When my daughter was in preschool in New York City, a teacher taught the kids a song from her West African home: “Funga Alafia Ashay Ashay.” We all loved to sing it, because it was a pretty tune, but the meaning was even more beautiful: “We welcome you, be with us.”
That is the spirit of Alaffia, the natural beauty and personal-care brand built on pure ingredients indigenous to West Africa. With quality botanical formulations, brightly colored packaging infused with bold patterns, as well as For Life-, Fair for Life- and Good Manufacturing Practices-certification, the products themselves would be enough to make the brand successful. But Alaffia, a mission-driven social enterprise, is on track to do so much more.
“I see Alaffia as a system or model to serve humanity,” says Olowo-n’djo Tchala, who cofounded the brand with Prairie Rose Hyde, who he met in 1996 when she came to his home village of Kaboli, Togo, as a Peace Corps volunteer. “Everything I do is about the future being just for all.” Creating a personal-care brand made sense because there is such a rich tradition, wealth of knowledge and ingredient bounty in West Africa, where Togolese women have been harvesting shea butter and coconut oil from trees that have grown wild for centuries.
Consumers of Alaffia products like the Authentic African Black Soap All-in-One, EveryDay Shea Shampoo or handwoven baskets help fund the brand’s many empowerment projects through The Alaffia Foundation (TAF). TAF is a 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to empower African communities through Fair Trade, education, sustainable living and gender equality. The Foundation’s pillars are maternal care, education, environmental sustainability, eyeglasses and Bicycles for Education, which enables West African children to get to school. Alaffia funds Women’s Cooperatives to promote gender equality through fair wages; reinvestment in empowerment projects in Africa; reforestation, with the planting of over 100,000 trees.
When Tchala came to the U.S. and set up the U.S. headquarters, he experienced an awakening. “All people who come here ask themselves, ‘Should I stay here, or go home?’” he says. “I knew that if I stayed here, I had to do something for my people back home.”
Born into poverty in Togo to a mother of eight and a father of
42, he learned important lessons from his mother, who taught him the value of serving others, as well as hard work. “I learned you have to work together and depend on your community.”
In Togo, Tchala dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help his family. He lost two sisters after they gave birth because the family couldn’t afford to take them to the clinic. “My upbringing led me to what I do today,” Tchala says. “There are millions of kids like me,” he continues. “I wanted to do something.”
In 2018, Tchala was honored by the U.S. Under Secretary of State with the Award for Corporate Excellence in Women’s Economic Empowerment for his work in “critical zones”—deprived areas where there was virtually no economic activity—helping to create jobs for women who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice.
“At the end of the day, you cannot touch just one thing,” he continues. “They all go together. People need jobs and healthcare. Children need to be able to get to school. The need is critical, moving the community toward a sustainable future.”