Ka Waiwai was created as “a contemporary Hawaiian space where community, culture and commerce intersect.” - Photo: Kawena Carvalho-Mattos

Mō‘ili‘ili‘s new corner of kinship draws on ancient values

There’s an unconventional spot in the heart of Mōʻiliʻili, a functional space tucked away inside the iconic Varsity building amid the hustle and bustle of University Avenue. From the outside, Ka Waiwai looks like a cozy round room with inviting touches: pillows on the floor, furniture made of unstained wood, a sun-like structure on the ceiling with string lights lining its beams. Spend a little time inside and interact with the space and you start to feel the magic that the creators imbued with even the smallest of details. Before long, you’re in on the secret: Ka Waiwai is a place of togetherness and innovation, where ideas are born, knowledge is shared and traditional Hawaiian values are tapped to spark positive action in the present.

1110 University Avenue

Designed to serve as “a contemporary Hawaiian space where community, culture and commerce intersect,” Ka Waiwai is the first project for Waiwai Collective, a group of Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs who share a passion for uplifting the lāhui, brought together by the Kamehameha Schools Strategy and Innovations team. Co-founders Keoni Lee (co-founder of ʻŌiwi TV), Jamie Makasobe (co-owner of Kealopiko) and Mahinapoepoe Paishon-Duarte (head of the secondary program at Hawaiian charter school Kanu o ka ʻāina) through their vast experiences had each witnessed the extraordinary power of physical community that resulted when people came together with purpose and aloha. With a distinct vision, the trio set out to shape Ka Waiwai as an Intentional community that would infuse this transformative energy into an urban context.

Starting with a name that means “wealth, prosperity or abundance,” the team envisioned the space as a creative mash-up of Chinatown’s ethnic enclave with its micro-economy and exchange systems that circulate resources, the Merrie Monarch craft fair with its Hawaiian entrepreneurship focus and the Māori marae (meeting ground) with its community feel and cultural protocol. “What I have seen in successful and healthy communities is a third space where folks gather and build strong relationships,” says Lee. “We wanted to create that third space for urban Honolulu – a place to be physically, spiritually and intellectually present together.” Ka Waiwai would reflect the character of Ka Mōʻiliʻili – an area rich with springs, fishponds and underground water – where guests could come to feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

At the core of Ka Waiwai is the belief that traditional Hawaiian ways of thinking and doing to create abundance and value can be repurposed for modern times, and that economic empowerment for Native Hawaiians is the key to unlocking potential as a lāhui. “Our theory of change starts with cultivating a community of people who value the collective well-being over the individual and who affirm a kuleana to each other and to Hawaiʻi’s future,” says Lee. “Our Intention is not to go back in time, but rather to learn from and build upon our ancestral foundation of innovation and ingenuity to create new systems of wealth and abundance in Hawaiʻi.”

Opened last October, the 5,000-square-foot hub offers guests the flexibility to dream and create with the aid of an open floor plan, full technical capabilities, a food service area and ample parking. Co-working is available Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for freelancers, entrepreneurs or anyone looking for inspiration, networking and free Wi-Fi. Ka Waiwai has already played host to a handful of local groups, including OluKai, the Office of Hawaiian Education, Punahou Schools, Hawaiʻi Investment Ready and Kānehunamoku Voyaging Academy, plus events like the Osorio ʻOhana concert, Kealopiko Makahiki Market and movie nights. The ʻAwa + ʻAi event happens every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with fresh ʻawa, an artisanal pūpū menu made from local ingredients and live music. Memberships offer additional amenities and event invitations, plus opportunities to co-create the future of Ka Waiwai through participation in governance and decision-making. Currently the team is working on kicking off their Hālau Ea series, where experts and practitioners speak on various topics, as well as Community Supported Agriculture initiatives like their curated farmer’s market.

Though Ka Waiwai has a limited lifespan of two years (the Varsity building is slated for demolition), the concept could continue in a new home if the co-founders can demonstrate high demand and impact. In the meantime, they are working to ensure their brainchild is fulfilling its mission of cultivating a community that takes the necessary creative risks to put collective values into daily practice, affirm shared responsibilities and learn together to create a more waiwai future. “We get to create abundance by establishing a space that assembles and aggregates our best aspirations, talents, experience and resources to advance the mana and well-being of our communities and lāhui,” says Paishon-Duarte. “Ka Waiwai is my urban fishpond. It’s a place that feeds, nourishes and builds community.”