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    International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2009

    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.

    Overcoming challenges

    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 proceed.

    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 fabrics.

    Setting standards for better business

    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 celebrations.

    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.

    Looking to the future

    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.