There are many companies springing up with lofty claims about do-gooding. (For an awesome take-down of the much lauded Toms head over to Put This On.) The hand-wringing analysis that usually follows any discussions of "business" and "poverty" can border on elitism or misguided economic theory. Try and start a manufacturing company in, say, India, and you're accused of perpetuating financial servitude. Apparently only established companies are allowed to have factories in China. See: Wendy Brandes on manufacturing.Oliberté is a company with a simple goal - manufacture a product, from start to finish in Africa. They chose shoes to take advantage of available materials. Their slogan, "Made in Africa," at first seems to play into the foreign stereotype that all of Africa is essentially the same, but on closer inspection simply reflects the truth of their business. I had a chance to correspond briefly with Tal Dehtiar, Oliberté's founder and president. Can a shoe company really make a difference?
In 2002 while doing my MBA I was challenged by my craving to put on a three-piece suit and run the corporate gig. My family had moved to Canada in 1980 and though my parents were brilliant engineers they struggled to find decent work. With no business skills and poor English, but a passion to take care of their family, they started a high-end furniture business which still exists today. Long story short - I researched what built countries like Canada, the USA, and other G-8 nations, and it's the existence of a thriving middle class and support for small businesses like my parents'.
In developing countries particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America there was no such support at the time, and this still holds true. From that I decided there was a better place for my MBA and, with a friend, I launched the charity MBAs Without Borders. It connects socially-minded business people with small businesses in developing countries. Under my leadership MBAs Without Borders worked in 25 countries from Haiti to Pakistan.
In late 2008 I started thinking about how I could have more of an impact and it really came down to my colleagues in Africa. They continually shared the fact that they didn't need more charity - they needed jobs. They needed something the world wants that they could manufacture in Africa, and so that started
The leather comes from Ethiopia where the shoes are also made. Some accessories, like insoles and canvas for the European market, come from Kenya. We are currently building up our own rubber processing plant to make the crepe rubber outsoles in Liberia. Over the next two to three years we are looking at working in at least Zambia, Cameroon, Uganda, and the Congo.
What are the working conditions like?
That's an important question. Working in Africa isn't easy. It takes a long time and patience, and if you're coming to find the next cheapest option for manufacturing there are better options in terms of price. If, on the other hand, you want a quality product, attention to detail, and have a respect for the people, it's perfect. Both factories that we work with, after eight months of interviewing and auditing about a dozen, adhere to or exceed local government laws. They provide free or subsidized lunches, tea breaks, and maternity leave. Additionally, each partner factory employs about 50% women, whose roles include sewing, cutting, and administrative work. As we grow we hope to support factory workers with additional benefits such as health insurance, credit savings options, and more.-----------
I was sent a pair of the Adibo Chukka boots. They are very comfortable, sturdy, with a playful appearance missing in most men's footwear without looking clownish. I've been wearing them about a month with no noticeable wear (although the little red tag on one of the shoes did come off.) A worthy substitution for Clarks.