Convinced that business can prove an agent of change, Tal Dehtiar established Oliberté in 2009. Oliberté manufactures shoes in Africa and sells them worldwide. The company partners with tanneries, component suppliers, farmers and workers to produce premium footwear and to create fair jobs, with the goal of contributing to the development of a thriving middle class. Currently, Oliberté’s main operation and factory is in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but it also sources materials and components from Kenya, South Africa, Mauritius and Liberia, and is looking for new partners throughout Africa.

Building a business and effecting change, without the traditional aid model

Dehtiar believes that the best way to help a struggling nation is to provide the means for it to be self-sufficient. He is convinced giving things away does not work when it comes to durable, lasting change, and that promoting sustainability and building a middle class through job creation does.

After all, it’s an accepted notion that a thriving middle class is a key component to the success of any country. And, as the middle class increases in Africa, supporting it by creating jobs and attracting manufacturers to work in Africa is essential. “We’re trying to give them the jobs so they can pay for their child’s education and take care of their family,” Dehtiar explains. “The more shoes we sell, the more jobs we can create and the more we can encourage brands to consider Africa for their manufacturing needs.”

Dehtiar also advocates that manufacturing is key to creating jobs quickly and efficiently. Recognizing the large number of people in Africa in need of—and in a position to take on—quick employment, Dehtiar established a manufacturing base there. In doing so, he not only established the only premium African-made footwear brand sold across the globe, but also a business with the potential to enable unparalleled social change.

Dehtiar disagrees with those who say the best place for manufacturing is China (with its low costs). He believes that if the goal is quality footwear and paying people a fair wage while treating them with respect, there’s no better place than Africa. Of course, he add that that doesn’t mean Africa will or should replace China, Italy or the US, but that the continent can certainly set the bar for a good way to manufacture.

Oliberté’s own factory adheres to its own “play fair” mantra. It monitors its own operation, as well as that of its suppliers, to ensure compliance with strict standards and policies. Oliberté’s workforce is comprised of approximately 50% women, which exceeds local labour standards. It plans to begin offering workers additional benefits such as subsidized or free lunches and tea breaks, and providing women with an extended maternity leave.

Dehtiar’s pursuit of social innovation has won him accolades. Dehtiar was named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine and he earned the Canadian Youth Business Foundation Chairman’s Award for Best Socially-Minded Business.

Interestingly, for Dehtiar this endeavour is not just about building a social purpose business. In fact, at times Dehtiar prefers to keep his socially conscious message in the background and focus more on building a company that sells premium casual shoes and sells them well. That his customers should embody a social conscience is par for the course in any business these days, he holds.

Challenges: Funding and operations

In pursuit of funding, Dehtiar has twice appeared on the Canadian TV show “Dragons’ Den.” Though he’s been unable to secure a deal so far, he has succeed in finding customers and supporters along the way. In addition to The Gap and Town Shoes, Oliberte’s regular customers include Amazon and Steven Alan, a well-known clothing retailer in New York.

Running a large-scale manufacturing operation in Ethiopia involves challenges, including production, quality control, cash, delays and cultural differences. Dehtiar hires local workers to help the company overcome the latter and he is hard at work to counter the other obstacles.

Company growth

A recent sales expansion into the US and the hiring of sales agents in Germany, Italy and Spain have helped the company prosper. The company has grown from selling 200 pairs of shoes in 2009 to a projected 25,000 pairs in 2013. After three years of working with third-party factories, Oliberté opened its own plant in 2012. The company now directly employs more than 55 people in Ethiopia. Dehtiar’s dream is to support an industry that can create one million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Case Studies in Social Innovation database is a joint initiative between SiG @ MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.