Alaffia founder & CEO, Olowo-n’djo Tchala, shares his incredibly inspiring journey from growing up in Togo, West Africa to creating what may be the most socially responsible beauty company yet.
His clean skincare products, now one of the top sellers at Whole Foods, are made with ingredients sourced from co-ops in his native, Togo. More than just creating excellent skincare, he is on a mission to help alleviate poverty and gender inequality. Through Alalffia’s various initiatives, he is proving that a successful and profitable company can also be a socially responsible one.
Founder & CEO of Alaffia
Olowo-n’djo Tchala is the founder and CEO of Alaffia, a free-trade, socially responsible skincare company. Born in Togo, West Africa, he grew up sharing an 8’x 10’ room with seven siblings and his mother. Unable to afford school fees, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help support his family. In 1996, Olowo-n’djo met Prairie Rose Hyde, a Washington state native and returned to the U.S. to get married. Picking up his education where he left off, Olowo-n’djo returned to school and later earned his bachelor’s degree. Determined to make a difference in his home country, the idea for Alaffia was born. Olowo-n’djo and Rose foster sustainable communities in both Togo and Olympia, Washington through the fair trade of indigenous resources such as shea butter and coconut oil.
Maria Marlowe: [00:00:33] Welcome back to the Happier and Healthier podcast today. I’m excited to introduce you to Olowo-n’djo Tchala, the founder and CEO of Alaffia. Alaffia is a natural body care company that is sustainable, fair trade and completely socially responsible. If you’ve ever browsed the body care section at Whole Foods, you have undoubtedly seen their products. I know I personally discovered them when I was back in college, which is over 10 years ago, which is kind of crazy, and I have been using them ever since. The primary ingredient in many of these products is Shea Butter, which Alaffia sources from all the Joe’s native Togo in West Africa. Here he has set up various co-ops which now employ or contract over fourteen thousand people, primarily women. Not only does he pay his employees and workers a fair salary, he also goes back and supports this community in so many different ways, from building schools to donating bicycles to helping with maternal care. And even they’ve planted over eighty thousand fruit trees to help make these communities or give these communities a sustainable source of food. This company is an incredible example of how you can be profitable while also being incredibly socially responsible. I think you’ll find Olowo-n’djo’s story incredibly inspiring. I know I did. And I think you’ll really enjoy this interview.
Maria Marlowe: [00:02:10] This podcast is brought to you by my Healthy by Marlowe Nutrition Course. The eight-week online science backed doctor approved course to help you slim down, improve your health, and most importantly, better understand and love your body. You’ll learn how to tailor your diet to your unique needs so that you can banish bloating, improve your mood and energy and slim down. All the while, eating hearty, healthy meals that will keep you feeling energized and satisfied. Head to mariamarlowe.com/nutrition-course to start today.
Maria Marlowe: [00:02:52] Olowo-n’djo, welcome to the show.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:02:54] Thank you. Thank you.
