13 December 2017
A Fijian women’s group that designs and creates jewellery and handicrafts from local mother-of-pearl is helping to empower women and boost the region’s economy and social wellbeing.
Marama Shellcraft Fiji (MSF) is part of a joint effort to expand the local mother-of-pearl industry in order to help families achieve economic independence and reduce Fiji’s reliance on imported pearl products.
The development of pearl industry-based livelihoods in Fiji is a collaboration between the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Fiji Fisheries, the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) and Ba Women’s Forum.
Collaborative effort focuses on livelihoods
MSF began in early 2013 at a series of mother-of-pearl handicraft training programs for women’s groups - part of an ACIAR-funded project in Fiji. Most village women juggle the roles of mother, housekeeper and agricultural worker and many live below the poverty line.
Collaboration between the Ba Women’s Forum (BWF) and Ba Town Council led to the establishment of MSF and a workshop facility being built in the council-owned ‘women’s bure’ in Ba town centre.
Local and New Zealand-based trainers were employed to work with major retail outlets to create unique products. Traditional and modern artistry were integrated into the jewellery designs and local materials, including locally produced MOP were used to create truly Fijian items.
Locally-made proves popular
At MSF’s first official product launch — a fashion event in Suva in September 2014 — thirty-four different designs were showcased, ranging in price from FJ$50-100. The jewellery is now available at major department store Tappoo, other retail outlets and on board major cruise ships.
South Pacific tourist trade in mother-of-pearl handicraft and jewellery items has been dominated for a long time by imported items from South East Asia.
The Fijian pearl shell jewellery industry is worth around FJ$10 million per year, but only about 10% is sourced from locally-produced items.
MSF’s resilience and ongoing success and confidence are helping to turn this around. So far mother-of-pearl handicraft training has only been held in Ba, but broad interest among other villages and increasing availability of mother-of-pearl means there is considerable potential for similar training throughout Fiji.
Small business status
MSF has evolved from a talented, amateur team, to a registered small business with its own trading account to manage business expenses and income. Workshop facilities have been upgraded, operations run at least three days per week and MSF is recruiting new trainees for 2018.
The group’s current trainer, Neke Moa, uses language, culture and art as inspiration to design and craft the products. She also teaches sustainability through the use of local materials, local labour and local design.
Empowerment key to success
The original goal of this work was to equip trainees with the confidence to make mother-of-pearl jewellery and other handicraft products a long-term and sustainable venture. Today, MSF is empowering mature-aged, unemployed women and men.
The long-term future of MSF looks bright, with increasing interest in their products and growing local interest and support in the venture. Ultimately, Fiji will see more of this type of training and business development so that the country and its people experiences sustainable and profitable livelihood benefits.
Oyster supply important
For the first time in Fiji’s history, the region is developing a structured and effective oyster supply program for its developing cultured pearl industry, and more oysters are available for pearl farmers and communities throughout Fiji. This is also supporting a growth in mother-of-pearl handicraft production.
The availability of pearl shells is the result of many years of local, ACIAR-funded research. To this day, USC, ACIAR and Fiji Fisheries are developing reliable and sustainable oyster collection programs across the country, bolstering pearl farming and enabling greater access to pearl and pearl shell material.