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If the shoe fits, make it

This year has been a whirlwind for Tal Dehtiar. In addition to his daily duties as founder and president of Oliberté Footwear, a high-fashion shoe company with a manufacturing base in Ethiopia and an administrative base in Oakville, Ontario, Dehtiar was named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine, fulfilled a bevy of speaking engagements—including one alongside social entrepreneurial wunderkind Marc Kielburger—and this fall welcomed a new baby with his wife.
It's been "a bit hectic," he admits, just before winning Canadian Youth Business Foundation Chairman's Award for Best Socially-Minded Business. Which is interesting, because Dehtiar emphasizes market forces much more than charity. For him, it's about  being fair.
Dehtiar started Oliberté in 2009, but the company's foundations were laid five years earlier, when Dehtiar received his MBA from McMaster University and formed the not-for-profit organization MBAs Without Borders. The charity built small businesses in 25 different countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America and enabled Dehtiar to observe the pros and cons of traditional aid systems at work. He found that the cons vastly outweighed the pros.
"Most of the time, traditional aid has been a detriment to the development of most countries, particularly in Africa," he says.
Dehtiar believes that business can be the most powerful change agent in the world. With Oliberté, he hopes to ultimately create one million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa.
"The best way to create jobs, and in the quickest manner, is manufacturing," says Dehtiar, citing the rebuilding of North America and Europe following the Second World War as examples. "You take mostly unemployed or uneducated people, put them on a line, give them a job and create a product." There is also the example of China—the perfect exemplar of a country with a booming population which built its economy by putting out an impressive volume of products.
From that point of view, figuring out a location to set up manufacturing facilities was a no-brainer. "Where is that next place that has a large amount of people that need to be employed very, very quickly? Africa."
The location would kill two birds with one stone: by setting up a manufacturing base in Africa, Dehtiar could position his company to create "real, substantial [social] change" while also establishing what Dehtiar describes as "the only really substantial, African-made brand sold around the world."
Once he decided on Africa as a location, Dehtiar honed in on Ethiopia, even though only five per cent of its labour force is involved in manufacturing (85 per cent are in agriculture). "It has some decent manufacturing capability, and it also has the largest amount of leather hides in Africa."
Though it remains one of the world's poorest countries, Ethiopia is also one of the fastest growing economies, reporting double-digit growth for the past seven years. As gross national income per capital has more than tripled since 2002, primary school attendance has jumped to almost 100 percent from 63.4 per cent in 2002, according to the World Bank. The Canada International Development Agency (CIDA) contributed $146.83 million in aid to Ethiopia in 2010-2011.
So there's something to build on. After three years of working with third-party factories, Oliberté this year opened up its own plant and now directly employs more than 70 people in Ethiopia; back in 2011, the company had only six employees there. Dehtiar estimates that up to four times as many jobs have been created as an indirect result of the company's operations.
"The more shoes we sell, the more jobs we can create," says Dehtiar. "But at the same time we have to have the right capacity, and the right training and systems in place locally to allow us to handle that capacity."
Directing a large-scale manufacturing operation in Ethiopia from a distant Toronto suburb hasn't been easy. The typical production challenges associated with cash, quality control, delays and capacity, are compounded by cultural differences and the simple reality that, for Oliberté's Ethiopian contingency, the international footwear business is a relatively new endeavour.
"Getting the culture to understand what western priorities are in terms of quality, time delivery and attention to detail, have been the most difficult [challenges] to overcome."
To navigate around potential cultural landmines in Ethiopia, Dehtiar exclusively employs locals. "I made it a mandate very early on, that we would hire local managers, pay them well, treat them well and they will run our company. And that's why we've succeeded where others haven't."
Another lesson Dehtiar has had to learn, hands-on, is the meaning of the phrase "cash is king."
"Africa is a cash economy. But cash is only king if it's liquid," he says. "You need hard cash that you can use daily, not just instruments like letters of credit or credit cards."
Dehtiar takes these hurdles in stride, and it's paying off: Oliberté's products can now be found across Canada, the U.S. and Europe through online and in-store retailers that include, as of recently, the Gap. Dehtiar attributes the brand's growth to the quality of its products more than the appeal of their origin story. Surprisingly, he shrinks from the term "corporate social responsibility."
"At the end of the day, when you strip everything away, we're a shoe company," says Dehtiar. "We make shoes, and we want people to buy them. The more they buy, the more money we make. That being said, though, we do it fairly and properly…. In my opinion, that shouldn't be a social business. It should be every business."
Kelli Korducki is a writer and reporter based in Toronto.
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