Alaffia Co-op Empowers Women and Girls

By: Co+op

When Olowo-n’djo Tchala was a child in Togo, West Africa, he would work alongside his mother collecting nuts from shea trees. Like many Togolese women, she would sell the nuts at the marketplace, where hair and body care companies would purchase them for mere pennies, then extract the oil to make lucrative hair and body care products.

Even though shea butter production has a long history as an indigenous product in Togo, the industry barely provides what could be considered subsistence wages to women like Tchala’s mother. Tchala had to drop out of school in 6th grade because his mother couldn’t afford to send him any longer. The situation is even more dire for Togolese girls, as 91 percent of them drop out of school, contributing to West Africa’s gender inequity and entrenched cycle of poverty. Very few women know how to read and write and most are denied access to meaningful economic opportunity. Many mothers have to leave their children to find jobs to support them.

When Tchala met Rose Hyde, a Peace Corps volunteer who eventually became his wife, they moved to the U.S. and in 2004, formed a women’s co-op called Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative. The idea was to use the resources that the women already had—the skills, knowledge and traditions of natural shea butter production—to empower themselves, preserve indigenous culture and produce a high quality skin care product. Their raw shea butter is handmade, using centuries-old practices to naturally extract the oils from the nuts.

Since 2004, the company has enjoyed terrific success. Alaffia employs over 7,000 fair trade contracted workers in Togo, and 100 team members in Lacey, Washington where Alaffia products are handmade for retail sale. Alaffia shea butter, lotions, shampoo and conditioner, baby products and a full facial care line are available in over 2,000 stores across the U.S., including many local food co-ops. Their Queen Alaffia product line features fair trade handwoven baskets and entirely handmade artisan cloth goods, featuring traditional wax batik cloth. Alaffia is certified Fair Trade for Life: Social and Fair Trade by the Switzerland-based Institute for Marketecology.

In addition to providing employment, the co-op funds a number of community projects. As of 2017, their program Bicycles for Education has provided 7,482 donated bikes to help kids ride the 5 to 10 kilometers they need to travel to get to school. The co-op has funded the construction of ten schools and provided school supplies to over 32,000 students. A clinic focused on maternal health has helped over 4,463 mothers safely give birth environmental initiative to alleviate the effects of deforestation and climate change in Togo has resulted in the planting of over 57,000 trees.

Emily Parnham, community relations director for Alaffia said, “When you purchase an Alaffia product, you are placing value on the indigenous knowledge and skills of the Alaffia Cooperative members and empowering these women to create a better life for themselves and their families.”

It is not an overstatement to say that Alaffia has changed its members' lives. When Zebera Tchagoumi joined the co-op, she no longer had to leave Togo, and her children, to find work. All five of her children could stay in school. But she was still troubled when she saw friends who were struggling. “They saw a change in me,” she said. “I hope our efforts become even stronger…so they can benefit as I have.”