Made on Molokai

Suffering from the highest unemployment rate in the state for years, some Molokai residents are capitalizing on their own strengths and talents to create business opportunities making one-of-a-kind batik silk scarves, Molokai sea shell jewelry and locally designed trucker hats.

“This has been my full-time job,” said Fina Ka’auwai, owner of Rosebuds, a jewelry business that focuses on Molokai sea shells. “I love it. I love working with my hands and being out there in nature.”

Ka’auwai is one of more than a dozen Molokai vendors readying to sell their wares during the second Made in Maui County Festival today and Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. (See box.)

Ka’auwai sells her resin jewelry, including earrings and bangles at special events.

“Molokai is all about small business,” she said. And without it, no one would make money, she added.

Leimana Ritte-Camara, co-owner of Kupu A’e Molokai, which specializes in wearable art, agreed that Molokai has limited employment opportunities.

“Hardly get jobs,” she said. “That’s why everyone stays home and is doing arts and crafts. We have a lot of craft vendors on the island.”

Molokai’s September unemployment rate was at 9 percent. Meanwhile, the statewide rate was 3.6 percent. A pivotal point in the island’s job market was when Molokai Ranch shut down in 2008, leaving 120 people unemployed out of a then-population of 7,500. In 2009, the island’s unemployment rate was at 12.7 percent. While the unemployment rate has gone down, residents say that’s because many have moved away and dropped out of the job market.

Ritte-Camara said she doesn’t know what she would do if it weren’t for the family-owned and inspired business that specializes in handmade casual and formal wear and home accents.

Not only does the family business help pay her bills, but its flexibility allows her and her sister, Kalae Tangonan, the time they need to raise their young families. Cousin Mikiala Pescaia, who has another job working for the National Park System, is also a co-owner.

Rosebuds and Kupu A’e Molokai are two Molokai businesses among 14 from the Friendly Isle who will be vendors at the festival. In all, there will be more than 140 vendors from Maui County.

Patterned after the successful Made in Hawaii Festival on Oahu, the Made in Maui County Festival was created to showcase products made in Maui County and to “stimulate our island’s economy by boosting sales and awareness of locally made products,” according to the event’s website.

The festival launched last year and already has served its purpose for Molokai vendors.

Last year’s group of 11 Molokai vendors included Rosebuds, Kupu A’e Molokai and Kanemitsu Bakery, famous for its Molokai sweet bread. They all enjoyed much success last year, and they’ll be back again.

Last year, lines for Kanemitsu’s baked goods were some of the longest at the event, despite sometimes heavy rain showers.

This year’s other Molokai vendors include: Barking Deer Farm, Kainanea, Kealopiko Inc., Keaohulu, Lanakila Designs, LeiAloha by Maile, Na Mea Molokai, Pacifica Hawaii, Rock Salt Plum Creations and SuiKeala Jewelry. Mike Carroll Gallery from Lanai also will be featured at the festival.

“It was awesome. It was an awesome event,” said Ka’auwai, recalling her experience last year.

“I came home with practically nothing,” she said. Customers practically wiped out her inventory of earrings, bangles, headbands, key chains and other accessory items made with resin and Molokai sea shells.

“I went to other events where we spent so much money to go off island. I went to Merrie Monarch. We spent so much money just to get there,” Ka’auwai said. “We had more (sales) in the one-day (at Made in Maui County’s public event) almost like in three hours than we made in the three days over on the Big Island.”

In addition to great sales at last year’s Made in Maui County Festival (selling around 200 earring sets alone), Ka’auwai had many inquiries from Maui folks to do wholesale. But at the time she did not have enough inventory.

This year, Ka’auwai is expecting a baby next week, so she will not be able to attend the festival, but she is sending her husband and family members. She hopes to sell more items and gain more exposure for her products in Maui’s market.

“I think this event caters to the right market, to the right people at the right time,” Ka’auwai said.

She said she’s optimistic that after she gives birth she will be able to ramp up her production and create more of an online presence for her business.

Unlike other sea shell jewelry in which holes are drilled into the shells and they are connected with wires, Ka’auwai keeps the shells intact. The shells are encased with a clear resin to allow the wearer to admire the whole shell, she said.

Kupu A’e also enjoyed brisk sales last year when it sold around 80 silk scarves. Priced at $70 and up, the scarves can be worn as a top, a jacket and in other ways, Ritte-Camara said.

“Everyone is excited to go back” to the festival, she said of all the Molokai vendors.

Ritte-Camara said that Maui is an ideal market for Kupu A’e’s batik silk scarves because the Valley Isle is not as saturated Oahu and the Big Island with similar products.

The family’s batik art on fabric is featured at various resorts and hotels on Oahu, including the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa, the Trump Tower hotel in Waikiki and the Hale Koa Hotel.

The family also has a store on Molokai. Everything but the fabric is made on the island. On Maui, the only store to sell Kupu A’e products is Native Intelligence in Wailuku.

First-time Made in Maui County vendor Olelo Schonely is also hoping to get more exposure for her locally designed trucker hats that she makes under the Hat Therapi label.

“We are kind of small scale (but) at the same time it would be nice to get wholesale purchases,” Schonely said.

For now, her hats include those with pineapple designs, along with the words “Aloha” and “Molokai.” They are sold in her gift shop at her business, Molokai Car Rental, in Kaunakakai. She also has taken sales from off island via the Internet and sells at special events. Her customer base is 70 percent residents and 30 percent tourists.

To prepare for this week’s event, Schonely has made 325 hats.

While she wants to have strong sales at the festival, she is most of all excited to see others who are bringing their own handmade items.

“I’m excited to be able to share (my products) in a big area,” Schonely said.

Everything but the hats are all made on Molokai. In fact, Schonely has a heat press at her office to apply the heat transfer vinyl designs to the hats. The decals come from fellow Molokai business owner Lyndon Dela Cruz of Lanakila Designs, who will also be at the festival. The hats normally sell for $20 each.

Schonely said she tries to make her hats with as many locally made products as possible, saying everyone on Molokai has to support one another.

The Made in Maui County Festival is presented by the county Office of Economic Development and the Maui Chamber of Commerce, along with sponsors, donors and volunteers.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at