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How Oliberté, the Anti-TOMS, Makes Shoes and Jobs in Africa

“At Oliberté, we believe Africa can compete on a global scale, but it needs a chance."

'Why or how could anyone want to make shoes in a place full of so much poverty and corruption?’

That’s the question many people asked Canadian Tal Dehtiar when he founded Oliberté Footwear, the first company to make premium shoes in Africa using African materials and explicitly linking shoes sold by Western retailers to job creation on the continent. Dehtiar started the Toronto-based company in 2009, and sales increased from a mere 200 pairs initially to 10,000 in 2011. He projects sales of between 20,000 and 25,000 this year.

“At Oliberté, we believe Africa can compete on a global scale,” he says, “but it needs a chance. It doesn’t need handouts or a hand up. It needs people to start shaking hands and companies to start making deals to work in these countries.”

Oliberté shoes are stitched and assembled in Ethiopia with leather sourced from local free-range cows, sheep, and goats—the default in a country with many herders whose livelihoods depend upon ranging wherever grass may be. The livestock haven’t been injected with hormones to speed their growth, a common practice in other parts of the world. The result is a light, limber, yet sturdy upper.

The shoes feature crepe rubber soles made from natural rubber processed in Liberia and lined with soft, breathable goat leather. This spring, the company will expand its line to offer leather bags and accessories, some of which will be sourced in Kenya and made in Zambia. It produces woven labels and other branding materials in the African island nation Mauritius.

Oliberté—the name melds “liberty” with the “O” from the anthem of Dehtiar’s home country—employs workers at factories selected because they pay relatively high wages, provide employee benefits like subsidized lunches, and employ women as about half of their workforces. The company plans to open its own factory in Addis Ababa in March while maintaining production at its existing third-party plants. It distributes across North America and Europe and sells online.

The best-known footwear brand with a humanitarian bent is TOMS Shoes, the Santa Monica, California-based company that gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair it sells. From Nicaragua to New Orleans to Niger, TOMS has distributed shoes to more than a million children through “shoe drops,” when staff and contest winners travel the globe to hand out shoes. In addition to helping prevent soil-borne diseases, the donations help recipients attend schools that in many places forbid bare feet.

“With TOMS,” Dehtiar says, “the best thing is the awareness they’ve created.” But he’s skeptical of the company's one-for-one model because he believes the donations can pressure local shoemakers and vendors, in addition to reinforcing stereotypes about the developing world.

“TOMS Shoes is a good marketing tool, but it’s not good aid,” agrees Saundra Schimmelpfennig, an international aid expert who blogs at Good Intentions Are Not Enough, where she aims to educate nonprofit donors about effective charity. She’s criticized TOMS for competing with local producers by handing out free goods and for being “quintessential Whites in Shining Armor.” “The idea of creating jobs that pay a fair wage and provide necessary benefits,” she says, “can have far more impact than aid.”

According to its latest giving report, TOMS also uses factories in Ethiopia, in addition to ones in China and Argentina. “I’m not saying ours is a better way,” Dehtiar says, “but people just continue to give away stuff to Africa, and there’s no incentive for dependencies to end.”

Dehtiar had experience in aid work abroad before starting Oliberté. After graduating from business school, he started MBAs Without Borders, a charity that consulted with small businesses in the developing world and helped them find venture capital. “It was basically Peace Corps for people who had done Peace Corps and now had a business degree,” he says. The nonprofit worked in 25 countries, from Haiti to Pakistan to nations in West Africa. One impetus Dehtiar cites for founding Oliberté is that African friends kept telling him they were tired of charity—what the continent needed was jobs. “On a given day,” says Dehtiar, “One to two hundred people are working on our shoes. Because we don’t hire foreigners, we have local buy-in.”

“For me, it is great,” says Feraw Kebede, general manager of Oliberté Ethiopia, in a company video. “As an Ethiopian I’m very proud that we are exporting shoes to America.”

Instead of striving to produce the cheapest shoes possible, the company focuses on quality. “When it comes to footwear,” Dehtiar says, “we don’t want people to think of Africa as the next China. We want them to think of it as the next Italy—think quality.”

The strategy has begun to pay off with American retailers. “The first thing that prompted me was the style of the shoe,” says Justin Davis, manager of Mint Footwear in San Diego. “They’re attractive. The shoes demand attention.” He noticed the materials and craftsmanship were better than “regular production stuff.” Once he heard about how and where the shoes are produced, Davis says the line became even more attractive to him. “People crave products that have a little more purpose than just consumption,” he says.

The Oliberté brand is still niche, but to Dehtiar, part of the venture’s value is in cutting a path that larger manufacturers can follow. “Our goal is to be the reason that 1 million people are employed in manufacturing in Africa,” he says. “We want to show that these models work and we want to encourage others, like the Nikes and Levi’s of the world, to do the same.”

Dehtiar says one of the top five footwear and apparel brands in the world recently inquired about acquiring the company, impressed that it built a high quality made-in-Africa brand rather than simply set up a cheap manufacturing center on the continent. But the company is not for sale, Dehtiar says, because he has yet to finish developing it.

“When we first started, I didn’t want to do the Africa angle,” he says, a seemingly strange statement about a company that markets the continent in its tagline. “Our first ad was very stereotypical Africa. It was a picture of an African face—a Maasi warrior. I hated it.” He stopped using the ad the following year. “We’ve gone from portraying a very stereotypical image of Africa to now selling pride instead of pity. But it’s a challenge, because some stores want the stereotypical Africa branding.”

“The balance,” says Dehtiar, “is how do I do the Africa angle without doing the part I hate: ‘Buy because you feel bad about Africa.’”

Photo courtesy of Oliberté

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