Beyond TOMS: An interview with Oliberté Footwear
IF TOMS SHOES giving free footwear to shoeless Africans seems a little problematic, how about another shoe company trying to make a difference, well…differently?
Matador: Can you tell me a bit more about how you have embedded the company in local structures and economics, and what informed this approach?
Tal: I saw too many times that the right economics weren’t being focused on. The insight I gained from my previous experience of working in developing countries, including running a charity — MBAs Without Borders — is that while knowledge is key and important, the best long term solution for local development is hiring and focusing on hiring locally from the start.
That is one of the key reasons we’ve succeeded with our models — we don’t bring foreigners in to say, “we know better, listen to us.” We find the best and brightest locals that are very capable and provide them the tools; education-wise and financially, they’re the best to represent Oliberté locally.
In addition, giving back or any form of traditional charity was not how we wanted to build Oliberté. Africa is too poor for more stupidity, and giving away more money or any products is not what will help build what is truly needed.
Oliberté doesn’t donate, but we work hard to make the best quality shoes possible, paying fairly with the clear understanding that the more money we make (yes, there is profit), the more people we can continue to hire and support. From pay to education to healthcare, we reinvest our funds not towards charity, but to building up our capacity, our people, and the communities that they impact on a daily basis.
Why Ethiopia as a manufacturing home for the company?
Smart people, politically somewhat stable, English is the primary business language — but more importantly, it has a decent domestic shoe manufacturing base and the largest amount of livestock in all of Africa.
What made you decide to adopt this model, versus a TOMS-esque approach of manufacturing elsewhere and donating to African recipients?
Simply put: The TOMS model is not development. It’s a brilliant (and I say that genuinely) marketing company that promotes the wrong solution. It’s what aid has been doing wrong for years, and has not and will never work.
That said, our focus is on manufacturing in places that need the work the most, but that we also feel have unique propositions, including a smart labour base, quality craftsmanship, and amazing raw materials like leather and rubber. Africa doesn’t need donations — it doesn’t need anything. It has everything it needs. What it requires is the right support system.
What have been the biggest challenges to taking this approach?
Logistics — that’s the biggest and most expensive challenge. But, fortunately, we have great partners and staff that work as hard as they can to minimize this. From an ethical perspective, we try our best to be the best at having the highest standards. We focus on using natural rubber and supporting eco-friendly tanners.
Of course, we’re not perfect. As an example, we fly our goods out of Ethiopia. Air travel is not the best for the environment, but in order to meet our customer deadlines, we compromise (this is something we’re still trying to address). In addition, while our animals are hormone free today and naturally raised, future development might one day pressure farmers to take a step to be more ‘Western’ — hopfully we have enough strength and impact at that point to stay the course.
How has Oliberté been received by local groups?
In terms of local groups, if you mean locals, some (few) workers really know of the brands. Actually, they know about it more than other companies because we share with them our marketing materials, videos, etc, so they can hear more.
But otherwise, at the factories themselves, some like us and some don’t, to be honest. We are very strict with our quality standards and timelines (not at the sacrifice of workers’ rights and pay though) and we won’t settle on this. As such, we push our factory partners to be their best and in the past they have not had to perform at this level, so that’s tough for them. But now, over the last three years, they have seen the benefit and though not there yet, are improving more and more.
How far does your model go to ensuring that the benefits of the company move down the chain to individual workers? Fair trade, for example, has been criticized for not translating into better wages for farm employees.
Very good point. Until this month, we had no way to validate. We worked hard with our factories to understand their pay structure and benefits, and though our partners were very honest with us, we never know all the details. But now we are moving to our own facility where we will control more of the supply chain and be much more carefully able to practice what we preach.
In terms of Fair Trade, I respect [the Fair Trade Movement] model, but it’s not for us. We have our own ‘play fair’ model, which is always evolving, but it’s not about the pay, because pay alone is purely a social status means.
What I mean is that we focus on paying not just with cash, but with benefits, education, maternity leave, lunches, transportation — pay in itself is just a number and so we work hard to focus on how we build with our team over time to really make it more about the right structure, whether that means pay, bonuses, benefits, or — my personal target — to make each worker a legitimate shareholder in our company.
What are your future plans for expansion? Where will your shoes be available from when you enter the UK market, and do you intend on moving production beyond Ethiopia at present?
Slow and steady — while we would love to sell as many shoes as possible from a company business point of view, we need to make sure that growth is respectful to our workforce and supply chain. We will grow fast, but smart. We are trying to build a company that employs for decades, if not centuries, to come, so we want to do it right.
In terms of the UK…we are launching with Debenhems in August, but also some select boutiques across Europe. Currently, we’re sold mainly in Canada, USA, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
In terms of production, yes, we are absolutely looking to expand. We’re making bags (as a test) right now in Zambia and they are available on our website. We are looking at a number of countries.
Ethiopia is our current production base, but we currently also source materials and equipment from Kenya, Mauritius, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Liberia, and are always looking for more.