A Kākou Effort: The Power of Community Shines in Pop-Up Mākeke

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Pop-Up Mākeke

By CNHA Staff

One of the busiest shops at Ka Makana Aliʻi Shopping Center is invisible to passersby and inaccessible to public shoppers. The site within the outdoor mall is a small warehouse of sorts filled with everything good about Hawaiʻi: good food, good art, good creations and more importantly, good people. These items are now being sold through an online marketplace called Pop-Up Mākeke.

The Pop-Up Mākeke warehouse location is packed with tens of thousands of items, big and small – all of them made with love in Hawaiʻi. Row after row, shelf over shelf, you will find something for every taste, literally and figuratively – from Grandpa Joe’s Cotton Candy made on Maui to beautifully hand-crafted lei hulu and pāpale from the west side of Oʻahu. The clicks of computer keys and the whir of printers blend with the shuffling of feet as a small and mighty team of dedicated staff from the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) hustles through the aisles gathering items to be sent around the world.

Aloha Kekahi i Kekahi

CNHA staff are in charge of taking inventory and packing orders, which was never part of their job descriptions. While it’s not something they planned on doing, it may be the most fulfilling aspect of this unexpected enterprise during these uncertain times. They’re doing what comes naturally to our people – taking care of each other and our community, and lifting up our lāhui. What they are doing in their little warehouse in Kapōlei is helping hundreds of Hawaiʻi-based small businesses and artisans survive.

Photo: Kūhiō Lewis

“As a people, as kānaka, we know the strength of community. Coming together is in our blood,” says CNHA President and CEO Kūhiō Lewis. “We do it with purpose. We do it with love. We do it because it is at the core of who we are as Hawaiians. So, when this pandemic hit, there was no hesitation.”

Realizing the struggle of many Native Hawaiian-owned small businesses and artisans, Lewis and his team stepped up, venturing far beyond their comfort zones to create a lifeline: the Pop-Up Mākeke.

Executive Assistant Kaloku Kahalepo manages the day-to-day operations of the warehouse and can tell you about every product, the hottest sellers, the best prices, and the biggest surprises. Nothing comes into the warehouse without her knowing about it or the vendor who dropped it off.

“Our team is goal-oriented and what keeps us motivated each day is the knowledge that the work we do here helps our vendors provide for their ʻohana,” says Kahalepo. “Starting an online store of this scale was definitely not something we saw happening in 2020, but we saw a need within our community and worked quickly to find a solution.”

Special Project Manager Kawena Lei Apao is now well-versed in the world of e-commerce and responsible for coordinating content for weekly live broadcasts and the promotion of the show and the online marketplace. (Sundays, 8 p.m., on KHNL and live at facebook.com/popupmakeke)

“Our store is the home for hundreds of our vendors and their products, many who have never sold items online before,” says Apao. “There is mana in working together and by existing in one centralized online space, we are leveraging the power of community so that everyone can have an opportunity to sell.”

The COVID-19 pandemic’s crippling grip on Hawaiʻi hit locally based small businesses across the islands especially hard. The shutdown came at what should have been one of the most lucrative times for Hawaiʻi-based vendors – the Merrie Monarch Festival. Those who have attended know that Merrie Monarch Festival Week is a time when many small businesses see a business boom that can sustain them through most of the year.

For Native Hawaiian Artisan Nalu Andrade, the pandemic presented another roadblock to his business, Nā Maka Kahiko. “I have rheumatoid arthritis,” said Andrade. “I am on an immunosuppressant and cannot be around people with this COVID-19 breakout. This online store helps me to still sell to customers while staying safe.”

Uplifting Our Lāhui

Drawing inspiration from Amazon and QVC, the Pop-Up Mākeke is a one-stop-shop to access Hawaiʻi made, designed and inspired products. It launched in April 2020 and featured thousands of artistic, cultural, intellectual, even edible creations from more than 100 vendors. Vendors saw instant success, which offered inspiration and hope to make it through this pandemic.

“They gave us the opportunity to show our work and sell it, and I am thankful for the hard work they did to move it on to the customer,” said Multimedia Artist Tamsen Kealohamakua Fox. “It really helped me a lot because it paid for at least two months of my rent and more.”

