Tal Dehtiar is the man responsible for the world’s first Fair Trade Certified footwear brand. The Canadian, with an MBA from Hamilton’s McMaster University, had always wanted to create an internationally successful and socially conscious product made in Africa. He had already established the MBAs Without Borders in 2004; a non-profit that helped craftspeople in developing nations to build small businesses by connecting them to entrepreneurs from around the world. But it was his encounter with a cobbler in Liberia, who lamented at the impact of charity on his trade, which gave him the idea to build Oliberté. He started a small company in 2009 that worked with suppliers and factories in Africa, before opening his own factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2012.
Let’s create a little background, shall we? Ethiopia is a country that keeps popping up in this series; and for a business smart reason. The country is on track to becoming Africa’s industrial powerhouse, with “economic growth that has been consistently high for more than a decade… with the manufacturing industry growing 11% per annum”. According to an article in The Conversation, their manufacturing exports have increased eleven fold and they largely have to thank the footwear and apparel industries for these increased export earnings.
In a recently released development plan (for the period of 2015-2020), Ethiopia has made the leather, textile and apparel sectors a top priority for their manufacturing industry. Which is a smart move as it has strong links to their agricultural sector, is labour-intensive and has ‘major export potential and low entry barriers’. But the Ethiopian government goes further to attract foreign investment for the much-needed technology and capital resources. Apart from the manifold of incentives, such as five-year tax holidays on profits, it’s also has low-labour costs that give China a run for its money. Interestingly, the country has well-developed labour laws that could be compared to that of the United Kingdom.
With that in mind, it safe to say that Dehtiar went an extra step in creating an ethical footwear factory by becoming Fair Trade Certified™ in September 2013. It’s not a small undertaking. They have to meet or exceed rigorous standards for empowerment, economic development, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. This involved arduous inspections to ensure that they’re complying with over 255 compliance standards. In addition they have to have weekly doctor visits for their employees, and must contribute 5% of their sales to a community premium for their employees. Not to mention they pay twice the local minimum wage and are B Corporation certified, which harnesses the power of private enterprise for public benefit. And that’s not all they do to show that they are a ‘people-oriented’ company. They have over 70 employees, with 60% of the being women. While the Industrial Federation of Ethiopian Textile Trade Unions established that many factories don’t have labour unions, Oliberté encourages their employees to have one and helps them to organize union leader elections.
Each shoe is handcrafted and takes about 1000 stitches to assemble and they want to ensure that their workers are compensated for the unique results. You can see each member of the Ethiopian team and what role they played in making Oliberté shoes here. They also acknowledge that no company can run and thrive on its own. Thus, they are also transparent about the companies they partner with, which includes Dagnachew Achebe bag design, Ethiopian Leather Industry Association and the Hafde Leather Tannery; which is the only tannery in the world to have a Chrome-3 recycling system.
While they manufacture in Ethiopia, they partner with suppliers, craftsmen and farmers from all over Africa. To produce premium product, they closely monitor these partnerships to ensure that they comply with their standards and practices. For example, they’ll only work with leather tanneries that are at least ISO 14001 certified. Naturally, their leather comes from premium Ethiopian cow and goat leather, that’s hormone-free and free-range. Rubber making machines and sole moulds are sourced from South Arica, while their tags, and insole labels are made in Mauritius. They work between Kenya, Liberia, South Africa and Ethiopia to source their natural rubber, depending on availability. Even their collaborations are approached through the prism of social responsibility. One such partnership was with Baobab Batik for their women’s collection. This social enterprise based in Africa’s Swaziland, is also Fair Trade Certified and has dedicated the last 20 years to empowering local women with artisanal jobs of handcrafting uniquely dyed fabrics.
The transparency spread into their shoe construction process. For Oliberté, premium quality products should last their customers a lifetime. So, they offer a lifetime warranty. They also want their consumer to be socially conscious. Thus, they highlight the entire 32 step process from the design state to the lace-tying stage on their website. In addition, they provide the information to help the consumer do their part on keeping their purchase in mint condition for years to come. Their protection guide is on their product care page which you can read here. And when your shoes have reached the end of their journey, they have a recycling program in place, where they can take them back and reuse the materials.
While Dehtiar is quick to elaborate that he’s not an environmentally leading company, it’s evident that they are conscious about their environment. Apart from rom the hormone-free leather and their recycling program, they also dedicate one percent of his proceeds to the non-profit organisation, One Percent for the Planet. They also partnered with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to help with the ongoing efforts to protect wildlife in Ethiopia’s Semien Mountains. By donating custom designed boots, they helped the ranges tasked with protecting the wildlife to save additional funds for other required items. In addition, a potion from each sale of the Rango Boots, goes towards the AWF to help with the conservation efforts.
It wasn’t easy getting Oliberté to this stage. Dehtiar has twice been on Canadian TV show “Dragons’ Den” and denied both times. He wasn’t going to compromise and manufacture in China and thus used his own savings – and the marketing platform Dragon’s Den provided – to start this footwear brand off. To date, he still believes in his ‘Trade not Aid’ philosophy. A viewpoint that lies in the brand name itself: O” from “O Canada” with the French word for liberty. That manufacturing can be done in sub-Saharan Africa in an ethical and successful way, providing long-term local development. With this high level of transparency, Oliberté aims to create one million sustainable jobs by 2025 while making quality shoes while they’re at it.