I attended a talk given by Tal Dehtiar of Oliberté last week on Thursday, hosted by Capacity Waterloo Region as part of their Change Agent Series. Oliberté is the first company in the world to market premium urban-casual footwear that is exclusively made in Africa, from the natural rubber found in Liberia and leather from Ethiopia, to local workers manufacturing shoes in factories built to ISO 14000 (environmental management) standards, where workers are paid a fair wage and no child labor is used.
From my perspective, it seems that a lot of his motivation comes from seeing business as the biggest change agent in the world. Perhaps this point of view was shaped by his family history and struggles as new immigrants to Canada a couple of decades ago, a story which he shared with the audience. Similar to many familiar new-immigrant stories that you hear today, Tal’s parents were highly educated back in their home country, but either due to a lack of English-speaking skills or education credentials not being recognized here, they had to make do with whatever job was necessary in order to survive. And similar in outcome to many immigrant stories, Tal’s parents ended up starting their own business, becoming successful in turning a profit, while in the process, employing hundreds of people to work for them.
With this in mind, Tal views his for-profit company Oliberté, as a social venture or social enterprise. And he does so because at the end of the day, he believes that he is charting a much more sustainable way of life for people living in countries like Ethiopia and Liberia, by providing them with a stable means of employment and fair income. Tal has also heard many local people say that they do not need any more direct aid or charity (in the traditional sense of the word) in Africa. What they do need are jobs in order to provide for their families themselves, with sustained economic growth and investment in order to build a middle-class in Africa, which currently does not exist. This is something that Dambisa Moyo argues in her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is A Better Way For Africa.
That being said, Tal made the point that although Oliberté is a social enterprise, it is a footwear company first, competing with the likes of Lacoste, Roots, Nike, etc., in the premium footwear market in terms of price point and quality of the product. They are not necessarily focusing on selling the ‘social good’ aspect of the company, although it does provide a great backstory to the company, and I completely agree with this approach.