful retail chain from a developing country, soleRebels is an example of “how grassroots African companies can build successful global powerhouses literally from the ground up”, Ms Bethlehem boasts. For her efforts, CNN named her one of the “female entrepreneurs who changed the way we do business” in 2013 and Forbesmag- azine named her a woman to watch as part of its World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named her as one of Africa’s five leading innovators at the 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa.

Matthew Newsome, a journalist based in Ethiopia, freelances for the BBC World Service and Radio France International. He has also written for the Guardian, the Observer and New Internationalist magazine.