When Olowo-n’djo Tchala was a child in Togo, West Africa, he would work alongside his mother collecting nuts from shea trees to sell to government-sponsored shea nut buyers. Women traditionally gathered these nuts, and even though shea butter production has a long history as an indigenous product in Togo, it allows for only subsistence wages, if that. Women like Tchala’s mother are paid mere pennies for delivering the nuts to the marketplace, after which the oils are extracted by others to make hair and body care products that earn them a nice profit. Tchala had to drop out of school in the 6th grade because his mother couldn’t afford to send him any longer.
The situation is even more dire for Togolese girls, as 91% of them drop out of school, contributing to West Africa’s gender inequity and an 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 formed a women’s co-op called Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative in 2004 (after they moved to the United States). Their vision was to help West African communities become more sustainable. The idea was to use the resources the women already had—the skills, knowledge and traditions of natural shea butter production—to empower women, preserve indigenous culture, and produce a high quality skin care product. The raw shea butter they produce is handmade, using centuries-old practices to extract the oils from the nuts naturally.
Alaffia’s shea butter is also produced and sold with fair trade practices. Through fair trade, members are compensated for what their shea butter is really worth, rather than having to accept low returns from the open market. Alaffia is certified Fair Trade for Life: Social and Fair Trade by the Switzerland-based Institute for Marketecology (www.imo.ch/index.php?seite+imo_index_en).
Today, Alaffia operates in Togo with over 300 women co-op members, and in Lacey, Washington, where Alaffia products are handmade for retail sale. Alaffia shea butter, lotions, shampoo and conditioner, and baby products are now available in 2,000 stores across the U.S., including many local food co-ops.
In addition to providing employment, the co-op funds a number of community projects. Bicycles for Education has provided 3,000 donated bikes to help kids ride the 5 to 10 kilometers they need to travel to get to school. A clinic focused on maternal health assists up to 100 birthing mothers a year. The co-op also provides school supplies and necessary repairs to school buildings. They’ve also launched an environmental initiative to plant thousands of trees to alleviate the effects of deforestation and climate change in Togo.
This year Alaffia co-op members gave their salary increases to their communities because they wanted to help others. They are firm believers that people cooperating across the globe is essential to sustainability in all kinds of communities. 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 Shea Butter Cooperative members and empowering these women to create a better life for themselves and their families.”
It is no understatement to say that Alaffia has changed its members’ lives. Zebera Tchagoumi joined the co-op last year. Now that she’s a member, she no longer has to leave Togo, and her children, to find work. All five of her children are in school. But she is still troubled when she sees friends who are struggling. “They see a change in me,” she said. “I hope our efforts become even stronger…so they can benefit as I have.”