Thursday, November 19, 2015

October 2015 Togo Trip Update

Greetings Friends of Alaffia,

It is my wish that this note finds you and your family in good health. This year, I have visited Togo more often than any other time since we started Alaffia. Last week, I returned from my fourth trip this year, and next week I will return for another six weeks. My frequent visits are due to overseeing Alaffia community projects and expansion of our collective cooperatives. Your continuing support has led to the growth of our brands, Alaffia, Everyday Shea, Everyday Coconut, Good Soap and Beautiful Curls, which has enabled us to expand our community initiatives. As the reach of our initiatives grows, so does the need for me to be on the ground to ensure the most disadvantaged members of the community receive the positive impact. However, my October trip was also for two very specific purposes.

First, I had the honor to host a delegation of donors and leaders of the Whole Planet Foundation, which provides microfinance funding to our communities in Togo and throughout the world. I had the opportunity to share Alaffia’s model and activities on the ground with other leaders from the natural products industry, including Papyrus, Reservage, and Seventh Generation. Our hope was to show that the Alaffia model of empowering humanity’s most vulnerable in Togo and in the USA through the economic process can break the chain of poverty. Not only did we tour the Alaffia Artisan Center, Community Projects Headquarters and “Alaffia Village” (Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative), but we also visited our Maternal Health center in Bassar, Alaffia schools under construction, and our shea nut gathering communities. The keystone event was a welcoming ceremony attended by a couple thousand community recipients and cooperative members at the Alaffia Village. The speech excerpt below was delivered by a student representing all the recipients of our bicycles, school supplies, and school buildings.

Whole Planet Foundation with Alaffia team and my family in Sokodé.
Scott White (Whole Foods Market) heling dry shea nuts with Alaffia cooperative members.
Melanie Guidotti (Papyrus) learning to weave baskets with Alaffia Basket Manager, Guiname.
Gathering of Alaffia cooperative members welcoming the Whole Planet Foundation delegation to Alaffia Village.
Amatou Ouro Agaouda represented all student recipients with a speech in English at the welcome ceremony.
Dancing with my mother at the welcome ceremony.
Current school building in Essovale.
New Alaffia school under construction in Essovale with delegation and community members helping.
Joy Stoddard (Whole Planet Foundation), Gayle Grindley (Seventh Generation) , and JoAnne Brenner (Alaffia) helping move laterite.
Making new bricks with Kaze Williams (Reservage) and Tony Huston (Papyrus).
Giving words of encouragement to students of Essovale.
Walking to visit the home of one of the Alaffia Materal Health Project recipients in Bassar.
We were also honored by the presence of Mr. Peter Barlerin, the Charge des Affairs (acting Ambassador) of the United States to Togo and the US Embassy’s Community Liaison Officer, Elizabeth Newton, during the Whole Planet tour of Alaffia Village and Artisan Center. Mr. Barlerin’s regular position is the Director of the Office of Economic and Regional Affairs within the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Therefore, his visit was a special opportunity for me to share with him how state department policies can influence and encourage job prospects and growth in West Africa.

Mr. Barlerin and delegation in our traditional soap session.
Elizabeth Newton whipping shea butter with Melanie.
Second, for the past several years, we have been researching and developing a way to bring biogas to Togo. Biogas technology produces combustible gas from organic waste products, and is an underused source of clean and renewable energy in West Africa. Installing a biogas digester was a priority of Alaffia’s in order to meet our objective of reaching 100% energy sustainability in our shea butter production.

With the greatest joy in my heart, I am happy to inform you we began constructing two biogas digesters, which will turn all the byproduct from making our shea butter into biogas, providing heat and energy for all our needs in traditional shea butter, coconut oil, and black soap crafting. A team of Ugandan and Togo engineers and masons are joining forces and hands to realize this project, and for me personally, it is encouraging to witness Africans putting their hands and resources together to create an everlasting, sustainable solution to an African problem.

Mr. Abel Adje with our Ugandan Biogas Engineers analyzing the construction plan.
The first step of the digester: digging ten feet into the clay and rock.
The digester begins to take shape; final structure will be a dome.
As with all things Alaffia, our biogas project in reality is not just about providing sustainable energy for Alaffia, instead it is about using Alaffia as a platform to bring biogas as an energy solution to Togo. Alaffia’s goal is to construct biogas digesters in schools throughout Togo and West Africa to turn human waste into energy for lighting and pumping clean water for students. Today, 98% of schools do not have lighting or potable water, furthering the difficulty of our youth to learn and succeed. The ultimate result will be a well-informed and educated generation in our African communities enabling us to control our own destiny, freedom and potential.

