Entrepreneur Spotlight: Interview With Alaffia Founder, Olowo-n'djo Tchala
How one man from West Africa set out to change the world.
In honor of National Entrepreneurship Month, we interviewed various founders, including founder of the clean, green, and fair-trade beauty brand, Alaffia. Togolese native Olowo-n'djo Tchala founded Alaffia nearly two decades ago with a mission to cultivate beauty, equality and empowerment in West Africa through the fair trade of indigenous resources and community empowerment projects. Alaffia's products are handcrafted by Women’s cooperatives in West Africa, and proceeds from their product sales are returned to these communities in Togo to fund sustainable community projects, such as maternal health care, education, reforestation and regenerative agriculture. So far, Alaffia’s many sustainable programs in West Africa have improved the lives of more than 250,000 individuals and counting.
We're so honored to interview Olowo-n'djo Tchala about his inspiration, hardships, and journey to success. His unique story is so inspiring and can give aspiring entrepreneurs who also want to give back to the community so much to learn from.
Interview With Alaffia Founder, Olowo-n'djo Tchala
WDC: Tell us about your experience growing up in West Africa and how this compelled you to found Alaffia.
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: I was born and raised in the town of Kaboli in Togo, West Africa. Growing up, I shared a small room with my mother and seven siblings. I learned the importance of sustainability at a young age and 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.
In 1996, I met my partner Prairie Rose Hyde, who was invited to my village as an environmental volunteer in the Peace Corp. Inspired by a shared calling to do right by the world, Alaffia, a social enterprise, was born.
With an understanding of the value of indigenous West African resources and sustainable business ideologies, we launched Alaffia’s first shea butter collective in 2003 and in 2004 we established our headquarters in Olympia, Washington.
Today, Alaffia continues to redefine the natural products industry through its values of Beauty, Equality and Empowerment, fair trade, and safe, efficacious hair, face, and body care.
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. This is possible through our nonprofit organization, The Alaffia Foundation (TAF) and our many volunteers and partners.
WDC: Why do you think it's so important for businesses to focus on things like philanthropy, social justice, and community projects?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: For Alaffia, it’s about putting people over profit at every turn and every choice that I come up against. Our success is measured by empowerment, not profit. Empowerment Projects are Alaffia’s mission in action, funded by the sales of Alaffia products. Our community empowerment projects include several Education-Based Projects, Maternal Health, FGM Eradication, Eyeglasses, and Environmental Sustainability.
Since inception, Alaffia’s empowerment projects have directly improved the lives of over 250,000 individuals in West Africa and resulted in 5,597 births funded; donation of school supplies to 37,521 students; distribution of eyeglasses to 30,852 recipients; distribution of 10,817 bicycles; 99,964 trees planted; and 16 schools built.
WDC: As a Black entrepreneur, were there any particular challenges you had to face and overcome?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: In order to create a more sustainable future, we must first start by improving the conditions for our women and children. That’s why, and especially being a man of color in the beauty industry, we put them at the forefront of all we do at Alaffia to make this a better world for everyone. What began as an idea of a simple student trying to help his community has grown into something that has taken 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.
WDC: We love how many of Alaffia's philanthropic efforts aim to improve the lives of women and mothers in particular. What inspired this emphasis?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: Growing up in Africa, alongside my seven siblings, my mother was always my biggest inspiration. It became clear to me very early on, as I watched my mother sacrifice so many things for my siblings and I, that if Togo were to rise out of poverty, it would require women to be a significant part of the equation. One of my favorite life lesson quotes is from Melinda Gates who states “investing in women means investing in the people who invest in everyone else.” This empowerment is what we are facilitating every day with Alaffia.
Women in West Africa handcraft indigenous ingredients, such as unrefined shea butter and African black soap. Those products are then handcrafted based on traditional African recipes and methods at our U.S. headquarters at our facility in Olympia, Washington. Proceeds from the sale of these products are returned to communities to fund community empowerment and gender equality projects. Our main initiative is to help close the gender gap by giving women and children equal opportunities and provide them with the tools to be successful.
WDC: What impact are you hoping your company has on the world?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: 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.
I want to leave behind a legacy for today’s African man to break the cycle of generational poverty, fight for gender equality, fair wages, women’s health care, and to keep lifting up the women and children in our community and all around the world.
Providing positive change should be a responsibility that young African men should take upon themselves to do.
WDC: What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs who want to make a positive impact?
Olowo-n’djo Tchala: As an African entrepreneur, I have learned to always stay true to your roots. I can tell you that leadership is not just telling people what to do, it’s leading by example. To aspiring entrepreneurs, I would say to continue following your dreams. Do not let anyone stop you from pursuing your passion and achieving what you want. If I allowed someone else to stop me from going after my dreams then I would not be in the position I’m in right now.
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