Sunday, 29 April 2012

Oliberté is selling PRIDE, not pity.

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

Asked Tal Dehtiar, founder of Oliberté Footwear – the very first company to make premium shoes in Africa using African materials. What began as a Toronto-based company back in 2009, now has projected sales of between 20-25,000 this year.

This is finally a find for all the fellas’ out there – great timeless shoes and bags, of the upmost quality – the perfect gift for the style savvy man who is conscious of his consumer choices. 

When you think of Oliberté, be sure to think quality. They’re certainly not striving to mass-produce shoes as cheap as chips. ‘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.’

‘They’re attractive. The shoes demand attention.’ says Justin Davis, manager of Mint Footwear in San Diego. He noticed the materials and craftsmanship were better than ‘regular production stuff.’ And once he heard the story about how and where the shoes are produced, Davis simply had to have them. ‘People crave products that have a little more purpose than just consumption,’ he says, which I believe is very true amongst our new generation of consumers today, who like the idea of being able have a positive social impact when they make a material purchase; rather than just buying another meaningless object.  

‘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.’ In Africa, the middle class is increasing in size, and one of Oliberté's goals is to support that growing middle class by building a world class footwear brand that can create thousands of jobs and encourages manufacturers from other industries to work in Africa. The continent has the necessary means to grow and support its people, and that’s exactly what Dehtiar is trying to establish.

Oliberté shoes are all stitched and assembled in Ethiopia, while the leather is sourced from local free-range cows, sheep, and goats. And none of the livestock have been injected with hormones to speed their growth, which is found to be a scarily common practice in other parts of the world. I personally choose not to buy any form of leather goods, because I believe that as a fellow vegetarian it would be hypocritical of me; but if real leather is something that you’re a fan of, then make it this free-range sort. And they also greenly offer something known as three-way shipping, which means that once you have enjoyed your Olibertés, if you can't donate or reuse them, they promise to take back the shoes and recycle them (this is of course, only if your Olibertés no longer function because you’ve just worn them too damn much due to the sheer pleasure they provide you with).

The crepe rubber soles of the shoes are then made from natural rubber which is processed over in Liberia, and are lined with soft, breathable goat leather. Woven labels and other branding materials are produced in the African island nation of Mauritius. And recently, the company expanded its line and now offers leather bags and accessories to boot, some of which are sourced in Kenya and made in Zambia. So Oliberté are really building up their company supply chain all over the continent in an effort to create a strong and thriving network. 

In addition, the company only employs workers from selected factories which pay (relatively) high wages and provide good employee benefits; and there are further expansion plans to open its own factory in Addis Ababa, while maintaining existing production at the other plants.
I don’t think I have actually gotten around to blogging about TOMS shoes as yet – and I think most people have heard of them – but in case not, the humanitarian Californian-based footwear brand gives one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair that it sells. They have donated more than one million pairs to children through ‘shoe drops’ where they travel the globe to hand out the shoes. These don’t just help to prevent horrific soil-borne diseases, but the donations help children to attend schools for the first time, because many forbid bare feet. 

However, upon closer investigation, I have found that the TOMS business model is quite controversial to some people who appear to be speaking from a more informed perspective. ‘With TOMS,’ Dehtiar says, ‘the best thing is the awareness they’ve created.’ But he’s sceptical 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 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). Giving free gifts is not a good form of aid, nor is it any form of long term solution for the people on the receiving end. What can have a much greater impact is creating jobs that pay a fair wage, allowing people to live their lives with a sense of normality, and not making them consistently feel like a bunch of helpless charity cases. No one wants to be dependent on handouts. What they need is a hand UP.  Dehtiar says he doesn’t want people to be encouraged to buy his products because they ‘feel bad about Africa’.

One strong force Dehtiar cites for founding Oliberté is that while carrying out aid work shortly after graduating, African friends kept telling him they were tired of charity and that 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.’ So if we waltz in to people’s home-towns and start handing out hundreds of pairs of free shoes, then people who have made a livelihood for themselves by making and selling shoes locally are going to be forced out of business. By giving hand-outs, we’re not helping the situation in the long-run, we’re only making it worse.
Take a look at the 'A day without dignity’ campaign video:

It would seem that good intentions are simply not enough. And many companies and organisations, including Oliberté are working to create new perceptions of Africa and to show that unbeknown to many, it is brimming with more than capable people with the potential to support themselves and their families, just like you and me.

I also happened to stumble upon another, rather different, charity campaign video by Mama Hope, whose motto is to ‘Build a Future. Not a Stereotype.’ Aiming to re-humanise Africa, and make us realise that we’re actually more similar than we are different. When the pity is gone, the following take its place: DIGNITY. OPPORTUNITY. SUPPORT. CONNECTION. CAPACITY. CREATIVITY. PERSEVERANCE. COMMUNITY. MEANING. CONTRIBUTION. JOY. POTENTIAL. TRIUMPH. LOVE. BELIEF. COLLABORATION. PARTNERSHIP. EMPATHY. CHANGE.

It’s a pleasantly refreshing approach isn’t it? Made me smile for sure.

However, Ms. Rodgers (founding director of Mama Hope) has faced criticism for showing only relatively wealthy, happy African people in the charity’s videos. But Bernard, a man featured in the “Hollywood Stereotypes” video, was an orphan originally sponsored by Ms. Rodgers’s late mother, who actually inspired the founding of Mama Hope. His story shows the power of what people can ultimately do when they get access to an education, Ms. Rodgers says. And I agree with her one hundred percent. They don’t need free gifts, they need access to the skills that they will keep and use for a lifetime.

Back to Oliberté - Dehtiar is hoping to pave a path that larger manufacturers can follow in time. ‘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.’

Oliberté is selling pride, not pity.

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