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BEYOND FAIR TRADE: A CONVERSATION WITH THE FOUNDER OF ALAFFIA

Each holiday season, we curate a gift box filled with our favorite natural products with a social mission. This winter, we're featuring Alaffia's Shea Butter Antioxidant Hand & Body Cream. To give you a closer look into what makes this product and company so unique, we sat down the founder- Olowo-n'djo Tchala himself.  

 

How did Alaffia get its start, and what makes your way of doing business unique? 

Growing up in Togo, I was surrounded by hardworking women who had unique indigenous knowledge and skills. When I came to America, I realized that the people of my home country are living in extreme poverty and women are not being fairly compensated for their contributions to society. My wife, Rose, and I decided to do something about this.

We wanted to conduct Community Empowerment Projects—programs designed to empower individuals to rise out of poverty and create sustainable communities. Shea butter has been handcrafted in West Africa for thousands of years and has recently been traded unfairly to European and American markets. We saw this as an opportunity for the women of Togo to utilize their traditional skills and participate in the Western economic system, while generating funds to conduct our empowerment projects. Alaffia is unique in that most “conscious” companies are product focused with an adjunct social initiative; Alaffia is a social initiative with an adjunct product focus.

Tell us a bit about the product you're including in the True Moringa holiday gift box.

Our Shea Butter Antioxidant Hand & Body Cream combines fair trade coffee, teas, and shea butter with virgin coconut oil to help protect and balance skin. Aloe and red palm oil provide further defense from damaging free radicals. 

Shea butter is the oil from the nuts of wild Shea trees scattered throughout the wooded savanna of West and Central Africa. It is rich in Vitamin E and has been shown to help to protect skin against climate and UV aggressions, reduce appearance of wrinkles, soothe irritated and chapped skin, and moisturize the epidermis.

Virgin coconut oil is high in natural antioxidants and protects skin from damaging free-radicals. It also helps keep skin looking firm, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. We extract our virgin coconut oil by hand using traditional fermentation methods in Togo, West Africa from fresh coconuts grown organically on small farms. We use our virgin coconut oil in its natural, unrefined state for maximum effectiveness.

Take us through your supply chain; what does it take to make your beautiful natural ingredients go from the source to the package?

Our raw ingredients are handcrafted at our cooperatives in Togo, West Africa. The women at our cooperatives use traditional methods to extract and make ingredients, like shea butter and coconut oil. They learned these methods from their mothers, who learned from their mothers. 

The raw ingredients are then shipped from Togo to Olympia, Washington, where the finished products are created and bottled. The products are packaged and shipped to our retailers throughout the US and around the world and funds from the sales of our products are used to conduct our Community Empowerment Projects in Togo, completing the cycle of fair trade.

Any funny stories to share from your early startup days? 

When Rose and I first decided to establish the Shea Butter Cooperative in Togo, we were students and did not have any money to begin the project. I went to a bank and applied for a $50,000 loan and the bank asked me what assets I had to back the loan. I had only been in the US for a short time and was unfamiliar with the banking system. This did not make sense to me. If I had assets, why would I be applying for a loan? Eventually, I convinced Rose’s brother to put his house up against the loan. I told him, “The fate of West Africa is on your shoulders.” 

What's one fun fact about you that we might not know?

One thing you do not know about me is that I ride horses and have a horse of my own named Django. 

What do you love most about your job? 

I love that my job is fulfilling. Though it can be stressful at times, I always think about the women in Togo that have been empowered through the support of our customers and retailers and I know it is worth the hard work.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to create an enterprise that will help others; don’t let your only goal be to make money. You cannot be wholly successful unless you are making positive change. Also, there will be many bumps in the road--do not give up.

What's the next big thing for Alaffia? 

Our most recent project is our new collection of accessories, Queen Alaffia. The collection includes bags, purses, scarves, and hair accessories made with vibrant West African fabrics. Every piece in the collection is a one of a kind work of art handmade at the Alaffia Artisan Center in Sokodé, Togo. The center rehabilitates women who fell prey to the sex trade because of poverty and circumstances beyond their control by offering a stable income and respectable environment.

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