The initial two-month run of the online marketplace resulted in nearly $325,000 in sales and moved over 11,000 Hawaiʻi-made products that were shipped across Hawaiʻi, to the Continent, and even beyond to Japan, Canada, and as far away as Germany.

A vision born out of need became a labor of love for all involved. As the mākeke and its purpose grew, so did the army of Native Hawaiians doing their part to make it a success.

One section of the warehouse is a dedicated television production set where Pop-Up Mākeke shows are produced live.

ʻŌiwi TV provides the crew and equipment for each live broadcast and for promotional videos. Designer Manaola Yap, best known for his stunning fashions and accessories, is the creative mastermind behind the program’s impressive set design. Each print, each product, each pillow, plant and chair is placed with purpose and aloha. Hosts Billy V and McKenna Maduli bring the products to life each week, and radio personalities Mele Apana and Shannon Scott showcase vendors and their growing customer base.

“The Pop-Up Mākeke is such a critical piece of the puzzle for our community during this time of COVID,” says Naʻalehu Anthony, principal for Palikū Films and co-founder of ʻŌiwi TV. “It’s a great way to support local business and remain socially distanced. CNHA has been instrumental in the success of this endeavor, bringing together businesses, government, production partners and more to offer these Hawaiʻi products to our community and help sustain our small businesses in the process.”

“When times get tough, we use what we know and find a better way. We turn, we pivot, we help, we think together,” said Pop-Up Mākeke host Billy V. “That’s the opportunity that the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement has given all of us, and it’s touching buyers and customers across the planet. We need to work together more and in other ways. In politics, government, education, research, and development of ourselves and what we want to accomplish.”

As the shutdown stretched into summer and then fall, Lewis and his team began working on launching a second run of Pop-Up Mākeke. This time, they teamed up with the City and County of Honolulu and County of Maui – using CARES Act funds from each county to provide access to the marketplace at no cost to vendors. Every dollar paid for products goes back to the vendors. All products are shipped to customers free of charge.

“During this time of uncertainty, Pop-Up Mākeke and the support of customers helped us to keep our small business afloat,” stressed entrepreneur Sheryl Kahue of uCook Hawaiʻi, whose cooking sauces and marinades are featured in the marketplace.

When the call for vendors went out in September, the response was astounding. Repeat participants credit Pop-Up Mākeke with giving them the courage to branch out, to get innovative, and to chart a new path to success.

“There are always challenges in life,” says Uncle John Kaohelauliʻi of Hawaiiancheckers.com who shares the art of the game of Kōnane. “In Kōnane, you have to find solutions to be successful. You have to identify your resources and manage those resources to be in the best position to be successful. I am so grateful to CNHA for giving my company one more chance.”

“I am so appreciative of all of this…to help my family during hard times,” agrees North Shore designer Kawehinaniokuʻuhomekaʻiʻinimainalani Aiko Kaohiai Casey.

Since its anticipated relaunch on October 1, Pop-Up Mākeke is already riding a steady wave of growth. In the first 10 days, it sold more than 9,200 items. The customer base is expanding as well, with nearly a quarter of the business coming from outside Hawaiʻi.

The beauty of the online marketplace is its ability to offer something for everyone. Some of the best-selling items may come from shops few people have heard about until now.

“Most exciting is how the Mākeke is bringing resources into our state’s economy from outside of Hawaiʻi and giving our small businesses a lifeline during the pandemic. It’s a win all the way around,” emphasized Lewis.

Lewis said the plan is to run Pop-Up Mākeke through December. From now until then, customers can tune in every Sunday on KHNL or on Facebook Live to check out featured items on the live show. The goal is to highlight vendors who do not have name recognition and to allow customers a window into the tremendous offerings of locally made products within our community.

Lewis said, “The mākeke connects us, unites us, empowers us to get involved, to provide, to lift up our community in big and small ways – buying a package of li hing mango from a local business, helping to pack up products to bring to the mākeke, or organizing orders to ship out. There’s a role for everyone.”

And, the impact is great as noted by Pop-Up Mākeke host Billy V. “It represents the best of us, coming together, using the technology of today to continue things that are important to Hawaiʻi’s people, past and present.”