Alaffia: Beyond Fair Trade
Olympia, Wash.-based Alaffia has built a thriving business by relying upon — and empowering — its Togolese workforce.
In the West African nation of Togo, a young girl rides her new bike to school. In Washington state, production facility workers bottle shea butter. In New York City, a U.S. consumer shops for shampoo at Whole Foods.
The common link between these three events? Olympia, Wash.–based Alaffia. Since founding the company in 2003, Olowo-n’djo Tchala and Rose Hyde have perfected a remarkable business model, one that has seen their operation grow exponentially — and also make an impact on the lives of women and children 7,000 miles away.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Alaffia’s roots stretch back to 1996, when Hyde met Tchala on a Peace Corps volunteer mission in Togo. After marrying and moving to Hyde’s home state of Washington in 2003, they mulled over ways to spur economic development in Togo, where — despite a wealth of natural resources — nearly 60 percent of the population lives in poverty.
That’s when the idea came to them. Shea butter is a traditional Togolese staple that’s used in everything from cooking oil to healing salves. Tchala and Hyde would form a cooperative of women to harvest shea tree nuts and craft them into butter by hand, without using chemicals or harsh solvents. Alaffia (named after a traditional West African greeting meaning “peace and well-being”) would import the unrefined butter and use it as the basis for a line of consumer products. The company would pay fair wages to cooperative members and also funnel a percentage of its profits to community empowerment projects in Togo. “We realized that people in West African communities did not need handouts to rise out of poverty,” Tchala says. “They needed to be compensated fairly for their resources and knowledge.”
Alaffia started small, operating out of a trailer and selling soaps and moisturizers at local farmers markets. But the timing was right. Rapid growth in the organic and natural products sectors helped boost sales. And then came its big break: a 2006 distribution deal with Whole Foods.
Today you can find Alaffia fair trade body care at natural product retailers, including Whole Foods, Sprouts and King Soopers, and various online retailers. The company’s annual revenues are projected to surpass $20 million by the end of 2014, and it now has 70 full-time employees in Olympia. It also employs 500 women in its shea butter cooperative, making it Central Togo’s largest private employer. Not surprisingly, shipping continues to play a central role for the company. Alaffia uses a combination of FedEx Express, FedEx Ground and FedEx Freight to deliver finished products to retail outlets and individual consumers.
The company’s success has allowed it to expand its community development efforts. In the last few years, Alaffia has donated nearly 5,300 bikes to Togolese schoolchildren — a critical need in a country where a lack of transportation options often blocks access to education. It funds schools and plants more than 10,000 trees each year. And it has set up a maternal health program that funds 1,000 births each year and which has also helped save the lives of more than 600 babies in Togo’s Basaar region.
The company has big plans for the future, including expanding into international markets. But community empowerment — particularly for Togolese women — will always remain a core focus. “Africa cannot get out of poverty unless women are part of the equation,” Tchala says. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Hyde echoes those sentiments. “I see the pride that our cooperative members have,” she notes. “The long-term effects of empowerment and that pride illustrate the real impact of Alaffia.”