Next week, I will be in Togo again to help with the final construction of our biogas digesters, and when I return to the USA in January, I will update you on the progress. I wish there was a way to express how grateful we are for your support of Alaffia, as it is your support that enables us to continue to serve our communities. During our welcome ceremony for the Whole Planet visitors last month, a longtime friend and Alaffia’s Director of Internal Control and Transparency, Mr. Abel Adje, said in the final words of his speech “It is not what you have already done for Alaffia, nor what Alaffia has done; it is what we have not yet done.” On this note, I look forward to the years ahead to do what we have not yet done and together bring about dignity to every part of our communities. Be it that you are a custodian who leaves your family behind every night to clean the store so it’s presentable to customers in the morning, a store owner or executive, sales representative, buyer, shelf-stocker or receiver and so on, my hope is we will continue together to do what we have not yet done to bring peace, freedom and economic equality to all humankind.

On behalf of all of us at Alaffia and those you have touched, I wish you a joyous and peaceful holiday season.

Humbly yours,

Olowo-n’djo Tchala
Alaffia Founder & CEO

Friday, July 24, 2015

July 2015 Togo Trip Recap

Dear Friends of Alaffia,

I am happy to inform you we have returned from a four week trip to Togo. While I realize the importance of our presence in the United States, I must admit I miss my family and all of Alaffia’s people in Togo deeply, and it was heartbreaking to say goodbye.  Like all my trips to Togo, this one also strengthened the conviction we had 12 years ago to empower our Togolese communities.

However, unlike previous trips, this time we were able to participate in all parts of the Alaffia chain, from shea nut collecting to visits with community support recipients.  The needs of our time in Togo were so great, we were not able to go to Ghana or Benin as originally planned. Below are the highlights of our trip.

First, though, I would like to pass along the “thank you” that our Alaffia cooperative members have asked me to express to all of you in the United States that support Alaffia. They wish all of you and your families good health (Alaffia!).

Alaffia Village

Our first objective was to spend time with our main cooperative in Sokodé known as “Village Alaffia.” It brought me great joy to spend time with our diverse members, from such different ethnic backgrounds and religions.  While the Village is a workplace, it is full of positive spirit and energy. For many of our women, it is their second home, and they are keeping it beautiful and happy with flowers and smiles.

Shea nuts drying at Alaffia Village, Sokodé, July 2015
Alaffia Village Shea Butter Cooperative members say goodbye to Alaffia founders, Sokodé, July 2015

Alaffia Collectives

A great deal of our time was spent visiting and meeting with Alaffia’s women’s collectives that supply our various ingredients, including shea nuts, moringa, grass (baskets), and baobab. The collectives are comprised of women organized on a village level to sell agricultural good, such as shea nuts, together. Alaffia has contracts with the collectives and each collective member to establish pricing and quantities as part of our commitment to 100% transparency and traceability. To truly realize the impact Alaffia is forging in our communities, we have to be in direct contact with our collectives. Not only are they the first link of the Alaffia chain, but they are often the poorest and in the most remote villages.  The visits with our collectives are important in other ways; they enable us to personally ensure Alaffia is treating the women in the collectives in the fairest manner possible. We share with collective members Alaffia’s activities in the United States, where their products end up on the shelves, and the many challenges we face in the United States. Today we are fortunate to work with over 4,000 women in our shea nut, grass, baobab and neem collectives.

Alaffia Blitta Central Grass Collective with Alaffia Collective Trainer and Supervisor, Egbaré Kéméalo (in Alaffia shirt), July 2015

Alaffia Women’s Health Training Center, Bassar, North Central Togo

Moreover, we participated in the inauguration of Alaffia’s new Women’s Health Training Center in Bassar. We completed the construction of the center earlier this year, but it officially opened just now. While it is not a medical center, it is extremely important to have a central training center in Bassar. For the past four years, Alaffia has had an office in Bassar to provide maternal health support to women survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, last year, we realized that to best benefit the communities and to meet our objective of eradicating FGM in this part of Togo, the most effective approach is to prevent FGM from occurring in the first place, and this can only be done through training and education. The training center was necessary to give us a place to inform the Alaffia community health agents so they can distribute the vital information to their communities.  I am deeply grateful to all of you, as it is the sales of Alaffia that paid for the construction of this community center.  

