Business

Olympia company boosts empowerment

Mawulé Houmey holds a basket of shea nuts used in Alaffia products with fellow Togo countrywomen Ahoumondom Bamassi, center, and Abidé Awesso at a display at Whole Foods Market Chambers Bay in University Place on Tuesday.
Mawulé Houmey holds a basket of shea nuts used in Alaffia products with fellow Togo countrywomen Ahoumondom Bamassi, center, and Abidé Awesso at a display at Whole Foods Market Chambers Bay in University Place on Tuesday. lwong@thenewstribune.com

There’s a lot of buzz about socially responsible consumerism in the marketplace. Olympia-based natural beauty products company Alaffia does more than write checks to charities.

Alaffia owner Olowo-n’djo Tchala likes to call his company a social movement.

To that end, he brought three Togo-based employees to Whole Foods Market Chambers Bay on Tuesday to talk about the company’s business practices and community empowerment programs.

It was a stop on the “Alaffia Ladies of Togo Tour.”

“They look innocent, but in Togo they are the rulers of the whole country,” Tchala said when he introduced the colorfully dressed French-speaking women. The women broke out in laughter.

Tchala, a native of the small West African nation, provided translation for the women.

Coinciding with International Women’s Day, the women spoke about gender equality though fair trade practices and Alaffia’s programs that focus on education, maternal health, female genital mutilation eradication, eyeglass distribution and reforestation.

Mawulé Houmey, manager of coconut oil production in the city of Sokodé, said the shea oil that Alaffia uses in many of its products come from 3,700 mostly female collectors. They contribute to 124 collectives. One million pounds of shea nuts was collected in 2015.

The collectives use traditional methods, rather than mechanization, to extract the oil.

“The main benefit and the most important part of traditional methods is to help preserve the culture,” Houmey said. It also preserves jobs for women.

Abidé Awesso, director of community support, also works as a midwife. She runs awareness programs intended to end female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.

“It is important to organize and explain to the community, the chiefs and the elders, the consequences of female circumcision,” Awesso said. Many women suffer medical consequences and even death from the forced mutilations.

Funding from Alaffia has built seven schools in Togo and provided 800 bikes to girls to get to school.

In June 2015, Alaffia created an artisan center in Sokodé. It now employs more than 50 women, according to manager Ahoumondom Bamassi.

Many of the women are former prostitutes. They now make scarves, purses, batik (a dyed and patterned fabric) and other items.

“In Togo’s culture prostitution is not acceptable, but it’s because of poverty these ladies have to do that,” Bamassi said.

Accompanying the women on the trip is Juste Ouadja, economic and commercial assistant for the U.S. Embassy in Lomé, Togo. U.S. ambassador David Gilmour has visited the Alaffia production facilities in Togo, Ouadja said.

“The embassy saw that (Alaffia) is reducing poverty and underemployment too,” Ouadja said. Gilmour is encouraging other U.S. companies to come to Togo, Ouadja said.

The tour has been educational for the Togolese women.

“They need to understand the U.S. side as well,” Tchala said. “It was more than shocking to them to see how receptive the people are to their products and how prominent they are here.”

Tchala started the company with his wife Prairie Rose Hyde in 2003. They met in Togo when Hyde was stationed there with the Peace Corps.

“We started in our kitchen on Steamboat Island,” Tchala said.

Tchala said Alaffia grew its gross sales 20 percent in 2015. They now make 220 products in five brands.

The company’s shea butter and coconut oil soaps continue to be a big part of sales. Over 8 million bars were sold in 2015, Tchala said.

In 2016 the company is launching a “super food” line made with powdered seeds from the baobob tree.

“It has 10 times more vitamin C than oranges,” Tchala said.

The line will include moringa and kola nut powders mixed with pineapple juice.

“We have realized that there are a lot of pineapple growers in the southern part of Togo that don’t have access to sell their pineapples,” Tchala said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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