“I don’t see Alaffia as just a business. This is a social movement, a peaceful revolution,” founder Olowo-n’djo Tchala, a Togolese native, proudly proclaims. Tchala’s mission is not simply near to his heart, but a personal history come full circle. Born in Kaboli, he lived in an 8×10 room with his mother and seven siblings, working on a farm after leaving school in the sixth grade. After meeting his wife, Peace Corp volunteer Prairie Rose Hyde, he moved to the US, where Alaffia’s journey began.
In 2003, they set up the company with nothing more than student loans and housing collateral. This independent standing has remained an important footing for the past 17 years, for one simple reason: authenticity. “It wasn’t until last year that I considered investors, because I have to represent my community. Investors didn’t live what I lived, they wouldn’t necessarily say, let’s not have a marketing department so that we can fund maternal care,” he explains.
Alaffia produces clean, fair trade products using indigenous ingredients like shea butter, African black soap, and coconut oil. Working with women’s cooperatives, the company pays 15-20% above market price for its raw materials, and gives workers triple the average family income in order to ensure fair living conditions. Once the raw materials are processed, they are shipped to the company’s headquarters in Olympia, Washington. Once the final product is sold, the company ensures that a minimum of 15% in value is returned to its communities in West Africa. Each product label also bears the positive impact that Alaffia is having on communities, offering complete transparency to the consumer as to what they are supporting through their purchases. But the company’s mission doesn’t stop at the proceeds benefiting the communities either. To date, the company has helped over 250,000 individuals. Alaffia’s own 501(c)3 organization has built schools, donated over 10,000 bicycles (including maintenance costs) and 30,000 eyeglasses, and planted over 99,000 trees.
In a world where many pay lip service as a marketing ploy but fail to deliver concrete results, Tchala’s passion, commitment, and ambition is infectious. “It has nothing to do with marketing, it is about equality. The biggest issue that we have had for the past 800 years within Africa is that things leave, but nothing goes back. And even when they do, it is only to one class of people,” he explains. “They don’t go back to the rural communities, which is where 70% of our nation lives. So we need to come at it from multiple angles. Alaffia needs to be more like an ecosystem within the community, in order to really be able to make a change.” He also aims to show that capitalism and humanitarian efforts can coexist, that community efforts needn’t mean that companies have to take a loss, or that product prices have to reach unattainable levels in order to uphold ethical and moral standards.
Alaffia’s current undertaking is bringing its maternal care program to the US. In Sub-Saharan West Africa alone, 160,000 women die annually due to pregnancy and childbirth complications. Alaffia works with the Togolese Health Clinic System by completely funding pre-and postnatal care, as well as offering training on women’s health issues. To date, the company has assisted in over 5,000 childbirths. “We are in a highly competitive market, where I have to decide on a daily basis: do I put that money into marketing or to save the babies. That’s not a decision that most brands have to make, but I know how many babies die, what it is to a woman back home, because it is my life and experience. That is an emotional challenge,” he remarks. The company is now bringing its maternal care initiative to the US, with 5% of sales of the Beautiful Curls line going towards their mission. “We see the same injustice happening in America. This is an evolution of Alaffia, what we do to expand beyond the border of what we know now. Why not do that and save lives in America?” he asks.
In a product-driven industry, Tchala’s mission is deeply humanitarian at its core, be it supporting individual lives or practicing regenerative agriculture to ensure profits for future generations. It all goes back to reconnecting to our human nature, even when it comes to the personal care items that we purchase. “The reason why we have more human beings in slavery and trafficking is because we’re not paying attention to the faces, those who are creating what we’re using. The environment is also involved, causing deforestation and a lot of impact,” he emphasizes. “Spending time on the ground is just as important to me as being with the retailers in America, because it does stay connected to where the ingredients are coming from, and the people who are contributing to the end product.”
Tchala is interested in not just supporting the communities but empowering its residents, offering the women Alaffia works with a central union to negotiate fair sale prices for their raw materials. As a native of a continent ravaged by colonialism and dictatorship, he believes it is imperative that communities be given an opportunity to stand on their own two feet. “There is much work to be done within Africa on how we engage with the world, but the key thing is establishing that we own our destiny. Too long we have been told that it is not in our hands,” he declares.
While the media often highlights Africa’s low wages, impoverished living conditions, and low life expectancies due to intense labor and inadequate health systems to the forefront, Tchala also wants to highlight another piece of the puzzle, namely community inclusion. “We have 1000s of different ethnicities throughout West Africa. Anything that Alaffia does, I need 70% of the makeup of ethnicities that we have in that area to be included,” he explains.
He is quick to admit that the complex undertakings haven’t been easy, but it’s an obligation to himself and his home community that fuels Tchala’s desire to keep going, and he is hopeful that others will follow his company’s example. “It is easy to say, I’m supporting communities or giving X percentage. Operational implementation is the hardest one,” he states. “It requires more money than people are actually willing to put into it and is daunting to many. But it doesn’t need to be, Alaffia shows that it can be fair on both sides.”
As for the future of the company, he wants to invite others to join him in order to gain even more strength through numbers. “Alaffia can positively and immediately impact human lives, therefore we need to continue. But how do we continue to expand as an organization? For this to work we need all the enterprises helping out,” he reflects. Tchala’s inspiring personal journey may have been the spark to ignite Alaffia, but the devotion behind it bears testament to the fact that one individual’s pursuit offers a growing ground for something far greater.