Maria Marlowe: [00:02:56] So first off, I just want to say thank you for creating such an incredible product. I’ve been using it since college, which is 10 years by now, which is kind of crazy. And it wasn’t just the quality of the product, because I’m very into reading ingredient labels and I always make sure I’m I have natural products. It wasn’t just that. It was also what your company stands for and a fair trade company and a social enterprise. So take us back to the beginning. You grew up in Togo, West Africa. Can you share a little bit about your childhood? And then what inspired you to create Alaffia?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:03:33] Thank you. I just wanted to say quickly that I cannot take me along the credit for where I Alaffia is today. It is an effort of many people around the world and our team. And so I think what I’m trying to say is that these effort is only going to be achieved by people’s support. As you mentioned, Togo, for those of you that don’t knows, a very small country in the west of Africa, right between Benin and Ghana. I grew up in northern part of Togo near Savannah. Indeed. And the shea trees, as we’re going to talk about later, Shea trees grow throughout the whole savanna of West Africa, Blomotania all the way to Cameroon. And it happened that my village of Kaboli was right on on the belt of the of the shea trees. So I grew up collecting shea nuts. And we’re farmers. And my father has 42 children. My mother has eight children. And when I try to really articulate what are the inspirations for the start of Alaffia here, I think it’s one of those things that you cannot put in one word all add up to me. Deep inside me, I have felt the duty and the more responsibility to somehow participate in my communities. That’s even before I came to US.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:04:52] So I dropped out of school and helped my mother. And my mother was an indentured servant to the neighboring country of Benin. And she want to make sure that we know what it means to have a community. We know what it means to serve others. So she always put others before us. And I remember a particular incidents where we have kids, Kaboli. My village is a border town, right to Benin. So young people, mostly young ladies, will cross from Kaboli, heading to Nigeria to go look for work. And often my mother will share our food. And if you if you can imagine eight children and taking their food and to share with this strangers that it is, it is really going beyond your own immediate. And I think that really has stuck with me. And additionally, my mother was really into our culture, the value of our own culture, making sure that we will wear our colors and wear it to be proud of our colors and uses traditional herbs.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:05:55] And fast forward, as I become a young young adult, end up in the States. That’s really when I begin to see the whole world and I begin to understand the pain that we went through collecting the shea nuts and selling the shea nuts us for pennies and still having to drop out of school despite all the resources that we have. And I think I also was able to understand the civil right movements in America and just the rights of the people and to really also understand decolonization to happen throughout West Africa. So I felt that there’s a need to use economics to achieve equality, in particular to achieve gender equalities, because, again, that for me is how do I serve my mother and the many woman are like her throughout West Africa.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:06:46] And economics means that providing jobs, because I believe having a stable income for member for our communities can help us to have equal equitable societies. And that’s really what led to the formation of the Alaffia co-op back in 2003. And the idea was pretty simple. How do we use our traditional methods to make something that women like my mother know how to do if I happened to go to school and so on and so forth? And how do we do that to ensure that environment’s taken into consideration? And so and she had shea nuts wild. So it made sense to the fact we have traditional knowledge already on how to make that shea better. So we make shea butter and we realize that here in America, people also need healthy products. Say to me that hobby is doing something that benefit both societies. But the end goal, really the end goal for Alaffia is that how do we have left and strengthen our community? And the way we can do that is investing in any future societies. So selling products so that we can invest in what I call the drive of society. And we can talk about that a little bit later. That’s a long, long, long, long, long answer. But gist of it is that I really just felt the need to serve our communities, our collective communities. And I feel that is the adjusting to do.
Maria Marlowe: [00:08:18] Yeah. And it’s incredible what you’ve done. I definitely want to talk about some of the social initiatives and incredible things that you’ve done. But first, let’s just talk about fair trade. I think most people know what it is, but can you just share a little bit about what fair trade is and why it was so important for you to set up these fair trade co-ops?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:08:38] Thank you. So I wanted to say that fair trade is not free trade. Free trade is a government to government treaties essentially on how to you have how to exchange good between countries with or without duties to to enter the country. Fair trade. On the other hand, is organization to organization is a fair trade is understanding that if you pay a fair price for the labor and particular resources of various communities and they’ll be able to sustain themselves and their fair price is really a living wage and a living market price. And, you know, often when we talk about fair to talk about coffee by fair trade and should apply to all good that are exchange so they do any works in different commodities and they’re not.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:09:33] The other thing that is really important when we talk about fair trade is that if you’re all certified fair trade like Alaffia is, it is they can do the conditions, into the consideration of the working conditions. And this is really important. I mean, in today’s world, around the world where we have most of the goods are made, are not made in the set conditions for the people. That’s a fair trade. Not only ensures a market price for the particular resource of commodities being traded, but the working conditions of the people who are producing this particular product.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:10:09] So how does it work? Depend on a commodity you have if you’re certified fair trade, you have an independent agency and the agency come just like an audit, will come an audit and look at the salary variance within the organizations that and then look into are the people working within the organization are being compensated enough so that they can have living wages? That’s one of the steps. And then also do look into the working conditions are to set working conditions and then will you have to look into the price of the item that’s been it’s been traded there. So they will look at market price and look the price and the record of how in this case the sell off is engaged in buying shea nuts and ensures that there’s a fair compensation. But for me, I think fair trade is just one step when we engage with communities that are not in equal footing.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:11:09] If I may say, because when you’re poor, you tend to take was given to say fair trade helps to ensure that there’s some form of fairness essentially in trading. But I think that we feel that we need to go beyond than just paying fair wages or fair prices for the particular resource that is being traded. We have to look. How is it that that particular product produces a return as we invest it back into communities that have nothing to do with those who actually are creating that particular product.
