10 Questions for Oliberte’s Tal Dehtiar

Tal Dehtiar wants to put a million people to work across sub-Saharan Africa.

“The best way to do that is through manufacturing,” said the founder of African-made casual brand Oliberté. “And for us, it all starts with footwear.”

Dehtiar, the former head of MBAs Without Borders, a nonprofit focused on building small businesses globally, has taken his know-how to Ethiopia. In fall ’09, he launched Oliberté, and the brand’s men’s and women’s styles are now carried by such retailers as Urban Outfitters, American Rag and Aldo, priced from $130 to $180. Later this year, the company will add a line of infant slip-ons, as well as a men’s bag collection made in Zambia.

Now Oakville, Ontario-based Oliberté expects revenues of $3 million to $5 million within the next three years. And for Dehtiar, balancing the brand’s positive impact and the bottom line is key.

“While our personal aim is to create 1 million jobs in Africa, not everyone cares about that,” he said. “If we don’t have a product that can stand on its own, we’re nothing. We want customers to think our shoes are awesome and just happen to be made in Africa.”

Here, Dehtiar shares his passion for brand building and the African experience.

1. What’s the biggest challenge working in Africa?
It’s what we call “the puzzle.” We work with much smaller factories, so we can get the quality right and impact we need. We partner with a lot of groups: four factories, three tanneries, three rubber suppliers, two warehouses. Presently, that’s about 400 to 500 people we [work with] on a daily basis. Making that all happen in sync, with the quality and look we want, means making the puzzle fit.

2. How do you advertise your humanitarian efforts?
We don’t promote goodwill. We want people to be aware [that our shoes] are made in Africa, so that’s what we promote. Our tagline is “This is Africa.” We want to push the romance of Africa. There are lots of stereotypes about Africa, and we want to stay away from these. We [focus] on the beauty and amazing parts of Africa on our boxes and POS materials.

3. How do you stand out from others who focus on social responsibility?
A lot of times, you’ll get a company like Toms Shoes that’s all about the cause, and it’s worked out well. It should be an underlying [message] and moral [philosophy] of a company, but [not the only thing] it’s pushing. We should be doing these things because they’re part of our company. It shouldn’t be cause first, product second. It should be product first.

4. How much do you utilize African shoemaking techniques?
In our first season, we struggled a bit with our sneaker line. The quality was OK, but it wasn’t where it needed to be. Now we’re coming into our [own], leveraging traditional African stitch-out [construction], the base of all our shoes. People always loved our leathers, but they didn’t fit with the style of shoe we were doing at first. Now we’re moving into a more rugged, handcrafted look.

5. Who is behind the brand in Africa?
My Ethiopian managers, Farew and Yirgalem. Farew’s probably the best shoemaker in Africa. He’s passionate about developing, training, creating jobs, pushing people to their limits. He’s good at developing our shoemaking and managing production. Yirgalem was part of [Ethiopia’s] ministry of trade in the development of leather and footwear for export. He takes care of all our administration and logistics.

6. How important is e-commerce to growing the brand?
For us, e-commerce is quite huge. Our margins are great there. Right now, it’s close to 15 percent of our business. We’re a small brand and don’t have the money for our own stores. We’re also not big enough to convince retailers to do a shop-in-shop. Stores that are willing to take on a new brand are [limited]. So our website allows us to sell an entire collection and give the full story of the brand.

7. As a newcomer, how have you fared competing against mainstream brands?
The first year was tough. We didn’t have the marketing budget of a lot of bigger new brands. But the product is doing well in stores that took the risk early on. We’re not smashing records, but we’re [growing] slow and steady. It allows us to build [production] and fine-tune. Because we have a low cost of making samples, own part of the factory and are involved directly with the tanneries, we’re able to do a lot. And we don’t have the minimums in Asia, so we can play a lot more than others and see what works.

8. What are your plans for expansion?
We’re getting into baby shoes. [While] we’re mainly a men’s brand, the story of Africa relates much better to women. The baby line is a neat avenue for us [because] we can attract the population we’re missing. Women just get that story of giving better.

9. How receptive has the international community been to the Oliberté story?
We’re in Japan, Australia, launching in Denmark, Finland, Oman, then Italy, Belgium, Holland and France for fall. Our shoes are quite a bit higher priced in Europe, [where customers are] a little more socially responsible [than in the U.S.]. My distributor probably sells the story more there than we do here. It get us in the door. But long term, it will be the styles [that sell].

10. Can Oliberté remain competitive on price compared with brands out of Asia?
We’re not [in] China, nor do we want to be. There’s nothing wrong with working there, but you just can’t find the quality of natural leathers and rubber we make in Africa. Our leathers are more like [those] in Italy and Spain. Our labor, while not as cheap as [it is in] Asia, is fair. We’re still a shoe company, so we are priced to remain competitive. Our prices are not based on our mission, but on our quality. That, for us, is more important.

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