While more and more foreign textile and shoe companies are drawn to Ethiopia for its low wageworkers, footwear enterprise Oliberté wants to make a difference in Ethiopia by opening the world’s first Fair Trade shoe factory in the Horn of Africa.
“Ethiopia shouldn’t try to become the new China but the new Italy”, director Feraw Kebede says while showing us around in the Oliberté factory in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Dozens of young men and women in black duster coats are busy hammering soles on shoes, sewing pieces of leather together and embossing the map of Ethiopia into the rubber soles of canvas sneakers. The 53-year-old Ethiopian grey haired director wearing glasses has been in the shoe business for over thirty years and is certain that Africa is capable of delivering high quality shoes. “ But you have to be sure to invest in employee training.”
Creating jobs instead of charity
In 2009, Oliberté started off as a small footwear company partnering with factories and suppliers in Africa. When still an aid worker, the Canadian founder Tal Dehtiar decided to turn his life around after African friends kept telling him they were tired of charity - what the continent really needed was jobs. “At Oliberté, we believe that Africa can compete on a global scale,” he says, “but it needs a chance. It shouldn’t need to hold up its hand. What Africa needs is people to start shaking hands and companies to doing business in these countries.”
In 2012, the company opened its own factory in Addis Ababa which has been the world’s first Fair Trade Certified footwear manufacturing factory since September 2013. This means they respect the environment and local community, protect employee rights, offer regular doctor visits and their proceeds contribute to the local community.
60% female employees
While at most garment and shoe factories in Ethiopia a worker makes around 30 euros a month, Oliberté tries to provide its employees better salaries. “Unskilled workers start on a lower salary but wages increase with each next training level”, Kebede tells. This was also the case for the slender 26-year-old Mestawet who’s cutting out pieces of suede. The young woman with black curly hair started at a salary of 37 euros but now earns 83 euros a month and has received a total of 373 euros of Fair Trade bonus in the three years that she has been with Oliberté. “We invest a lot in our female staff now makes up 60 percent of the total of 110 workers”, Kebede says proudly.
While according to the Industrial Federation of Ethiopian Textile Trade Unions the majority of factories in Ethiopia still doesn’t have a labor union, Oliberté encourages employees to unite. “We also help them to organize elections for union leaders”, says the director.
Sourcing materials in Africa
Oliberté sources materials from Africa as much as possible. Although high quality yarn and some chemicals can only be found outside the continent, leather comes from Ethiopia, rubber from Liberia, South Africa, Kenya or Ethiopia, labels are from Mauritius and machines from South Africa and Kenya. The company collaborates with a tannery outside of Addis Ababa, which is the only tannery in the world to have a Chrome-3 recycling system that prevents the use of certain chemicals and recycles the rest as much as possible.
Starting the Fair Trade factory wasn’t easy, Kebede admits. It has been a long and slow process to meet with all the regulations for certification, the factory has to make use of expensive diesel generators to cope with frequent power cuts and it struggles to find suitable supervisors to coordinate business processes and the director decided to set up an in company training to resolve the issue. Because of all the challenges, Kebede is even more proud to produce quality shoes for export to America, Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan and South Africa. “People shouldn’t buy our shoes because they pity Africa but because it’s a beautiful and high quality product.”
Here you can read more about Oliberté
Images by Jeroen van Loon