Maria Marlowe: [00:11:49] Yeah, one thing I had looked on your website and saw some of your interviews and what stood out to me. I remember you saying something along the lines of you looked around and you saw that these big multinational companies were coming to Togo and buying the shea nuts for peanuts for like nothing and not paying the fair prices. And you said, no, this is not right. We have this resource. Let’s make sure that people are paid adequately and fairly. And the stories from some of your employees and now you employ over 14000 people, is that right?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:12:24] Exactly. We work with over 14000 dependent individuals within Togo and Ghana. And I think perhaps I can share with you a little bit because seeing what is around you and determining the fair price to the employee, you need to organize the people. Just just the will of wanting to pay a fair price is not going to work. So what we have done is essentially create a model where we form those various unions that I call them who organize different communities into small unions and then they, or, you can call them collective. So the collective will have their president, their vice president, their treasury, just like in an institution. So Alaffia has field officers and then they will be trained also on the environment.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:13:16] And what is the key here is that they’ll be trained on their rights. They may be trained on how to demand a fair price because just demanding a fair price on how those cooperative work of Alaffia is not enough. I want them and they must demand a fair price for all people that they sell to shea nut to or any other commodity, because that’s really how we can bring the community up. So that’s really that has, I think is one of the biggest things I things Alaffia has been able to do in the community and all these cities, 14000 then you can imagine as together to be able to sell product to Alaffia under the fair trade and do the same around around them. The community really just brings the income up.
Maria Marlowe: [00:14:06] Yeah, that’s amazing. And can you talk a little bit about some of the social efforts and initiatives that you’ve been able to put in place? What I know you do something with bicycles in schools and maternal care. So can you share some of those initiatives?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:14:21] Thank you. Yes. And I think like I mentioned earlier, that that is the goal is to mobilize, create these, what I call alternative products Alaffia has. And the money needs to go into the drivers of society. I really believe that one of the reasons that we have extreme poverty to our West Africa is the lack of the real investment on the returns of the resources that come from the area and what I mean by that is that I think that if we put more of the return back into the community, that can really help us reduce the gender inequalities or poverty issues. And I think, again, I reflect on my own childhood who were are things in the society that if those were in place, our life could have been a little bit different. And I called those the drivers of a society which are health, education and environment. It’s very straightforward.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:15:30] And all of those drivers, should be invested at the same time continuously. And I’ll talk about each of them a little bit. But I do think it is important when you are investing in those drivers of a society that is there are continuous.. say.. What I’m trying to say that we can all say, oh, we’ll build a school today and then in five years we say we’re going to build another one. From the day that are Alaffia was founded to the present. Every year will maintain and continue those community projects. And I think that’s really critical because then you’re able to monitor and measure the impact that that’s really creating in the community.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:16:19] So the those community projects, we can start with education. What we have done is every step that we take on those drivers need to be achievable and reasonable. So within education we thought in Togo. Kindergartens are absolutely lacking, is rare that you find a kindergarten in in the village or even in the city, in the bigger cities, maybe. And so we feel that fundamentally kindergartens are necessary. So we build kindergarten. So Alaffia will go into the community, we’ll do the research and collect information and and look those community that’s most in need. So up to now, we have about 15 schools that we have built and mostly kindergarten. And when we build those, we also provide what we call benches. I remember going to school in Togo. You sit on those benches and there are six children or eight children. And it’s really difficult when you’re just trying to get, you know, to sit and and that was not a best way of learning environment. So we provide the benches as well.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:17:36] And in addition to the education part, I would say that our bicycle program is one of the biggest programs that we think really makes a big difference in the community. So what is it? We collect bicycles in the US, primarily in the state of Oregon, Washington State and California. And Alaffia, we ship those bicycles to Togo and those are used bicycles, which is also a good thing to prevent them from going to landfills in America. And those bicycles are intended for mostly young girls. And the reason why young girls in Togo were 40 percent of the young girls who drop out by the time they reach secondary school. And what we realize and for my own life growing in Togo is the distance of school where you have to walk to school 5 miles or 10 miles.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:18:31] And if you’re a young girl in Togo, culturally, you are helping doing dishes. You’re helping wash and washing, doing so many things at home. It is very difficult to do all of that, that’s required of a young lady, be able to get time to study and walk such a long distance in the hot sun. So we thought we cannot change how everything is or how things are required for young ladies in Togo. But what we can change is make it possible to reduce the amount of time that a young lady in Togo is walking to school. And that is by providing a bicycle. And what we have realized that instead of a 40 percent drop out rate, just by simply providing a bicycle, we have over 90 percent retention in school. And again, we feel that that’s another step towards gender equality, is, by allowing young girls to be able to have education so that they can have jobs one day?
