This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
These days, shea butter is just about the hottest beauty product you can buy. Hailed by the industry as a cure-all for chapped, irritated, or otherwise damaged skin, shea commands a global market of more than $1.1 billion.
Shea butter comes from the nuts of karité (or shea) trees, which thrive in West Africa. According to the UN, some 3 million African women are involved in picking and processing shea nuts using traditional, time-consuming techniques — and earning as little as $30 to $40 a year for their trouble.
That kind of exploitation comes with a high price. In Togo, West Africa, one of the leading exporters of shea butter, about 40% of adults are illiterate, and 25% of children are in the workforce. The average life expectancy is just 56.
A woman in Togo is 2,000% more likely to die in childbirth compared to a woman in the U.S., often forcing her orphaned children to forego an education and work to supplement the family income.
Add to all this the tiny country’s rapid deforestation, and you’ve got all the ingredients of generational poverty — or perhaps a solution ripe for the picking.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala thinks it’s the latter. Determined that shea butter could help heal his homeland, the Togo native founded Alaffia, a natural body care company that’s taking the US market by storm.
It’s a mission that he pursues for his mother, and all the mothers like her.
Indigenous Response to Injustice
“I had to drop out of school in sixth grade to help support my family through farming and collecting shea nuts,” Olowo-n’djo told us. But even without a formal education, working alongside his mother taught him the most important life lessons of all.
“I experienced many injustices including witnessing the unfair systems that the women around me faced when trading valuable indigenous resources,” he continued. “I was inspired by my mother, Ina, who continuously found ways to demonstrate kindness and generosity to those around her amidst so much adversity.
“She instilled in me that community was at the heart of everything and that we must lift up each other to affect change.”
Remaining true to his mother’s teaching, he began looking for a solution. The turning point came in 1996, when he fell in love with Prairie Rose Hyde, an American Peace Corps volunteer serving in his hometown.
Even when the couple moved to Washington State, they took with them their love for Togo — and the idea that there must be a better way to do shea butter.
“When we formed our first shea butter co-op 17 years ago, shea butter wasn’t available in products in the mass marketplace in the U.S. and Europe,” says Olowo-n’djo. “We went out of the gate with our first co-op to start helping women and preserving traditions and then we created Alaffia.”
Producers’ cooperatives are an essential lifeline for any woman selling to the international market. In addition to ensuring Togolese women a voice, flexible working hours, and fair wages, they’re also gatekeepers of cultural integrity and authenticity.
Local know-how was the key, and Olowo-n’djo says his mother “worked with me to ensure that our cooperative was inclusive to all of Togo’s 42 different ethnic groups.”
With the co-op in place, Olowo-n’djo and Rose launched Alaffia in 2004, introducing nutrient-rich skincare that was largely unknown in the Western market. As shea butter caught on, Alaffia began working with additional cooperatives to introduce even more new ingredients to American buyers.
While water is often the first ingredient in many beauty products, Alaffia opts for bases of neem extract and moringa in their body washes and soaps. This adds nutritional value and provides an excuse to buy yet another kind of raw material from West African cooperatives.
Despite including more plant-based ingredients and paying higher prices for top-quality raw materials, Alaffia is not marketed as a luxury brand. Lower price points are possible because the company deals directly with cooperatives, cutting out the brokers and exporters who take a cut (often at the expense of producers).
But there’s a bigger reason, as well: Olowo-n’djo doesn’t answer to shareholders, and huge profits were never the point to begin with.
Culture and Caring
Service to the Togolese people is both the root and fruit of Alaffia. It’s not about having a business that happens to do good. Instead, well-made body care products are just the means to a multitude of good ends.
Profits are reinvested in the cooperatives and in Togolese society more broadly. The Alaffia Foundation has built 15 schools and provided nearly 10,000 bikes so that students — and especially girls — can get to and from the classroom, contributing to a graduation rate of 95%.
A partnership with the Togolese Health Clinic System provides free pre- and postnatal care, saving the lives of women who might otherwise die in childbirth. In a country where eye exams can cost a full month’s wages, Alaffia has distributed 28,000 free pairs of eyeglasses – and hired an optometrist to handle fittings and distribution.
To fight the world’s highest deforestation rate, Alaffia has planted more than 93,000 fast growing, nitrogen fixing trees like neem, moringa, and of course shea, which can produce fruit for 15 to 20 years.
To promote a sustainability mindset, in tandem with planting on public property, Alaffia has established a stewardship area covering some 29 square miles, where more than 16,000 of the total trees are protected, which means they can’t be cut down for firewood in a pinch.
There are other efforts, too: Whether it’s supporting basket-weaving collectives or teaching sewing skills to victims of sexual trafficking, Alaffia is seeking to address just about every factor contributing to poverty.
Such projects represent “our mission in action,” Olowo-n’djo says, and honoring his people is at the heart of it all.
On their packaging and online presence, Alaffia celebrates authentic West African textures and bright colors, in a major brand-overhaul that debuted earlier this year. While showcasing their love for clean ingredients and transparency, the brand seeks to connect consumers with the products’ cultural heritage.
“My mother helped me understand the importance of our cultural heritage, and it is this heritage that Alaffia preserves.”
Spend for good: As the U.S. pioneer in shea butter cosmetic products, Alaffia has national distribution through chains like Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Use the store locator to find an independent local retailer, or shop online for body, face, and hair products. Shipping is free on orders of $50 or more.
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