By Chris Stordahl
Recently I had the opportunity to tour the Alaffia facility in Olympia, Washington. The prospect of being able to go ‘behind the scenes’ of one of our bestselling lines of body care was very exciting.
It was a gray day as my daughter, Claire, and I drove into an industrial park south of Olympia. I wasn’t sure where we were going until I saw, past the dull and nondescript warehouses, some brightly colored panels. This must be it. By the time we had parked and gotten ourselves organized, I kid you not, the clouds had parted and the sun was shining down on the beautiful façade of the Alaffia building.
We were met by Shane Hart, Alaffia Communications & Sales Director, who asked if I had ever met Olowa-n’djo Tchala. Years ago I had heard Olowa-n’djo speak at a natural products conference, but had not had the opportunity to meet him, until now.
Olowa-n’djo, along with his wife Prairie Rose Hyde, founded Alaffia in an effort to help reduce poverty and empower people in his native Togo and other West African nations. Olowa-n’djo met Rose in 1996 while she was serving in the Peace Corps in the town of Kaboli, where he lived with his mother and seven brothers and sisters. After returning to the States together, Rose began a graduate program at UC Davis and Olowa-n’djo began his studies. By 2003, he knew he needed to find a way to give back to his home country. What could be produced that would allow people to become self-reliant and not dependent upon the World Bank or other institutions?
The logical answer was Shea Butter. The collection and use of shea nuts has been part of West African culture for centuries. The trees grow wild and require no irrigation or fertilization. The nuts have been harvested for thousands of years without negatively impacting the savannah ecosystem.
After receiving a loan for $50,000, they returned to Togo to organize the first women’s cooperative designed to handcraft shea butter. From the Alaffia website at Alaffia.com: “Women in West Africa have long been excluded from the formal education sector, which means many cannot read or write. This makes them less valuable as employees, and as such, they do not have many employment opportunities . . . . with our women's cooperatives, we look at what these women have to offer that no one else does - their unique skills, traditions and knowledge. Then, we compensate them at fair value for these skills. As a result, they gain income and livelihoods to support their families, while maintaining traditions and managing a sustainable resource.”
In addition to their women’s cooperatives, Alaffia has other projects that give back to community. Their first Empowerment Project, began in 2003, was to collect school supplies for students. The following year, benches and metal roofs for schools were being built. By 2011, funds for building a school were made available and five more schools have been built since then.
Another way in which Alaffia is helping school students in Togo is through their bicycle project. Often students have to walk 10-15 miles to go to school. Imagine your child having to walk from Moscow to Troy or Albion and back every day! This is on top of attending to household chores and homework. The dropout rate was 91% among girls and 48% for boys. By distributing over 63,000 bikes in rural areas, the graduation rate has hit an overall 95%.
Other empowerment projects include tree-planting, through which Alaffia has planted over 42,000 trees in Togo to help offset the effects of climate change, and their Maternal Health Project. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are responsible for more than 160,000 deaths each year in West Africa. By assisting in providing basic health care and promoting gender equality, Alaffia has funded 3,558 births throughout the Togo Health Clinic system. By providing information on women’s health issues, such as nutrition and preventing female genital mutilation, and training in how to treat preventable conditions, like hemorrhage and infection, Alaffia is saving mothers and babies.
So, finally it was time to meet Olowa-n’djo and take a tour of the facility. Olowa-n’djo could not have been more welcoming! I offered my hand to shake and he gave me a gentle hug. After which he asked my daughter’s permission to give her a hug as well. I can’t tell you how that impressed me. The Alaffia facility was impressive, as well. Everything was done at that location, from receiving raw materials, to formulating, packaging and shipping the product. It is an incredibly inspiring operation employing around 85 people.
As we said good-bye to Olowa-n’djo and Shane, both my daughter and I were filled with a feeling of peace, health and well-being. Aptly, this is the meaning of the word ‘Alaffia.’ Everything that Alaffia does could not happen without you. By purchasing Alaffia products, we are all responsible for helping empower so many people. You can find out more about all of these programs at Alaffia’s website: www.alaffia.com. I encourage you to visit and explore.