Maria Marlowe: [00:19:30] That’s incredible.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:19:31] Thank you. And today we have over 10,000 bicycles in circulation in Togo. And if you think about 10,000 is more than 10,000 since those are multipliers. The family use it for the things, they use for emergencies. So it’s really providing, it helps the families also function. You know, the bicycle may seem like a small thing in America, but growing up in Togo I never dream of having a car. You know, the biggest thing I dream of is that I can have a bicycle. I’ll be the king of the world. Bicycle is a big deal, as you can imagine in these areas.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:20:12] And so that’s on our education. And we intend to continue. And when it comes to the environment, it’s similar, it’s pretty straightforward. We have three different nurseries that we do. We get our own baby trees I call it. Get them ready and then distribute it within the community. And we did on two part some of the trees, a distribute in schools. Those would be like fruit trees so that it went during the.. There’s a time in Togo that we call the hunger season right between the seasons. And it’s very difficult for students have enough food. So by having fruit trees and able to get some of that as food, mangoes and so on, and then we do the different trees are also fixing to help. So they prevent erosion, too. But the key really behind the environmental tree planting is really to get the community to understand that deforestation is not going to serve us, that deforestation leads to farming. That will cut most of our trees down. What will happen then? We have erosion during the rainy season and on and on. And very soon we don’t have a soil that is fertile enough to farm. And if you’re poor, it’s quite difficult to buy fertilizer. And I’m not suggesting that fertilizer is a good thing to use at all. So to prevent farming, we need to make sure that we have our trees to keep the topsoil so that we can farm. And I think, you know, we all know any form of famine or hunger makes a society difficult to move forward and rise out of poverty.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:21:57] And when it comes to our health, within the health, we’re focused mostly on women’s health. And within the woman health, we have two things that we do. One is the prevention of FGM that is happening still in Togo and various parts of northern Ghana. But the other part of it is simply providing maternal support for those women that likely that they will lose their life trying to give birth. Even today, 1 in 16 woman in Togo have a chance of dying simply by trying to bring life. And those numbers are similar today to the death rate for women in the U.S. back in seventeen hundred and we’re not in seventeen hundred anymore. And I think, again, what is the goal of Alaffia? The goal of Alaffia, not only to achieve gender equality in our societies is to have thriving societies, is to have sustainable societies is outside. That can take care of themselves. And we cannot reduce poverty when we’re losing our mothers, trying to give, trying to give life. And what typically happens is that when a mother die trying to give birth, the other siblings, they can drop out of school. In Togo, a mother really is the holder is anchor of the family. And when you don’t have a mother, it’s very likely that the other children’s will drop out. And you can imagine, again, when we have that dropout and then the cycle of poverty carries on.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:23:37] So we feel that, again, one step to try to break the cycle of poverty is to ensure that our mothers are alive. And also, it’s just the right thing to do, I think is the more thing to do. No person should have to die simply by trying to give birth.
