Photos by Sarah Thurman
Alaffia may just be the most forward-thinking skin care manufacturer; their overarching company goal is to alleviate poverty and encourage gender equality, particularly in Africa.
“I will return to the United States in early April with four of our top managers, a team of women I call the ‘Alaffia Empowerment Council,'” Alaffia founder Olowo-n’djo Tchala stated in a March newsletter. “We will then tour several major cities for the month of April so our Togolese leaders can thank you firsthand for your support and express their gratitude to your customers through community events at select stores.” As a NetRush brand partner, Alaffia stopped by our Vancouver headquarters as their first stop on the tour.
Alaffia’s goal in visiting NetRush was to educate, appreciate, and share knowledge and successes. As a strong ambassador of Alaffia’s mission, I was honored to sit down with Olowo-n’djo, as well as Shane Hart, Alaffia Communications & Sales Director, for an interview.
Can you tell me a bit about the “Alaffia Empowerment Council,” and when the idea to bring these four leaders on a tour of the US came about?
Olowo-n’djo: Thank you. First of all, if I may, we just want to thank you guys, really. Shane and Andrew have been trying to get me to come here for quite a while. You come up in many of our meetings. Thank you for your contribution for what we have done so far. Aside from the team being here, this is an opportunity to thank you for what you have done so far.
Shane: If I may, there’s something I want to give to you [passes out pamphlets]. What we wanted to point out to you guys, if you look at the column on the left, you’ll see total sales, that was done through you guys with us. And what that translates to in direct impact with you… is 49 births. So, take heart in the fact that there’s almost 50 babies out there that may not have ever seen the world without your contribution. About 1,300 trees have been planted, 582 pairs of eyeglasses donated, 134 bikes distributed, 89 school benches built, and there have been 680+ school supply recipients. So that’s direct impact, and with what Olowo-n’djo said, thank you guys so much for your participation, because you’re really making the most profound difference imaginable.
Olowo-n’djo: Thank you, Shane. Now, to answering your questions. So first of all, I want to tell you that we say “empowerment council,” but underneath it, we define it as the executive leadership team. That’s who they really are. And I want to say too that with Alaffia, planting trees, having babies, creating jobs, all of those are important, but we have to set examples if we want women to be in leadership. And that’s very critical when we’re looking into issues of equality in West Africa. For us, then, in order to ensure the community can allow women to be in a position of power, Alaffia needs to show that. To the trees, we can point. School benches, we can give. Those are direct. But psychologically, we need to show an example of female leadership, and that’s why the majority of our executive team are women. So now, in order to reinforce that, they need to travel the world. Because at the end of the day, without them, we don’t exist.
Our goal during this trip is to share knowledge and understanding with people like you, and for us to understand the different clients we have here, and what their needs are. It’s good to see people and look them directly in the face and ask the question: “Is it money, or is what we say we’re doing actually happening?” We’re trying to show the American public that it is possible in Africa to have women in leadership. Our objective with this tour, ultimately, is to merge both of our enterprises, our team, and our clients as well. What that does is give us a strong force for growth. If we grow, then you grow. But equally important, to work strongly to maintain the credibility of Alaffia, which is the driving engine for our company. Our credibility needs to be maintained at all costs. It’s important to select the partners we want to work with in the long term. We’re very selective about the clients and partners that we’re visiting, and you’re the first that we’re visiting on this trip. We hope the positive energy that you give us can drive us eastward. When our companies grow, it’s not just to feed ourselves, but it also means that we can get more people out of poverty. And then you can hire more people, more families, here in America. So we look at both sides. In order to do that, both teams need to understand why we’re here.
Speaking of growth, Alaffia has seen incredible growth and success over its 14 years. What do you see as the biggest challenges for Alaffia moving forward?
Olowo-n’djo: There are multiple challenges. The first challenge is to be an ethical organization, like Alaffia is, but at the same time, grow. As you know, growth requires capital. And so far, we have managed to grow to this point without acquiring capital. So the challenge that we face is, how are we going to continue to have this growth without capital. We’re going to need it, and how do you get that capital and retain the ethics and credibility of the enterprise, and stay human first, as opposed to money? The other part of the challenge is on the supply side. We can make more than we can sell right now. However, the different countries that we work with are not the easiest countries to work with. I spend half of my time just dealing with governmental officials. The government doesn’t understand that businesses can do good things. Right now, those are the two major challenges: capitalization for growth without diminishing ethics, and at the same time, staying focused while dealing with the government who doesn’t support or understand you.
Alaffia measures success not just through profit, but with empowerment and advocacy. Can you tell us about why you’ve chosen to foster a company that does more than make money?
Olowo-n’djo: If we look at this building, and take yourself as an example: it’s an open space, with sharing, knowledge, and innovation… it’s a different world. A different world demands a different way of thinking. You have to almost create an entire model to accommodate with the changing world. The current world, the old world, is all measured by profit. I don’t think that that’s what humans, at the end of the day, are all about. I feel that we want love, we want to be at peace, that’s what we strive for. So to me it makes sense to measure success in this way. But, of course, you need money for these things, but when you put these things first, money tends to follow. We are essentially prioritizing, but still letting the money drive it, if that makes sense.
You’ve said this a few times now:
“Africans do not need handouts, we simply need a place to trade our unique resources at a fair price so we can take our destiny in our own hands.”
The company continues to drive that message with action. Twenty years down the road, what are your hopes for both the Alaffia brand and Togo?
Olowo-n’djo: Thank you for the quote. I actually believe more in that quote today than when I first stated it. Twenty years from now, clearly, we don’t know for sure, but what we’re trying to do is in 20 years, and hopefully more like in 10 years, we can come to a table in America or anywhere in the world, and say, “our business model is a model that can make you wealthy,” and take it to West Africa, and the model will work to make them rich too. We want to create a paradigm, essentially, that creates more equal wealth distribution. I think there’s a new way to be presented to the world, in how we engage in business. We need to present a new model that has a conscience in it.
Is there anything else you’d like to touch on?
Olowo-n’djo: I want to say, Alaffia is not just about starving Africans. Everywhere I go I have to make that very clear. This about how to do well in life, have safe products, all while allowing families to maintain their culture. The culture aspect I think is very important. The ultimate freedom of humankind is to be able to be the self-determination version of yourself. Part of that is your own culture. To be able to sell products and maintain your culture at the same time I think is a very important thing.
After speaking with Olowo-n’djo and Shane, both NetRush and Alaffia shared a lunch together. Seeing two companies that work together every day actually meet face-to-face, particularly with our vast differences in culture, was inspiring. Olowo-n’djo and his council were gracious, appreciative, and incredibly warm.
Following lunch, Alaffia gave a presentation and answered questions from NetRush employees. Alaffia discussed the pressure to move away from traditional processing methods in order to scale up production, the inspiration for founding Alaffia, and details about what the Empowerment Council does from day to day.