Thursday, September 22, 2011

Finding the heart of the Marshall Islands economy

The Elefa Handicraft shop sells items woven from leaves by women in the Marshall Islands.

Second in a series of posts from Kelley MBA students working in the Marshall Islands on a project with the South Pacific Business Development Foundation, a microfinance institution that enhances opportunity in underdeveloped Pacific countries by supporting women entrepreneurs.

By Emory Zink
Second-Year MBA

The main strip of Majuro is unlike that in Bloomington or anywhere else in the U.S. Not necessarily because the street is filled with playing children or occasionally shaded by hanging pandanus trees, but because there is only one major road that runs through the atoll. 

On one side, the placid lagoon sparkles, and on the other side, beyond the coral reef that buttresses the shoreline 30 miles outward, there are the crashing waves of the great Pacific Ocean.  

Catching one of the tiny corroded taxies that constantly scoot back and forth along this single dirt road is a true Majuro experience. The Nitijela (Marshallese parliament) proceedings play on the radio, and as new passengers enter and exit the vehicle, “yohkwe”s are shared in greeting. 

In general, the Marshallese are an exceptionally open and kind people. Children on the street may play coy when they see us walking toward them, but their squeaks of “Hello!” often betray their shyness.

In the last few days, we have pounded the pavement and managed to visit a motley collection of financial and entrepreneurial organizations on the atoll.

We started with handicraft shops, where traditional Marshallese baskets, mats, flowers, and wall hangings are woven out of pandanus and coconut leaves. These shops are most often run by women, who either hire employees to create the tiny detailed works of art or who import the handicrafts from women weaving on the outer atolls. 

These business owners face challenges with marketing their products, particularly since the tourism industry in the Marshall Islands has decreased in tandem with reliable transportation services to the diving-attractive atolls. 

Many of the women have found innovative ways to evolve. For example, Lucia Guavis has put the Elefa Handicraft store on Facebook, where Japanese, American and German fans of Marshallese crafts can see the latest products and make orders.

Besides handicraft shops, we have visited a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the island, of which the most organized and influential is Women United Together in the Marshall Islands, or WUTMI. The women of WUTMI are movers and shakers in their communities; they want their interests protected and their views understood in the community, and as most of them are prominent local business owners and managers, they are precisely the population that we need to speak with in order to gather information on behalf of South Pacific Business Development .  

It’s one thing to find the pulse of the local economy, but it is an entirely more exciting and helpful thing to find the heart of Majuro’s locally owned businesses (and their views on the enterprises owned elsewhere).


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