Maria Marlowe: [00:23:57] Yeah, that’s incredible. I feel like your company is the gold standard for socially responsible businesses because you’re thinking about the community, you’re thinking about the workers, about the environment and even the product is. Is it good for you product? Right for the end consumer. So, yeah, it’s just amazing that you’ve been so thoughtful in creating your brand and all of the initiatives that you do to be able to really positively impact the planet on so many different fronts.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:24:26] Thank you. That’s the way it should be. You know, organizations for profit should not have to take away from society. You know, I think we need to approach it, even for profit organization as a serving a community, providing service to a community. And when you provide a service to a community, you don’t want to take everything else from the creator. Yeah. The way I see Alaffia is serving a community.
Maria Marlowe: [00:25:00] Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about shea itself and even the black soap. Can you just tell us a little bit about the benefits of these products?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:25:12] Well, I think the way to realize the benefit of a product is really understanding how those products are made. And, you know, you could have a product that they say is healthy for you? OK. But how does a healthy if we can all understand how the new trends are maintained when it’s been made? And so what I’m trying to say is that the outcomes are healthier for product or the benefit of product need to start first by ensuring that those product have no contamination with the key ingredients that go into the particular product. With Alaffia, the fact that we traditionally handcraft our own products and the process of making shea butter out of the shea nut is ensured that no chemical is used. And you may have seen various pictures on our website. How does how that’s done. So those bases a main point. But when it comes to the idea that they benefit all of the product, that themselves is also ensure that the they have the efficacy. And you will see that we do various combinations. Shea butter is one of the best moisturizers in the world. And you can imagine this is something that will evolve out of the savannah of West Africa, where the environment can be quite harsh, and the sun can be quite harsh. So shea butter can really help protect against the UV and sun damage. And then it also is something that, especially in the winter, that it helps to not get too much of a cracked heels and so on, so forth.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:26:57] But what we do is combine them. So we take shea butter, the best moisturizer in the world and combine it, for instance, neem and neem is anti-fungal, anti-bacterials, too. Now you depend on a product at any given time. You get the moisturizing properties of the shea butter and then combine with another ingredient that have some type of active impact that can help the skin with. And so we talk about shea butter a lot but Alaffia ingredients you see coconut oil. The hydrating oil, we call call it virgin coconut oil, is not processed. We use moringa as well that we have farmers in Togo where our moringa comes from. And then we try to, when it comes to essential oils, we’re using the pure essentials oils. And not use synthetic scents because that’s really important too you know. You could have a product like shea butter, moringa or neem oil. But if you end up putting a synthetic scent and that’s not going to help. So when it comes to formulation, really is first and foremost ensuring that we’re using unrefined ingredients and then when they’re combined, ensure that they have this specific result that when they intended to solve.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:28:18] And so I wanted to tell you quickly, you mentioned black soap, so black soap, you may wonder where the name came from. So, in Yoruba language out of Nigeria we say dudu ose or ose dudu that means black soap. And these is I’ll say is the most ancient soap in West Africa. How is it different than the typical soaps? The traditional way, If the black soap is made in a traditional manner, essentially cooking the oils and adding potash, they use ash and instead of sodium hydroxide I use potassium hydroxide, which is the ash and those are hundred percent vegetable reactors that you’re putting in oils and most soap making, you’re reacting them with sodium hydroxide. And that is quite different. Wheras in black soap when are you using the ashes and cooking it while you’re trying to do is to turn those oils into a charcoal like. In West Africa we we believe that charcoal is detoxifying and purifying culturally so and as it turns into a charcoal, that’s really where that so-called black comes into it. And what we do, too, is ensure that we cure these in the sun for about three weeks. So the black soap, the point is it’s quite gentle, very gentle soap. So the charcoal aspect of it is it’s good for detoxifying the skin and very gentle on the babies as well. In Togo, that’s one of the thing that’s used quite a bit in the newborn.
Maria Marlowe: [00:29:57] Yeah. And so I typically buy my Alaffia products at Whole Foods. But where else can people find them?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:30:06] Thank you. We can on our website, alaffia.com. We have product in Target and Wal-Mart as well. And Amazon.
