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 Olowo-n'djo Tchala, who grew up in a 2.5x3-foot room in Central Togo with his mother and seven siblings. Tchala started working on his mother's farm at age 5, and by the 6th grade, he had dropped out of school to work, which included collecting shea nuts to sell at market. Hyde and Tchala loved to talk, and spent hours lost in deep conversations about everything from global politics to philosophy.
Fast-forward a few years (and hundreds of thousands miles): Hyde and Tchala married, moved to the U.S., and started a family. Tchala, who had since earned a Bachelors of Science in Organizational Studies with an emphasis on Global Economic Systems from the University of California, desperately wanted to help the people from his village in Togo-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 re-growth," 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, 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 to right). All of their products are Certified Fair Trade in Togo and in 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, that 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 so many others-quite well.
Alaffia's Empowerment Projects
Here's a quick overview of Alaffia's Empowerment Projects as of this year. Keep in mind, there's no middle man, and in fact, Alaffia has one of the shortest chains in the 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 8,253 bikes distributed to date
- Distributed in more than 60 villages in Togo.
- Graduation rate for Alaffia's bike recipients: 95%
- Students in rural areas must often walk 10-15 miles a day to school, a leading contributor to the high dropout rate-91% in girls and 48% in boys without bicycles
Maternal Health Project
- Alaffia has provided full health care for 3,237 women to date. Change sentence to say: Alaffia has helped safely deliver 4,832 in West Africa
- 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 59,775 to date
- 2,311 Desks provided to numerous schools each month
- Metal roofs Built 12 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. 34,640 students to date
- 2011: Opened their first school building in Kouloumi, Togo.