Alaffia’s Women Health Training Center with Community Health Agents and Alaffia Community leaders, Bassar, July 2015

On the same day the center was inaugurated, we also participated in the distribution of 60 bicycles to Alaffia’s community health agents. Because most communities in Togo do not have highly trained health officials or hospitals, the government provides “Agents de Santé”, individuals trained in first aid, but with little or no formal educations. These individuals are volunteers, and act as emergency first aid providers for villages without a clinic.  In exchange for alerting Alaffia of FGM activities in their village and participating in FGM eradication trainings, Alaffia provided each health agent with a bicycle.  The bikes will also serve as emergency transportation for very ill people to the nearest health clinic. While you may think a bike offers so little, in these communities in Bassar, the transportation they provide can make the difference between life and death. Alaffia also provides each health agent with cell phone minutes so they can alert Alaffia if one of our maternal health recipients has a health emergency.  The Bassar Health Training Center and maternal Health Program are run by Alaffia’s maternal health coordinator, Abide Awesso and her assistant, Hèzouwè Takougnadi.

Alaffia School and Good Soap Kindergarten Construction Updates

We also took two days of our busy schedule to visit the Good Soap funded kindergarten we built this year in Kaboli and to choose the site for the 2016 Good Soap Kindergarten. Last year, with the launch of the Good Soap program, we pledged to build a kindergarten each year with proceeds from the sales. We are happy to report that the Kaboli Good Soap Kindergarten is being used and enjoyed by 60 young boys and girls, and we have now begun breaking ground for a new kindergarten in Adjengré. We chose Adjengré because of the great need for a building. Currently, the 200 kindergarten students share space with older grades in a makeshift building. In May 2016, the Alaffia Good Soap kindergarten will be completed and these young children will finally have their own space to grow and learn. In additional to choosing a kindergarten site, we also chose Essovalé as the site for the 2016 Alaffia middle school construction.

Kaboli Kindergarten students and teachers, Kaboli, June 2015

Adjengré Kindergarten students, Alaffia Community Support Director, Ibada Tchala, and teachers stand in front of temporary school, Adjengré, July 2015

Alaffia Artisan Center

Finally, the greatest part of our time was taken by the conversion of our previous cooperative location in Sokodé to the Alaffia Artisan Center. While we call it the Artisan Center, in reality it is a rehabilitation center for prostitutes, who while they have sewing skills, have found themselves in prostitution because of the lack of jobs and life circumstances beyond their control. The Center provides rehabilitation in the sense that we hope the stable income and well-respected environment will mean that these women will never again have to sell their bodies and souls to provide for themselves and their families.  We started with a small team of 12 young ladies, three who make the batik prints and nine who sew the Queen Alaffia bags and scarves. For me personally, establishing this center for all that Alaffia strives for touches me deep in my heart. These ladies who I had never met before, along with the Alaffia Community Project Team and cooperative members worked long hours to set up the sewing machines, establish dye colors and patterns, and set quality control standards. Within two weeks, we began producing bags. 

While each of these women has gone through the impossible, the brief accounts following the images are a window into the lives of two of the Alaffia artisans. I promised these women that upon my return to the US I would continue to do all that my living body could do to sell their beautiful bags and not to let them down.  I also told them they would always be a part of Alaffia and even if Queen Alaffia does not take off, there is a place for them at the Alaffia Shea Butter Cooperative.  However, we will forge onward with Queen Alaffia and grow it so it can serve its humanistic objectives of rehabilitating these women in our communities. The Artisan Center is a new chapter for Alaffia, but one that I believe will restore basic human rights and bring equality to our women.

Alaffia artisans Chérifa (in front) and Kafui (at machine), June 2015

Alaffia batik patterns are all original and unique, June 2015

Alaffia Artisan Chérifa: Chérifa reached freshman level of high school, at which point she left school to join a seamstress apprentice program in Notse, a town in south Togo. Her father paid approximately $50 for the program, and she passed her seamstress evaluation with above average marks in 2010.  She is the oldest of her mother’s six children. Her mother is still alive but is very old, and her father has passed away.  Chérifa resorted to prostitution when her family situation became difficult. Her father passed away, she was unable to find work as a seamstress, and her husband got another woman pregnant and asked her to leave his home.  Chérifa has been a prostitute for a year and a half. She has tried to stop several times, but her situation has always forced her to return. Now that she has joined Alaffia, she has made her final decision and is very relieved she will no longer have to work as a prostitute.

