“Our goal in creating Alaffia was to alleviate poverty — and also show to the world the value of traditionally made ingredients.” – Olowo-n’djo Tchala, cofounder and CEO of Alaffia
Alaffia is a bodycare brand that exists not to make a profit but to fight poverty and increase gender equality. Period.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala and Prairie Rose Hyde met in 1996 in Togo, West Africa, when Hyde was there as a Peace Corps volunteer. They both grew up without much, though to differing degrees because of their countries of origin: Hyde’s family relied on assistance programs but she was still able to get a great education, while Tchala, one of 42 children (his father had multiple wives), had to drop out of school as an adolescent to help out his family. They married in the mid-90’s and moved to Olympia, WA, Hyde’s home town, and five years later they helped to form a shea butter cooperative in Tchala’s home, thinking they’d create jobs for women (women traditionally make the shea butter), uplifting that community through empowering them to generate their own income using traditional means, and then sell the shea to producers in the Western world. But when finding customers proved too challenging, they created a line of wonderful soaps and lotions themselves. They now include black soap and coconut oil in addition to shea butter among the traditionally crafted products used in Alaffia’s offerings.
Unlike other businesses that may donate a percentage of their profits to good causes, Alaffia exists solely to generate income and well-being for the communities it works with. They focus on achievable goals towards education and women’s health that work within the Togolese culture. For instance Hyde said it wasn’t reasonable to try to provide laptops for all Togolese school children, but they could provide bicycles, which allow young women and girls, who are responsible for so much of the work in their households, to be able to attend schools which would otherwise take too long to walk to. One video from 2017 explains that without a bike, there is a 50% chance a girl will drop out of school. With a bike, that figure drops to 10%. They have also paid for pre- and neo-natal care for thousands of women, and do outreach which educated them about the harms of female genital mutilation (FGM), which creates issues during childbirth that result in very high rates of infant and mother mortality rates due to infection and other complications. Hundreds of Togolese babies and mothers are alive today as a result of Alaffia’s work.
It’s incredible to watch the women in Togo process the shea nuts into butter (I highly encourage you to take a few minutes to go down this rabbit hole!). Instead of a giant factory and metal machines, a group of women who are outdoors and dressed in beautifully patterned fabrics literally sing and dance, moving in a circle, as three women in the center pound away at the shea nuts with long wooden staffs in a vessel on the ground. There are several more stages to the laborious process of creating this wondrous substance, which have been passed down generation to generation, mother to daughter, over millennia. It’s truly remarkable that this level of culture and craftsmanship goes into all the shea butter contained in the Alaffia products we have on our shelves, and it really shows in the products themselves. My current favorite is their Everyday Shea Hand Soap. It’s the most moisturizing soap I’ve ever used, leaving my hands feeling clean and so soft, which has been such a relief during COVID-19, and the scents are refreshingly sophisticated and natural, not cloying or overly sweet like some other popular brands. It really is a healing product for me. Alaffia is doing something genuinely different in the way their business operates, by creating a positive economic link between the culture and traditions of this area of the world with private industry and large scale manufacture in the U.S.
In the process of doing research for this article I learned a bit more about the terrible history of slavery, and felt more deeply its reverberations into this present moment. Right now, as the Movement for Black Lives shines a light on racism in our country, thinking about the impact of slavery and colonialism (which the institution of racism was basically invented to uphold) in Africa is especially poignant. Togo is in the area once known as “the Slave Coast”: between the 16th and 18th centuries over 12 million people there were kidnapped from there and sold into bondage. Some suggest this number was actually much higher. Colonialism and its aftereffects, including well-meaning NGOs that have sought to help but do so with a West-centric perspective that provides no lasting change, have had terrible consequences in Togo. It is now, economically speaking, one of the poorest countries in the world. Alaffia’s business model, which they call the Social Enterprise Model, reverses the typical “white savior” dynamic by appreciating the value of their culture and the traditionally-made products that come from it and by helping the Togolese create a business of their own, as opposed to relating to Togo as a country simply in need of assistance from the West.
In Tchala’s words:
“…it was very clear to me that there’s only one way for Togo or the continent of Africa to get out of poverty…to participate in the mobilization of our resources, which means traditional knowledge.
Anybody can make a machine, but not everybody can make shea nuts into shea butter without chemicals. So essentially Alaffia is not only sharing the traditional method of production, but is also sharing the health that’s survived from those traditional methods…It is not always about what the West can do for us. It is about what can we do for the West.
“We started Alaffia, and ten years later, without outside capital investment, and solely based on those techniques that have been learned for thousands of years, we have been able to participate in the global economy today. So what that tells me is that we do not need to standardize our system. That people can be people. Cultures can be diverse. Women can have equality, in Africa and elsewhere in the world, without adopting the Western system of society.
I think that the quote-unquote modern society can coexist with traditional knowledge. We just have to come together in understanding that each of us are unique. It’s a diversity that we all have that makes us unique, that creates joy and pleasure in life. And that’s what we live for.”
From “Alaffia: Fostering a Body of People” (another short video I highly recommend watching)
Personally, after learning more about this business, I am honored to work in a place that, as a cooperative grocery store with a focus on natural products, Alaffia feels is part of the core of their business and in alignment with their values. The integrity, respect, and kindness their company embodies is a hopeful and guiding light for the future of this troubled world.
CALL TO ACTION
One of Alaffia’s numerous initiatives is an eyeglasses drive!
In Togo, 1 eye exam = 1 month’s wage and 1 pair of glasses = 4 month’s wage. And kids and adults struggling with their eyesight could really use our help.
We are now accepting discarded eyeglasses in our co-op. Bring your good, working condition glasses to the Co-op, put them in the box at the front of the store, and we’ll send them to Togo so folks in need can get some help with their eyesight! Alaffia and The Alaffia Foundation collect used eyeglasses throughout the US and contracts optometrists in Togo to correctly fit and distribute Rx glasses.
Alaffia has distributed 28,018 pairs of eyeglasses to children struggling in school and adults with failing vision.
Read about all of Alaffia’s Empowerment Projects here.