You can have the best plan and intentions and there will still be unforeseen events that come up that you will need to circumnavigate. — This can be as small as a shipment of a critical ingredient being delayed to a worldwide pandemic, you just have to take a deep breath and continue forward.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olowo-n’djo Tchala.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala is the founder and CEO of Alaffia, a clean and fair-trade beauty company. Born and raised in Togo, West Africa, he learned the importance of sustainability at a young age and was inspired by his mother to demonstrate kindness and generosity to others. Founded in 2003, for nearly two decades Alaffia’s mission has been to alleviate poverty and advance gender equality through the fair trade of indigenous African resources such as unrefined shea butter, African black soap, coconut oil and neem extract. Proceeds from the sale of Alaffia’s award-winning clean and fair trade beauty and grooming products are returned to communities in Togo to fund community empowerment and gender equality initiatives, in the areas of maternal health care, education, reforestation and regenerative agriculture. In recognition of Olowo-n’djo’s leadership in developing Alaffia’s women-centered social enterprise model, he was invited to the White House in 2019 to discuss the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. Olowo-n’djo was also appointed by U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, to serve a four-year term as a member of the U.S. Trade Advisory Committee on Africa (TACA).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born and raised in the town of Kaboli, Togo, West Africa. Growing up, I shared an 8’ x 10’ room with my mother and seven siblings. I was inspired by my mother, who continuously found ways to demonstrate kindness and generosity to those around her and helped teach me the importance of community. When I was in sixth grade, I dropped out of school to support my family. One of my many duties included gathering and selling shea nuts in the local market.
More than a decade later, I came to the United States where I was determined to continue my education. I learned English at community college and went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in organizational theory from UC Davis. While studying, I could not ignore the responsibility I felt to help improve the way of life for the communities like my home village by providing a more sustainable and equitable future. I was compelled to fight the injustices I faced and witnessed, including gender inequality and poverty in West Africa through sustainable health care, education and environmental initiatives.
I founded Alaffia with Prairie Rose Hyde, who was invited to my village as an environmental volunteer in the Peace Corp. From the beginning, we shared a desire to positively impact humankind. In 2004, armed with an understanding of the value of indigenous West African resources and sustainable business ideologies, we launched Alaffia’s ﬁrst collective. For nearly two decades, Alaffia’s mission has been to alleviate poverty and advance gender equality through the fair trade of indigenous African resources such as unrefined shea butter, African black soap, coconut oil and neem extract.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?
To me, the most interesting story since beginning this adventure is Alaffia itself. What began as an idea of a simple student trying to help his community has grown into something that has a life of its own. The impact of our empowerment programs speaks volumes about the way the community will rally around in support when you work for the greater good.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started we were getting comments that our unrefined shea butter had a natural smell and was not white and odorless like the refined shea butter everyone was used to. So, one day I had a crazy idea to filter it. So I went and got a used filter press and got it started up. After a few minutes, when nothing was happening, I turned it up, still nothing. I kept turning it up more and more until finally it exploded melted shea butter all the way up to the shop ceiling. That was the last time I tried to conform our traditional, natural shea butter to conventional standards. The lesson I learned was not to mess with perfection, when you know what you have is good, believe in yourself.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We pioneered the concept of the Social Enterprise Model and we have grown our ideology and way of being over the last 17 years. What is most noteworthy about Alaffia is the multifaceted nature of our work. Not only are we creating natural products with sustainably harvested and crafted resources from one of the poorest countries in the world, but we are also paying community members fairly for their goods and services and providing healthcare, paid time off and other benefits. There is a reciprocal relationship where the funds from the sales of our products go back into the communities. They go to the places where they are desperately needed, which the community members have identified themselves. Empowering Togo to rise out of poverty puts humanity at the center — basic needs, not profit.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A few years ago Abide Awesso, a midwife who serves the women in our Maternal Health Empowerment Project, was riding her motorcycle and came across a young woman, Hodalo, on the side of the road who was distressed and in pain. Hodalo was in labor and had been personally affected by female genital mutilation (FGM) earlier in her life, which can make labor and delivery painful and life-threatening to mother and child. Abide took Hodalo to the nearest clinic where they told her they could not care for her because she could not pay for services. Abide assured them that Alaffia would handle any payments and helped support Hodalo through labor. She had a healthy birth. Hodalo was so grateful that she named her baby “Alaffia.” There have been more babies named “Alaffia” since then.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Politics aside, what we do at Alaffia is a moral venture that is committed to fair and equitable trade and community care of the most vulnerable and underserved. I urge all communities and society at large to ask themselves WHY they do what they do and who benefits? This can be assessed at every stage of decision making.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I can tell you that leadership is not just telling people what to do — it is leading by example. For me it is putting people over profit at every turn and every choice that I come up against.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You can have the best plan and intentions and there will still be unforeseen events that come up that you will need to circumnavigate. — This can be as small as a shipment of a critical ingredient being delayed to a worldwide pandemic, you just have to take a deep breath and continue forward.
- So much of the success of any enterprise is going to be driven by human behavior in the marketplace — what do people want to buy at this time? What do people value and what are they willing to spend money on?
- You can have multiple PhDs and be at the top of your field but not understand how to manage and empower people. It takes a team to create a social enterprise and each team member is going to bring something different and valuable to the group.
- There will inevitably be unforeseen consequences to the decisions that you make that will require you to continually re-evaluate.
- Your work will never be done.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
From the very beginning of Alaffia, the ultimate goal has been to create a model that can be replicated in other underserved communities in West Africa and around the world. Adapting our Beyond Fair Trade model to the rest of the world, even the United States, could bring fair, equitable employment and self-empowerment to a variety of marginalized communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Investing in women means investing in the people who invest in everyone else.” — Melinda Gates
It became clear to me very early on that if Togo were to rise out of poverty, it would require women to be a significant part of the equation. This empowerment is what we are facilitating every day.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think I would like to have lunch with Stacey Abrams to discuss how to strengthen African American and African connections, finding ways to bring economic and political empowerment to all our communities.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- IG: @Alaffia @Olowondjo
- FB: @Alaffia @Olowondjo
- LinkedIn: @Alaffia @Olowo-nd’jo Tchala
- Blog: https://www.alaffia.com/blogs/news