“I just want people to know that African women matter, women matter,” was one of the last things I heard 37-year-old Olowo-n’djo Tchala say before he parted ways with my group in central Togo. I looked around at the faces of Hey Fran Hey, Jouelzy, Shameless Maya, and various Alaffia staff members, saw tears of joy and inspiration flowing, and wondered how the heck did I (who had branded myself a loser a few months prior) get here after the year I’d been having.
Let me start at the beginning.
2015 was rough. I brought in the year working another job that made me miserable, and where I was treated like less than. I planned to quit, and created a timeline in which I would endure it and save up a specified amount of money so I could still finance the book I was planning to self-publish. But I got laid off in May for the third time, about six months before my goal.
Getting laid off still hurt, despite the fact that I intended to leave, but it forced me to examine what I could do differently, and why I was always on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Tired of producing clickbait, I began exploring new ways to write, which brought Trudy Susan into my life. I admired her work, especially because she quit her lucrative corporate job to start her own company. I began working with her on copywriting and content marketing assignments, and one day during a meeting she mentioned that she was in the throws of planning the #AlaffiaJourney.
This journey was where a group of digital influencers would fly to Ghana, then travel to Togo to visit the Alaffia compound. Why? To learn about how fair trade works, and how Alaffia is harnessing ancient Togolese traditions—to source products for the brand, but also create a sustainable living for women and children in Togo by paying its staff excellent wages (well above the norm compared to other fair trade companies), building schools, providing healthcare, and much more.
I wasn’t sure I stood a chance given the influencers that were going, but I asked anyway, and to my surprise she agreed. For Trudy (and Alaffia), it wasn’t just a popularity contest. It was about sharing Alaffia’s story transparently via the right messengers.
Alaffia is one of the most successful natural body care products companies in the world, founded by two individuals who were unlikely to meet—Olowo-n’djo Tchala (born and raised in the village of Kaboli in Togo, West Africa) and Prairie Rose Hyde (from rural Washington state). Olowo-n’djo, who grew up in an 8×10 room with his mother and some siblings, dropped out of school in the sixth grade after not being able to afford it. (Students in many West Africa countries have to pay certain fees.)
He worked with his mother on the family farm instead, and fell in love with Rose, who was in Kaboli on a Peace Corp mission. They eventually got married and moved to the United States with a common goal: finding a way to alleviate poverty in Togo. And the rest is, as the saying goes, history.
Over a decade later, Alaffia’s success is not simply measured by profit; it is measured by the brand’s various empowerment projects, which are funded by its sales. In short, buying fair trade matters. Where your money goes matters.
Based on what I saw on Alaffia’s compounds, I can say that they are the real deal. Every bit of money spent goes right back to the company, and to the people who work hard every day toward the brand’s success because they have the highest regard for Olowo-n’djo and Rose and the fact that someone genuinely seems to care.
The 10-day journey began with our arrival in Accra on a Sunday morning after a 10-hour flight, where Trudy greeted us outside the airport. The Ghana portion of the trip was all about culture and leisure, and the bonus was that Trudy’s family (who hails from Ghana) took care of us.
By Tuesday—the day it was time for us to road trip to Lomé, the capital city of Togo—we had started getting used to the idea that our West African adventure was going to get even more unpredictable. After about four hours on the road from Accra to the Aflao border, we finally met up with Olowo-n’djo and some of his Alaffia team.
I eventually began affectionately referring to Olowo-n’djo as “Shaft in Africa,” particularly due to his fashion sense and maverick charm. He was 6’4”, all smiles and jokes, laid back and gregarious. In other words, it was obvious he was a hometown hero, a celebrity.
After a short ride to Alaffia’s beach compound just outside of Lomé, we were finally able to relax and get to know Olowo-n’djo a lot better.
The compound, architecturally based on traditional Togolese homes, was simple yet magnificent. We were greeted with hugs from Olowo-n’djo’s sisters, nieces and other Alaffia staff. And once we had settled into the main entertainment area, which overlooked the Atlantic ocean, Olowo-n’djo (despite being the boss) wasn’t above serving refreshments like local beer, wine, and the tastiest mangoes and papayas ever, as we waited for his sisters to prepare a delicious dinner.
The following three days were about business, but felt more like a calling. On our first full day in Togo, we visited some allies who are working with Alaffia to import supplies for its empowerment projects. After that meeting, we embarked on another four-hour road trip to Sokodé in central Togo, where Alaffia’s next compound and main base operates.
We watched and even participated with Alaffia staff as they went about their daily jobs: from making one-of-a-kind handmade accessories, to black soap, to the intricate process of creating shea butter. By utilizing traditional Togolese methods, Alaffia keeps actual human beings employed. Many of the companies (which often aren’t even owned by people from the country) that employ sourcing techniques use machines, and don’t even respect the people or the land they’ve been granted access to.
Sure, machines mean faster and cheaper labor, but there’s no heart and soul. However, to watch elders blessing the shea butter as they stir it in its final stage of production, and to watch women singing and dancing around in a circle as they stomp on shea nuts, is glorious. They embodied the spirit of how everyone should feel about the work they do, and allowed us to join them in song, dance and work, which was phenomenal and inspiring.
Our agenda also included visiting Alaffia’s maternity ward, which was bittersweet. Sweet because we met several women and their children, who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to proper maternity care, who were given a chance at life and good health. Bitter because even with the major improvements to the maternity ward, it was extremely outdated. ($800,000 worth of supplies that are still needed will arrive before the end of March to help improve the facility.)
It was hard not to react when we were shown a so-called pharmacy that was pretty much three boxes full of gauze and painkillers. This is not a pity party, though, because part of our mission is to explain this to the world, to help convey how purchases have power. In other words, those products that magically appear on store shelves have a much larger story behind them, and by purchasing from Alaffia, you become part of its movement.
We concluded our Togo adventure at a celebration at the newly built kindergarten, where we were greeted by the smiling faces of beautiful children and their parents who were stylishly dressed in their best. They performed for us with song and dance as a way to express their gratitude, but I was just as thankful for them too. They showed me a new perspective, and gave me a reason to be inspired about writing again and telling stories that matter.
Joy knows no language, so when we couldn’t speak, we made up for it in smiles, high fives and hugs. And as we departed from Alaffia for our road trip back to Accra, Olowo-n’djo once again reminded us that we matter, our stories matter, marginalized people matter.
I went back home reflective after witnessing how the power of bravery, gratitude, faith and compassion really can change lives. Even a small contribution is a giant step in the right direction, so I’m finally ready to stop counting myself out.—Starrene Rhett Rocque