Cana­dian-Ethiopian shoe com­pany Olib­erté is on a quest forHAPPY FEET and happy work­ers. BY CHRISTINAREYNOLDS

ELLE (Canada) - - Story Board - By Christina Reynolds

Chang­ing lives in Ethiopia, one shoe at a time.

n 2009, Cana­dian Tal De­htiar’s newly formed Olib­erté shoe com­pany pro­duced just 200 pairs of rub­ber-soled leather sneak­ers us­ing con­tracted fac­to­ries in Ethiopia. Fast-for­ward to 2014: The com­pany is on track to put out 30,000 pairs in two dozen styles from its own fac­tory in Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia. Last Septem­ber, it be­came the first footwear fac­tory in the world to earn fair-trade cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from Fair Trade USA.

For De­htiar, who’s based in Oakville, Ont., it’s just a start: The 33-year-old’s long-term goal is to gen­er­ate one mil­lion jobs in Africa by 2025. While he has a long way to go—just 80 em­ploy­ees now work at his Ad­dis Ababa fac­tory—he’s op­ti­mistic it can be done. “When I say a mil­lion jobs, Olib­erté is never go­ing to hire one mil­lion people,” he says. “But we want to be the re­spon­si­ble brand that stirs up the in­dus­try and shows that man­u­fac­tur­ing can be done in Africa. It’s the idea that will fuel a mil­lion jobs.” To ac­com­plish this, De­htiar is fo­cused on lo­cal em­pow­er­ment and sup­port­ing work­ers’ rights.

“Over 60 per­cent of our work­ers are women, and most of our em­ploy­ees had never had a job in their lives be­fore this,” says the McMaster Univer­sity MBA grad, who h

trav­els to the fac­tory ev­ery two to three months but leaves the day-to-day op­er­a­tions to Feraw Kebede, his “main guy” from the start and Ethiopian gen­eral man­ager. The com­pany pays its em­ploy­ees more than dou­ble the aver­age wage in Ad­dis Ababa, which is only about $30 a month. And the staff are now ac­tu­ally earn­ing much more than that, thanks to the fac­tory’s new fair-trade cer­ti­fi­ca­tion: Ev­ery time an or­der ships, 5 per­cent of the ship­ment’s in­voice amount is wired to an em­ployee fair-trade com­mit­tee bank ac­count. Since last Septem­ber, $35,000 has been paid out—and the money is split equally among the work­ers. “They can pay them­selves or elect to pur­chase things, as long as it is de­cided by the work­ers as a group,” says De­htiar. “They have a union and a com­mit­tee that en­sure that their rights and voices are equally heard and rep­re­sented.” At the last meet­ing, the em­ploy­ees dis­cussed buy­ing bonds to in­vest in the lo­cal hy­dro plant.

Next up? The com­pany is aim­ing to be­come car­bon neu­tral by the end of the year (as the shoes are shipped by air). It’s also hir­ing additional staff and ramp­ing up pro­duc­tion to hit the fac­tory’s ca­pac­ity of 100,000 pairs a year. Even more am­bi­tious, De­htiar is al­ready scout­ing lo­ca­tions in Ad­dis Ababa for new fac­to­ries. “We’re con­sid­ered a ‘so­cial en­ter­prise,’ but I hate that term,” he says. “I think ev­ery busi­ness should just take care of their people, their prod­uct and the en­vi­ron­ment ev­ery day.” ■

A shot from Olib­erté’s spring/ sum­mer 2014 cam­paign; “Ni­ami” boat shoe in Lemon Suede (right)

The fac­tory in Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia; in­side, a worker stitches a shoe (be­low)

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