Alaffia Artisan Kafui: Kafui dropped out of school after 7th grade, and joined a seamstress apprentice program eight years later.  Both her parents are now dead, and of her eight siblings, she is one of only two who are still alive.  She was able to open a shop after finishing her apprentice program, but was the victim of several break-ins and thefts.  Her remaining brother refused to help her, and this was when she resorted to prostitution to support herself. She has been a prostitute for three years, but it is involuntary, she does it only to support herself and her two children. Kafui has had a difficult life. Most of her family is no longer alive, she got pregnant with her first child after being raped when she was just a teenager. However, she works hard to better her life, she is not only a seamstress, but has also trained herself to make jewelry and crochet. Joining Alaffia has given her a way out of prostitution, and she will never go back.

Queen Alaffia artisans express their gratitude and joy in joining the Alaffia family, July 2015

With all my heart, I thank you for the role each and every one of you play in enabling Alaffia to make true and everlasting positive impacts in my communities. This recap makes it clear that the positive effects we see in our communities would not be possible without your participation in retailing Alaffia’s products. You bring about a true everlasting empowerment, which is not possible through handouts. I wish you all a peaceful summer.

Gratefully Yours,


Monday, July 20, 2015

Rose's Update-July/August 2015

Dear Friends of Alaffia,

Alaffia Co-Founder, Rose Hyde
Schools are just getting out here in Togo. The season was long this year due to teacher strikes and other interruptions. Every time I come to West Africa, since I first came as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1995, I am struck by the conflicts surrounding western education. Western education methods condense cultures rich in oral history and traditions onto chalkboards and notebooks.  They confine children bursting with energy and hope in hot brick rooms day after day.  However, being a product of state sponsored education I realize the great benefit that education can bring to individuals and communities.  I also know the necessity of learning the global languages in navigating and succeeding in this shrinking world.

Everywhere I visit in Togo, I see communities that have very little, but still put resources together to build schools in hopes their children will have a better chance.  It is this hope and determination that encourage us to continue our education projects.  The motivation we provide with simple pens and pencils, bicycles and school buildings will someday help form the leaders needed to truly bring Togo out of poverty. Without the access to education, there will be no end to poverty and no possibility of communities coming together despite their differences.

Our daughter, Yemi, wrote the following summary of a conversation we recently had with a girl from Benin.  I am sharing it with you because I think it brings a child’s perspective to the importance of education to young people, especially girls, in West Africa.

“Hi. I am Yemi Tchala, and I am 11 years old.  My parents own one of the best fair trade businesses, and as one of the daughters of these people, I think it is my responsibility to tell the world what my parents do.
I have personally experienced the power of Alaffia. This year, I was at a drink bar with my parents, my sister Abi, and our new friend Rafira. Rafira is from Benin. She is in Togo to be a nanny for a 4 month old baby during her school vacation.  Rafira cares for the baby while her mom is at work.  Rafira’s language is very similar to my Dad’s language, Kaboli.  Since my sister and I are still learning Kaboli, my Dad translated for us so we could ask her questions about her life.
Rafira said her father has three wives and 11 children; 8 with her mom, 3 with the second wife, and one who died as a baby with the third wife. She is the third youngest for her mom, before her twin brothers. The oldest five children have already left home. The three girls live with their husbands. The boys left for the big city (Cotonou) and Nigeria to look for work as house servants. 
I asked Rafira if she went to school. She said, “Yes, that is why I came here; to work for pens and pencils and books for school.” She also wants to take a little money home so she can buy books for her twin brothers.  She is 15, but will be in the same grade as me, the sixth grade.  She is a farm kid, and started school late. She also repeated second grade. Rafira says she walks to school most days, and unless she gets a ride with a stranger, she gets to school by 9 am.  Her new school will be closer, but it is still far. Abi and I are going to give her a bike before she goes home. 
I know Rafira misses her family because she said, “If you made me the richest girl in Togo, I would still go back to Benin to work as a farmer with my family because if I didn’t see them that would hurt me.” I thought this was beautiful and should be written down. She started really missing her family after saying that, so we stopped asking questions and bought her a soda to cheer her up. After Rafira was happy again, we told her we would write letters to her from the USA and we would go to visit her next time we were in Togo.”

This brief note from Yemi illustrates the difficulty of life for students in West Africa. It also shows the great help that our simple pencils, bikes and buildings bring to communities and families.  As always, we thank you for your participation and support in continuing all our Alaffia efforts.


Rose Hyde