From Olympia to Africa: Bikes for Togo rolls again

Project gives wheel power to girls who travel many miles to school each day

Staff writerNovember 20, 2013 

An annual mission that began seven years ago to send donated bicycles to the West African country of Togo continued Wednesday when about 400 bikes were loaded into a shipping container in Lacey.

More bikes will be loaded up after Christmas, and then, in total, about 1,000 bikes, a donated pickup, school supplies, clothes and other items will be shipped in two containers through the Port of Tacoma to Togo, a journey that takes about seven weeks, said Olowo-n’djo Tchala, the founder and managing director of an Olympia business called Alaffia.

When Tchala launched Alaffia in 2003, a business that manufactures bath and body products using key ingredients from Togo, he set out to accomplish two goals: to empower women in Togo, using the earnings generated by Alaffia, and to create jobs in this country, employing Americans and buying from American vendors.

So far Alaffia is right on course. Alaffia buys its shea nuts and other ingredients from farmer co-ops in Togo and Ghana that employ women.

The business, which is near Olympia Regional Airport, sells its products to some of the biggest retailers in the country, including Whole Foods, generating enough sales to employ more than 60, he said.

With those earnings, the company travels throughout the Northwest to collect donated bikes and then pays to have them shipped and distributed to young women who need them, Tchala said. The goal is to help reduce what Tchala said is a 90 percent dropout rate among young women in Togo schools.

Some young women in Togo have to walk seven miles to and from school, which means they arrive late and tired, yet still have chores to do and then homework — if they’re not already too tired, he said.

“The next thing you know, you’re dropping out of school,” said Tchala, who also dropped out of school but later got the opportunity to go to college in California before forming Alaffia.

With transportation, such as a bicycle, Tchala has found that they can dramatically reverse that dropout rate to a 92 percent retention rate.

Alaffia collects the bikes throughout the year – this year they got bikes from the Portland area as well as Corvallis, Ore. – and then store them in a warehouse in Hawks Prairie.

On Wednesday, about a half-dozen Alaffia employees, plus Tchala and his wife and company co-founder, Rose Hyde, loaded bikes into the shipping container.

Tchala said Alaffia continues to grow at 40 percent a year, and that growth is helping to fill a 75,000-square-foot warehouse the business operates in Olympia. The business is set to expand again with 2,000 square feet of office space, he said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403

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