When Olowo-n’djo Tchala was a child in Togo, West Africa, he would work alongside his mother collecting nuts from shea trees to sell to government-sponsored shea nut buyers. Women traditionally gather them, and even though shea butter production has a long history as an indigenous product in Togo, it only allows for subsistence wages, if that. Women like Tchala’s mother are paid mere pennies for delivering the nuts to the marketplace so the oils can be lucratively extracted from the nuts by others for hair and body care products. Tchala had to drop out of school in sixth grade because his mother couldn’t afford to send him any longer.
The situation is even more dire for Togolese girls, as 91% of them drop out of school, contributing to West Africa’s gender inequity and entrenched cycle of poverty. Very few women know how to read and write and most are denied access to meaningful economic opportunity. Many mothers have to leave their children to find jobs to support them.
When Tchala met Rose Hyde, a Peace Corps volunteer who eventually became his wife, they formed a women’s co-op called Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative in 2004 (after they moved to the United States) with the vision of helping West African communities become more sustainable. The idea was to use the resources the women already had—the skills, knowledge and traditions of natural shea butter production —to empower women, preserve indigenous culture, and produce a high-quality skin care product. Their raw shea butter is handmade, using centuries-old practices to naturally extract the oils from the nuts.
Alaffia’s shea butter is also produced and sold with fair trade practices. Through fair trade, members get compensated for what their shea butter is really worth, rather than having to accept low returns from the open market. Alaffia is certified Fair Trade for Life: Social and Fair Trade by the Switzerland-based Institute for Marketecology.
Today, Alaffia operates in Togo with over 500 women co-op members, and in Olympia, Washington where Alaffia products are handmade for retail sale. Alaffia shea butter, lotions, shampoo and conditioner, and baby products are now available in over 2,000 stores across the U.S., including many local food co-ops.
In addition to providing employment, the co-op funds a number of community projects. Bicycles for Education has provided 4,500 donated bikes to help kids ride the 5 to 10 kilometers they need to travel to get to school. Alaffia partners with several local health clinics in central Togo to provide prenatal care and post-natal follow-ups for 400 women each year. The co-op also provides school supplies and necessary repairs to school buildings. They’ve also launched an environmental initiative to plant thousands of trees to alleviate the effects of deforestation and climate change in Togo.
Alaffia co-op members have even given their salary increases to their communities because they said they wanted to help others. They are firm believers that people cooperating across the globe is essential to sustainability in all kinds of communities.
In May and June of this year. Olowo-n’djo is packing up a biodiesel van and taking an 8,780-mile tour in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the creation of its Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative in Togo. Tchala believes that because of a deep commitment and shared will, the cooperative is here today without outside investment. “The true reason why we continue to exist is the opportunities each and every one of you has given to Alaffia, and therefore my foremost objective is to visit as many of you as possible as a personal extension of my gratitude.” Tchala’s 58-day road tour will take him to an estimated 200+ stores.
“In order to achieve human dignity and a sustainable future for all communities around the world, those of us who are able have a moral responsibility to uplift the disadvantaged.” –Alaffia Founder, Olowo-n’djo Tchala