When it comes to expanding her fashion business, Samoan
businesswoman Jackie Loheni is making the most of every opportunity
and leading the way in improving conditions for women workers.
When Jackie Loheni first started her fashion company MENA in
Samoa, business was a struggle. Beginning as a sole trader, she
recalls early days spent "sewing on my auntie's veranda in Apia".
But, realizing the requirements for expanding business, she
registered MENA as a company with her mother (after whom the
business is named) and three sisters in 2000.
"We really struggled," she says of the first couple of years.
She took no salary and even invested income from other tailoring
work into the business.
In the nine years since, by focusing on good practice and
competitive products, Ms Loheni has turned MENA into a successful
international business with an annual turnover of around 500,000
tala (approximately $185,000). She employs 13 staff members across
the company's two offices - Apia and Auckland (New Zealand) - and
is paying off a business loan and a mortgage in Samoa.
Ms Loheni now imports dyes and materials from New Zealand and
exports the final product to New Zealand, the Cook Islands and
Hawaii. She is beginning to source additional distributors and
stockists in Fiji and Australia.
Her three sisters help with running the business from Auckland:
one deals with administration and sales, another works on
information technology, the website and paint for the business,
while the third sister concentrates on sales. Ms Loheni focuses on
design, production and sales. Her mother helps with production and
travels to Auckland to sample patterns.
MENA has its flagship store in Apia, which until 2008 also
helped to fund the costs of the Auckland store. By having a
presence in Auckland, MENA Designs is able to source fabrics from
New Zealand to send to Samoa.
Born to Samoan parents and therefore a citizen of the country,
Ms Loheni had no trouble acquiring land. However, having spent most
of her life in New Zealand, she did have trouble establishing
credit from banks. It took six months to gain the 190,000 tala
(approximately $70,000) loan she needed to set herself up with
business finance and a mortgage in Samoa. In addition, the interest
rates in Samoa are very high making repayments difficult while
trying to generate turnover.
MENA's designs are distinct and include the elei designs that
are so significant in Samoa. But ownership of particular elei
prints or designs is keenly debated. Intellectual property in
handicrafts and patterns is indeed a difficult issue for businesses
across the Pacific. Without a clear set of standards to follow and
with cheap foreign imports that imitate designs and limited public
awareness of intellectual property, businesses flounder.
Businesswomen like Jackie Loheni are too often left guessing how to
In the early years, MENA did not have any written contracts with
its clients or suppliers. They "got burnt a couple of times", says
Ms Loheni. Although there have been no major disputes, the company
is trying to be prepared. Amid such rapid expansion, the key
challenge is in making the company robust.
Recently, MENA has benefited from using model contracts found
online. For example, they have drafted a contract with an agent in
Hawaii who will stock and distribute all MENA designs there.
Ms Loheni used to gain her own customs clearance and receipts
from different Samoan departments, but now finds it easier to use a
shipping agent. She is charged 20 per cent duty on the paints she
imports as raw materials for her factory and 8 per cent duty on
In the absence of labour law in Samoa, Ms Loheni has had to set
her own staffing standards. MENA pays staff above the minimum wage,
provides morning and afternoon tea and lunches, and ensures all
staff finish by 4pm. MENA also gives statutory holidays and paid
leave for full-time staff. The company tries to be generous with
staff, offering additional time off for cultural activities and
But in the women-dominated textile industry, it's Ms Loheni's
understanding of the concerns of working women that is most
appreciated. Like many other developing countries, women in Samoa
can find themselves with no support for issues such as maternity
leave and balancing family responsibilities with working life. She
offers her female staff maternity leave and paid holidays, as well
as an additional week of paid leave. The company also pays their
medical bills. Ms Loheni reports that two of her employees'
husbands look after their children and are supportive, although
ingrained genderstereotypes can cause sensitivities when women earn
more than their husbands.
Highlights from the business have been presentations at the New
Zealand and Fiji Fashion Weeks and attending a fashion show in New
Zealand through a scholarship of 30,000 New Zealand dollars
(approximately $20,000) from Star Pacifica in September 2007.
Ms Loheni would love to market the business more, she says,
although the costs can be prohibitive. She has placed
advertisements in the Polynesian Blue airline magazine which
converted directly to sales and she has been trying to obtain
funding for advertising.
She is also aware that she could reduce costs significantly by
sourcing a good supplier of fabrics from Asia.
Staff training, she says, currently needs to be done on the job.
She has asked the Samoan Polytechnic to set up training programmes
and start a sewing school, but this has not yet happened.
Her next priorities include expanding her factory operations
with extra machinery, staff and trained workers. She also wants to
find more markets for export, by building contacts and networks
via, for example, Samoan trade commissioners in countries such as
Australia and China. She also wants to attend an upcoming Expo in
Japan and may seek funding assistance from the Pacific Islands
Private Sector Organization.