Entrepreneurs on Molokaʻi are not only challenged by high shipping, production and rent costs, but also with having a limited customer base on an island with a population of just under 7,500.
Despite this, motivated Molokaʻi entrepreneurs are overcoming these hurdles with creative thinking, family and community support, and the internet. Indeed, Molokaʻi-style entrepreneurship is flourishing.
Molokaʻi’s micro-economy consists primarily of agricultural-based, family-owned businesses. Before the pandemic shut down such events, Molokaʻi consumers, growers, and local product producers met weekly at sidewalk markets. Fortunately, nonprofit Sustʻainable Molokaʻi stepped in and created an internet-based mobile market to match growers and producers to consumers.
Today, locally available products are listed weekly on the mobile market website. Consumers can choose products from the list and customer groceries are delivered weekly to three island locations – providing a cost-effective and convenient way for entrepreneurs to reach local consumers.
A great example of this is Nani and Mike Kahinu who successfully launched their small business, Naʻike Kine, which features food products – such as their fruit-based cookies – using the mobile market.
The Kahinu family sells prepared healthy entrees, hosts pop-up events, and installed three food-based vending machines at key locations – such as UH Maui’s Molokaʻi Education Center – to promote their products.
When their friends suggested that they consider selling their family recipe for shoyu chili pepper hot sauce, the Kahinus had the sauce retail certified. To reach consumers, they used the mobile market, their homestead store, and online platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Strong sales soon proved they had a popular product. To control costs, the Kahinus grow their own peppers or buy from local farmers and purchase bulk ingredients through local stores to avoid shipping costs. They currently produce and bottle the sauce by hand, but are exploring mechanized production on Oʻahu to more cost-effectively produce and distribute the hot sauce to other islands and avoid shipping from Molokaʻi.
“We keep our eyes open to new customer ideas, work with local stores to keep our products affordable, and in turn, the stores and farmers support us and encourage us to expand our presence,” said Nani Kahinu.
Kanoelani Davis, owner of PoMahina Designs, propelled her business to success with savvy internet skills and long hours.
In 2011, Davis was running a part-time home-based business from her truck. She hand-printed her original designs and sewed fabric into wearable art. When she was laid off from her well-paying job Davis decided to focus on PoMahina Designs. “I was a single parent of four children, and it was nearly impossible to find work. I opted to go full-time with PoMahina Designs with the help of my daughters, hula students, and friends. And I relied on my Molokaʻi mentality by living and working within my means,” said Davis.
Her strategy was to create a prominent social media brand plus e-commerce. With revenue from her initial sales, she purchased printing machines and employed local seamstresses. As she grew more successful, she expanded her products and switched to off-island production. Her strategy worked. In 2019, Davis was invited to close London Fashion week. Her designs have also been featured in other international shows. In the future, Davis plans to bring her clothing production back to Molokaʻi.
The first food truck on Kaunakakai’s main street was launched in 2018 by members of the Kaholoaʻa family. Called “A Taste of Molokaʻi” the food truck soon gained popularity and high customer demand led to the opening of a second food truck.
This fishing family features local foods, as well as vegan and fish dishes, at their food trucks.
“The community embraced the novelty of the food truck. However, the permitting process was a challenge even though we owned the lot. But we were persistent,” said family member Isay Honokaupu. Today the ʻohana serves customers from both trucks six days a week, about eight hours a day. “We listen to our customers to ensure that we offer what they want and incorporate their creative ideas,” Honokaupu added.
In February 2022, John and Nakita Coelho-Villarimo transformed their online store, HI-Bling, into a brick-and-mortar store based on customers’ suggestions.
Their online store featured handmade jewelry and Hawaiian wear, but friends encouraged the family to expand into selling affordable Hawaiian gold jewelry, home goods, affordable adult and children’s wear, and organizational items such as dressers, bedding and storage containers.
“Customers dictate the products we carry, and they inspire us to focus on the products they need,” said John Villarimo.
Meanwhile, for sisters Amber Kaholoaʻa and ʻAla Haliniak-Kali, a problem turned into a business opportunity.
The sisters had ordered a photo transfer baby shower gift from off-island but were disappointed that the product wouldn’t arrive for a week. The sisters knew photo transfer merchandise was popular, but not timely. A discussion with their business-savvy mother and grandmother convinced the sisters to buy the equipment and start their business: Colorfx LLC, opened a storefront in December 2021.
The sisters promise speedy product production and have already expanded to provide customized apparel and merchandise such as keychains, decals and labels. “Customers drove the need for affordable products produced in a short time frame. And quick service means customers return for more products,” said Haliniak-Kali.
All across the island, innovative, hard-working entrepreneurs are creating self-employment opportunities and finding success in Molokaʻi’s micro-economy and beyond. Molokaʻi nō ka heke!