Maria Marlowe: [00:30:16] So I understand Alaffia is also going through a rebirth right now. So can you share a little bit about that?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:30:22] Yes. And so we as an organization and Alaffia is, it wasn’t that when we started Alaffia, we said, these are our campaign, these are our strategy. It was very grass-root, from one person to the next, from one store to the next. And after all those years and that was very important because what that means is that you can have organization that will live up to what is intended to do. And you’re not putting your energy on just so-called marketing. But we have come to realize that there’s a need to really explain Alaffia to the world. And we talk about culture, how important our culture is, how important cultures impact on how we formulate and what we do and how we share with the world and how we service the world.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:31:15] So with that last year, we spent a lots of time ensuring that our colors that we so admired so much will come through our packaging. But most importantly, we felt that it is important what Alaffia is doing for the community as serving the community. But what is also important is that those who are supporting us need to understand where the money’s going. And we wanted to publish on our bottles exactly where the money is going. And how it’s funding different community projects. So the re-birth is one to ensure that our colors and everything that we’re quite powerful. That has to do with our culture is reflected in addition to publicly set out to share with our customers and support around the world on a bottle where the funds are going. So now you can really see that very clearly in our bottles. And every year we can continue to be the different community project numbers that you see on the on the back of the bottle.
Maria Marlowe: [00:32:14] I love that. It’s always nice to have that tangible story or tangible product that, you know, that your purchase is helping to fund something. I just think it makes it more real for people.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:32:27] And I think for me it’s about accountability. Often organizations can tell their supporters I’m doing this in community and doing that in community. But I think that to be accountable it’s really to publish what you’re doing so they can be verified. It’s not good enough to just say I’m doing this and that’s what we intended to do. And we’re hoping that other organizations will be willing to do that because the ones organizations are publishing on ongoing basis. What truly are they doing, the community? It will help all of us around the world.
Maria Marlowe: [00:33:07] Yeah. And so what’s next for Alaffia?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:33:13] Everything is next. Everything is next for Alaffia. As you know, life is not just trying to support communities and provide income in Togo, in West Africa. We’re here in the US. We’re creating jobs here in the US. And our intention is to expand and creating Americans more and more American jobs as well as we expand in Togo. But I think when we think about what is really next for Alaffia. What is next for Alaffia is to continue what we have always done and do it bigger? There are so many communities around the world that are suffering and suffering, and that suffering has to end. So to answer a question on intention is to continue our various community projects and do them bigger. But when it come to product, we have a bit of innovations in pipeline. Next year we will be expanding our blocks of line into hair product, that you can use it for shampoo and conditioner. We’re going to have a full full set on our black soap line, really excited about it. We’ll also work on expanding our baby set and segment and there’s some new ingredients that we’re working on toward the end of next year. But I think at the end of the day for us, is listen to our customers and be able to adjust, and pivot and to serve the needs of our customers, want and need.
Maria Marlowe: [00:34:51] Well, that’s all really, really exciting. I really appreciate you taking the time today to share your story and a little bit more about your company. So one last question. If you can leave our audience with just one piece of advice on how they can live a happier and healthier life. What would that be?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: [00:35:08] Well, I’ll tell you how I do it. I think a first is important that our families understand that life is usually very intense. While we deal, we have families, work. It goes on and on and it can be overwhelming. And the way I go about first and find happiness in life is to recognize my wish to serve others. And so that brings me joy. And a healthier part really is just as simple as trying to eat healthy when you can. I think that’s really important to have a healthy diet and what’s healthy for everybody is different. But I think, eating healthy is the very important. And for our soul. Knowing that somehow we’re serving orders and it’s quite those two things brings it makes life more joyful. And I know on a tough days to just know that. OK. Today’s a tough day. Tough days are part of life. And tomorrow will be better. And that of mindset ultimately helps me.
Maria Marlowe: [00:36:27] Well, thank you so much. You are an incredible inspiration. And if anyone wants to check out Alaffia, you can go to alaffia.com, and you can, of course, look for the products that Whole Foods, Target, Wal-Mart, and I’m sure many other retailers as well.