From the outside, the offices and factory of Alaffia, one of today’s fastest-growing natural companies, might seem ordinary. But one step inside the beauty manufacturer’s corporate offices in Olympia, Wash.—adorned with brightly colored walls, one-of-a-kind art, and beautiful teak wood from Africa—and you know that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill American business.
In fact, from the very start, the story of Alaffia has been an uncommon, albeit exceptional, one. It began with love in the small West African country of Togo. During the 1990s, Rose Hyde, an American from rural Washington, was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, teaching locals about sustainable farming practices. There, she met Togo native Olowo-n’djo Tchala. They were from opposite ends of the globe and completely different cultures, but the two connected instantly. The pair loved having long talks together, and spent hours lost in deep conversation about everything from global politics to philosophy.
Tchala grew up in a 2.5x3–foot room in Central Togo with his mother and seven siblings. By the age of 5, he was working on his mother’s farm, and by the 6th grade, he dropped out of school to work full time. This included collecting shea nuts to sell at market. He couldn’t have known then, but shea nuts would come to figure prominently in Tchala’s life.
Fast-forward a few years (and hundreds of thousands miles): Hyde and Tchala married, moved to the U.S., and started a family. Tchala earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies with an emphasis on global economic systems from the University of California, and although he was now living in the U.S., he couldn’t get Togo out of his mind. He desperately wanted to help the people of his village—particularly the women, who are marginalized by society. “I couldn’t live in the United States knowing what I know,” says Tchala. “I knew that women’s roles in Africa hadn’t been given full respect, and I wanted to change that.”
The A-Ha Moment
Tchala’s “a-ha” moment came when he realized African women needed to participate directly in—and take ownership of—a business in order to reduce poverty, using their own natural talents and resources rather than simply being given handouts. “I knew that whatever business concept we developed, it had to meet certain requirements,” says Tchala, a tall, striking man whose passion and focus are palpable. “For starters, there had to be respect for the people and culture of Togo.” Tchala also knew the work needed to be something that played up the women’s unique talents. According to Tchala, most women in Togo have no formal education or training. “Women are actually denied education in my country,” he says.
Hyde and Tchala immediately set about designing a business plan around these concepts. The decision to go with a shea-based beauty company was an easy one. “Shea trees grow wild in over 16 West and Central African countries. They are perfectly adapted to the savanna ecosystem, and require no fertilizer or irrigation. Furthermore, the shea nuts have been collected for thousands of years without impacting the shea tree populations and regrowth,” explains Tchala, who knew shea was perfect because it can be traded on the world market (one of the original requirements in his business proposal).
Shea also played to Hyde’s strengths—she has a background in botany and was able to be the formulator for the couple’s skin care line. (Hyde continues to formulate Alaffia’s premium line of beauty products, many of which have won awards and are top sellers in their category.) Thus, in 2004, Alaffia was born.
While the company has grown considerably over the years, the owners, who now work from a large office and factory in Olympia, Wash., still meticulously manage every facet of their business. They are perhaps best known for their dedication to fair trade and their creation of Empowerment Projects in Togo (see box at left). All of their products are Certified Fair Trade in Togo and in the state of Washington. “The global market price did not fairly reflect the labor involved in crafting shea butter,” says Tchala. “By paying even slightly more for this resource, we are able to greatly impact the women, much like my own mother, who collect shea nuts and sell shea butter to feed, clothe, and school their children.”
If you ask Tchala, “Why shea?,” he will tell you that one of the most important reasons was—and still is—that traditional shea butter extraction demands an intimate knowledge of Togo’s culture and practices. “I felt strongly that true economic empowerment can only be achieved in Africa if the cultural fabric of our diverse societies is acknowledged in economic exchange,” he says. A philosophy and outlook on the world that has served Tchala and his family—not to mention so many others—quite well.
Alaffia’s Empowerment Projects
Here’s a quick overview of some of Alaffia’s current Empowerment Projects. Alaffia’s corporate model leaves off the middle man—in fact, the company boasts one of the shortest supply chains in the natural products industry.
(which produce more than 200 products from the company’s hair and body care lines)
Shea Butter Co-op, Togo
Coconut Co-op, Togo
Hand Woven Basket Co-op, Ghana and Togo
Bicycles for Education
6,300 bikes collected and distributed to date
Distributed in more 60 villages in Togo
Graduation rate for Alaffia’s bike recipients: 95 percent
Students in rural areas must often walk 10–15 miles a day to school, a leading contributor to the high dropout rate—91 percent in girls and 48 percent in boys without bicycles.
Maternal Health Project
Alaffia has provided full health care for 3,237 women to date. This is in response to the high mortality rate in West Africa. Approximately 300,000 women and 430,000 infants die each year due to a lack of basic maternal care.
This was developed in response to deforestation in Africa—10 million acres per year, with the highest occurring in West Africa. Alaffia now works with rural farmers to plant a variety of trees each year: 42,625 to date.
Benches provided to numerous schools each month.
Metal roofs supplied to four schools to date.
School supplies: The company sets up donation stations at hundreds of stores each year to collect pencils, paper, etc., for 11,700 students.
2011: Opened their first school building in Kouloumi, Togo.