Sure Footed

Published in Renegade Collective issue 22, June 2015.

Serial entrepreneur Tal Dehtiar doesn’t mind jumping through hoops to make products that meet the ultimate sustainability checklist.

If there’s any doubt that serial entrepreneur Tal Dehtiar belongs on the pages of Renegade Collective, consider this: he once tried to buy a Canadian football team called the Ottawa Renegades. His strategy was to sell shares on eBay, promising to refund the money if the bid wasn’t successful. “We raised a good amount of money, enough to have a call with the commissioner from the league,” he says, “until he realised that I was a nobody and really had no money, and he was trying to get off the phone as quickly as possible!”

Tal’s football bid may not have worked out but his Ethiopia-based footwear company, Oliberté, is kicking it out of the park. Founded in 2009, Oliberté operates on principles of environmental sustainability, social justice and workers’ rights, aiming to prove that premium quality goods can be manufactured in Africa without compromising on ethics.

The list of Oliberté’s do gooder credentials is so long it’s exhausting: in 2013 their factory in Addis Ababa passed 255 compliance standards to become the world’s first Fair Trade Certified footwear factory; factory employees have formed a union and receive a Fair Trade bonus which they can spend or invest as they see fit; they are a certified B-Corp, meaning that the company’s social and environmental performance is regularly benchmarked and made public; 1% of their profits are funnelled into environmental charities; a local tannery they partner with has the world’s only Chrome-3 recycling system. They even grow lettuce, coffee beans and garlic on the factory grounds for employees to enjoy, and offer to pay the costs for shoes at the end of their life to be returned to the company to prevent them going to landfill, although according to their website, ‘we still have not figured out what to do with the recycled returns so for now they are just sitting in a small pile until we find the best option that is smart for our customer and the planet.’

That’s a lot of hurdles for one relatively small company to set for itself, but while it does make the process of getting shoes off the production line and into stores more complicated it doesn’t seem to have hindered the company’s growth. The Addis Ababa factory more than doubled its staff and space within 18 months of opening and productivity followed suit. Tal hopes that the Oliberté story will inspire other companies to invest in Africa. “I want to prove to the world that you can do it this way, you can do it in Africa, you can do it in Ethiopia, you can do it anywhere in the world,” he says.

The idea for Oliberté was seeded during Tal’s previous role as founder of charity group MBAs Without Borders. “I was in Liberia and I saw this shoe guy,” he says. “He had some sandals that were locally made, and I asked, ‘How’s business?’ He just looked at me with bloodshot eyes and was like, ‘How’s business? How do I compete with free? All the white charities are coming next month and giving away all their free stuff. Who’s gonna buy?’”

Tal started wondering about the potential for producing quality footwear in sub-Saharan Africa and selling it worldwide, and after a false start in Liberia Oliberté found its feet in Ethiopia where there is a strong local leather industry. Early ranges were produced in partnership with local manufacturers, but it was always critical to Tal that the company open its own factory so it could ensure proper working conditions were in place. They achieved this goal in August 2012 when they opened with 15 workers – they now have 115 and are aiming for 1000 in the long term.

If there’s one thing that has helped ensure Oliberté’s success, it’s trusting the local expertise on the ground in Ethiopia. “This isn’t a place where you know best,” says Tal. “Keep your ego at the door. I see so many foreigners going into these countries and saying, ‘We know best. There’s a reason why you’ve been in poverty for so many years.’ It’s a very wrong way to look at it.”

His right hand man in Addis Ababa is general manager Feraw Kebede, who has 30 years’ experience in the shoe industry. “He’s grown up in the industry,” says Tal. “’I think what he likes about us is that he’s seen so many foreigners, they come in, they come out, they exploit, and with us he’s seen we’re not just talk. The reason we hired him is because he’s not a yes person. We needed someone who can work respectfully against the grain in Ethiopia.”

Tal says that when working with developing countries, entrepreneurs should be prepared to make a few costly mistakes early on and have enough capital to absorb them. Oliberté’s first range of brightly coloured unisex sneakers was a flop. “We were making the wrong shoes within the environment we were in,” says Tal. “I’ve still got some purple sneakers from five years ago.” The brand’s current rugged, weather beaten look in desert colours makes a feature of the surface imperfections of the local leather and reflects the ‘made in Africa’ tagline – it’s a much better fit for both the manufacturers and customers.

Another time, a shipment was exposed to too much humidity on route to Japan and the metal eyelets rusted, ruining the stock. Rather than seek out a better quality component, the incident led Tal to question whether it was necessary to use eyelets at all. Removing them made the shoes more environmentally friendly, so it was a no brainer. Now none of Oliberté’s shoes have eyelets. “It’s a small reminder to me that, hey, that was a disaster we didn’t need, and we don’t really need eyelets in our shoes,” says Tal.

It’s just one tiny change to add to the growing list of steps Oliberté takes to make products that are environmentally, socially and ethically sustainable. “I’m passionate about this, this is what we do,” says Tal. “This isn’t just about the money, it’s about creating a legacy.”