The scent of coconut oil, papaya and mango wafts through the small yellow house of Kitiona and Sylvie Salanoa, where the couple make their Mailelani products by hand to export around the world.
Nestled amongst the trees along Cross Island Road, the couple began making their products in 2000 in the kitchen of their home.
The couple are dedicated to making sure their product is as sustainable and ethically sourced as possible and the focus is one producing goods that are 100% Samoan.
“We mainly work with the coconut oil from the villages, mainly in Savai’i,” Mrs. Salanoa said. “The whole idea of this business is to make things by hand so more people can have jobs and also as natural as possible, with what we have in Samoa, the ingredients we have.”
And they strive to make sure that their company works to increase employment in the rural areas.
“Any raw material that we can find, it’s practically all from the agriculture side. We know that jobs in Apia are saturated; there aren’t many jobs, so we asked ourselves, what can we do to create jobs in the rural area? That would be agriculture, so by using coconut oils or fruits, or other oils or noni juice, things like that, you then create a demand that is coming straight from the villages,” Mrs Salanoa said.
But the journey hasn’t been easy for the Salanoas.
“This business, we started a long time ago and it’s been a long journey,” Mrs. Salanoa said.
“Many times we wondered if we would ever have a break through. Because it’s not easy, you work with what you have and everything is expensive and it’s a product that you can’t have everything here; you have to bring stuff in, so there’s other costs. It’s a small market also and the borders are really wide.”
But with a recent increase in the export market of their handmade skincare products, Mailelani’s founders are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We can see now that it’s important to be grounded. You work this way first and when you really know your products, the way you’re supposed to work and your business then you can start going up,” Mrs. Salanoa commented.
HARD WORK: Kitiona Salanoa pouring soap into moulds to be set.
“So I guess now we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We look back and we can see that it was hard but it’s worth it. You ask me anything about our product, I know the answer but if we go too fast maybe we don’t know.”
And with the export demand for their products growing, Mr. and Mrs. Salanoa look set to reach their original goal.
“Exporting has always been the goal. My husband’s from here but that was always the goal, not to make money here, make it out there and bring it back,” she said.
Serious exporting started about two years ago in Australia and New Zealand, and since then the company has only grown more popular. They boast 14 distributors across New Zealand, primarily in Auckland, with some smaller outlets in Australia and the United States as well.
But the Salanoas don’t intend to stop there.
“We’re looking at a major couple of distributors so we can get this going. Because if we have that type of market then that’s when we can really start organising real employment,” Mrs. Salanoa told the Samoa Observer.
And their goals don’t look too far away. Recently the company was invited to be a part of the Pacific Island Centre export trade show, taking place right now in Japan.
Of 14 countries across the Pacific, 3 companies were chosen to represent their nations at the event, which constitutes the 2nd largest cosmetic export market in the world.
With this export trade show, the company looks set to grow even further and begin to break into the Asian market.
And with that growth there comes the need to expand their workspace to allow them to create more products and work more efficiently, which the Salanoas have already gotten to work on.
“One big, big event is that we have expanded the business,” Mrs. Salanoa said.
“People here in Samoa know that we started in the kitchen and then we closed the garage and that was it. We were working from a very small space I can assure you. That’s how we worked for 10 years.”
“Because it is growing, we got to a point where we just couldn’t continue that way, we just needed more space. So last year September, we had the opportunity to make an improvement. This is our house, we work from home but we surrendered the house, so now we have a lot of space, but eventually we have to move out as soon as we can,” she said.
In light of this growth of their company, the Salanoas feel prepared.
And no matter how large their company grows they are committed to keeping their products and the process that they take to make them exactly the same.
“Export is coming, there’s a demand. But we will continue to do our products the way we’ve always done by hand, we just need space.”