Summit is partnering with Whole Foods Market to tell the story of Hawaii brands that sell through the premium grocer.
As a third-generation member of the Kalama family growing up in Ka‘elepulu in Kailua, Mele Kalama-Kingma remembers her grandmother, or kupuna wahine, Mama Lani, as a source of inspiration and strength. Kekauilani Kalama, fondly referred to as “Mama Lani,” was a well known hula teacher and Hawaiian cultural practitioner in Kailua. While Kalama-Kingma’s mother worked full-time as an adventure tour guide and her father as a drug recovery program specialist at Halawa Correctional Facility, Mama Lani helped to look after the children, teaching Kalama-Kingma about her family, the ways of her ancestors, and about the Hawaiian people. Kalama-Kingma’s grandfather was a skilled fisherman and inventor, whom she refers to as “a man of ingenuity before his time,” with a passion for music. Her grandmother had learned hula from renowned kumu hula Lokalia Montgomery and taught it for decades in Kailua.
Mama Lani promoted aloha—not as a slogan or a passing greeting, but as an authentic way of life. She taught Kalama-Kinga and her six cousins about the word’s meaning, how each letter stood for various principles: ‘akahai (kindness), lokahi (unity), ‘olu‘olu (agreeable), ha‘aha‘a (humility), and ahonui (perseverance).
“Aloha meant showing love for this land where we live,” says Kalama-Kingma. “To live in Hawai‘i and to truly be of this place, each of us had to incorporate that meaning of aloha in our everyday life.”
Kalama-Kingma remembers a childhood instilled with these values; of tending for the land that her family owned, and of living practically across the street from Kailua Beach, where she swam and surfed and soaked up the sun. She remembers Mama Lani powdering her and her five cousins with a floral scented natural deodorant and body powder after they showered.
Today, she is a mother herself, with two children and a third on the way. In 2012, after she had just given birth to her second child, Kalama-Kingma looked for healthier options for her growing family in terms of food and healthcare. With degrees in nutrition and food science from Loyola Marymount University and the University of Hawai‘i and having worked as a dietician at the Waimānalo Health Center, she was familiar with organic and GMO-free food items and ingredients, but was surprised at the difficulty in acquiring healthcare products that were safe for babies. Even baby powder has artificial ingredients; Kalama-Kinga learned of the harmful effects that aluminum and artificial preservatives may have on the body around the same time that two of her aunties were diagnosed with breast cancer.
Kalama-Kingma decided to make her own products, experimenting with local ingredients to create a healthy and safe powder to use as a deodorant and for skincare. She used locally-grown USDA-certified organic pia (Hawaiian arrowroot), which absorbed the body’s natural oils and odors. That, together with baking soda, kaolin clay, and ‘olena (turmeric powder), formed the body powder base. The ingredients worked wonders and, before long, she began packaging small amounts of her new powders to give to friends and family. After one cousin loved the deoderant so much that she asked for enough to give to her entire 15-person paddling team, Kalama-Kingma wondered if she could turn her new passion into a business.
“I spoke with my husband and we decided to invest our tax return for that year as startup capital to give this a try,” says Kalama-Kingma. “I knew how to make the powder, but had to start everything else from the ground up.”
Kalama-Kingma settled on “Mamalani” as the name of her product line after the grandmother who had taught her so much about her culture and about sustainability. She built the company from the ground up. When she needed containers for her powder, she researched diverse markets to find the perfect sustainable packaging that was sturdy, yet biodegradable. She needed labels for her products, so she spent three months teaching herself how to use Photoshop and designed her packages and display items. The pia and ‘olena she grew herself, in a small garden at home, as well as on a one-third acre farm owned by her family on the Big Island. That year, in 2012, Kalama-Kingma joined a friend as a vendor at the Made in Hawai‘i Festival with some of her debut products. She anticipated selling only a handful of products that weekend; instead, she sold over 300.
Kalama-Kingma also attracted the attention of buyers for local shops and boutiques, who were interested in carrying Mamalani in their stores. “It was a whirlwind experience. Vendors were asking me about wholesale and bulk prices and I had no idea what they were talking about,” Kalama-Kingma says with a laugh. “The business side was all so new to me and I was literally figuring it out as I went along.”
Kalama-Kingma learned quickly and she soon expanded her brand to accommodate her fast-growing audience. Kalama-Kingma’s single body powder developed into a set of five representing the principles of aloha, each with the same base ingredients, but with different additional ingredients that create different scents and are used for different purposes. Lemongrass, tea tree and chamomile for ‘akahai; lavender, clary sage and grapefruit for lokahi; rosemary, sage and peppermint for ‘olu’olu; clary sage, patchouli and lime peel for ha’aha’a; and the unscented ahonui. All of Mamalani’s oils and ingredients are USDA-certified organic and free of GMOs, aluminum, chemicals and preservatives.
“I don’t mind sharing my recipes for everything in my powders,” says Kalama-Kingma, “because it demonstrates transparency; nothing but the best ingredients. No surprises, no preservatives and nothing artificial.”
Today, Mamalani is available in 54 stores across Hawai‘i including Whole Foods, at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, at spas, and nationwide in Washington, California, New York and beyond. “Just telling people where some of my products are located inspires trust. Because it means product integrity,” says Kalama-Kingma, who commends Whole Foods in particular, for working with her to advise on all the proper insurance and certifications necessary to take Mamalani to the next level.
“I have an open-door communication with them, and they’ve helped me plan the business: they work with me on ordering, on new ideas, and they’re flexible with display visuals and everything,” Kalama-Kingma says. “There are tough regulations to have products carried at Whole Foods, but it helps ensure quality.”
Despite being able to find her products around the globe, each batch is still made, by hand, in Kailua. “I’ll prepare some ingredients and then go into the other room to wash the clothes and then come back,” Kalama-Kingma says. Demand for her powders has gotten so great, she’s enlisted her father’s help with farming, packaging and more; growing the company simply means an opportunity for her to work more with her family, which is one of the things she loves most about Mamalani. That and spreading her powders—and culture—with a wider audience than ever previously possible.
“Every interaction with customers is an opportunity to share who we are [in Hawai‘i],” says Kalama-Kingma. “It’s not just about the products; it’s a reflection of the Hawaiian people, of the land, and the connection here for generations. Like the powders, life comes from the land. And both are forged with aloha.”