Five food system businesses advance to finals of Mahi Ľai Match-Up

Apr. 13, 2022

Five food-focused entrepreneurs from across the pae ‘āina advanced to the finals of the Mahi‘ai Match-Up business plan competition after presenting their business plans before a panel of judges on April 8. Mahi‘ai Match-up is a part of Kamehameha Schools’ Mahi‘ai a Ola program that aims to strengthen Hawai‘i’s agriculture industry and food systems for future generations.

In partnership, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement provided a 10-week specialized KūHana business training course to this year’s cohort of 18 businesses. The five finalists were selected following a hō‘ike, and The Kohala Center is coaching the top competitors with final business planning preparation and will offer support services beyond the program.

The competition awards include start-up capital, an agricultural land agreement on a KS parcel and, for the first time this year, a lease on a KS commercial property within Kapālama Kai, O‘ahu. The winners will be announced at ‘Aha ‘Ᾱina Pauahi on Sunday, April 24, at 5 p.m. at Pearl Country Club. If you’re interested in attending, click here to secure your tickets.

Learn about this year’s finalists, who are exploring new ways to feed Hawai‘i and foster a more resilient food system supported by locally-grown and produced food.

ʻAwa Bird
Nelson Crabbe, owner
Wainaku, Hawai‘i Island

Nelson Crabbe, a Kapahulu native who now lives in Hilo, owns a small plant nursery specializing in Hawaiian canoe plants. He was inspired to grow his business after his favorite local ‘awa (kava) bar closed in Hilo, and he struggled to find another source of fresh, frozen Hawaiian ‘awa.

“It was at this defining moment that I saw the need for fresh frozen ‘awa to be more available. And, more importantly, more affordable for the people of Hawai‘i,” said Crabbe, who has an educational background in Hawaiian studies, agriculture and tropical plant science.

‘Awa has a rich history in Native Hawaiian and other Polynesian cultures, having been cultivated for nearly 3,000 years. Following the Hawaiian renaissance in the 1970s, ‘awa has regained popularity as traditional practices and uses for the plant – such as a soothing, medicinal drink – were revitalized.

“What makes ‘Awa Bird special is that it will produce and sell all of the 13 known Hawaiian cultivars of ‘awa at an affordable price. Fresh frozen Hawaiian ‘awa should not be so expensive that it is only reserved for local people to enjoy at special occasions and ceremonies,” Crabbe said.

Crabbe entered Mahi‘ai Match-up with hopes to expand his backyard plant nursery into a commercial farm on Hawai‘i Island that will provide ‘awa to health food stores, grocers, bars and local farmers’ markets. He also hopes to plant ‘ulu (breadfruit) and join the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative, a past Mahi‘ai Match-up winner, as another producer of the staple food.

“Winning this competition would allow my business to expand from a nursery to a full production farm and make my lifelong dream of having my own farm a reality,” he added.

Kanekoa Farm
Gina Kanekoa, owner
Waimānalo, O‘ahu

At the base of the Ko‘olau mountain range in Waimānalo lies a small, quarter-acre farm owned by Gina Kanekoa KSK'06. Born and raised in Waipahu, Kanekoa pursued careers in several industries, including retail, food and beverage, healthcare and construction, before she found her passion in a farming program in 2020. Now, her farm partners with local chefs to showcase Hawai‘i-grown produce like heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce and more that exhibit the deliciousness of sustainability.

“Our business is unique in which everything we grow, we sell. This is made possible by our special partnership with Chef Jeremy Shigekane. We have a three-tier system for our produce that results in recaptured waste by selling off-grade vegetables to be turned into soap,” Kanekoa said.

Kanekoa Farm grows vegetables for Chef Shigekane’s restaurant, M, where every meal features something from the farm and his Food Start program, which provides meals to students at St. Andrew’s Priory. She sells extra produce to 808 Organics, an aggregator offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes to Honolulu and Windward O‘ahu families.

Kanekoa dreams of growing more produce and expanding to an additional farming location. Through CNHA’s KūHana program, she’s been able to build upon her business plan and map out a path to making her scaled-up farm a reality.

“We are a small farm looking to scale up and support more local chefs who need access to high-quality vegetables on a consistent basis,” Kanekoa added. “Winning Mahi‘ai Match-up would mean we would have access to a land parcel with waived rent for five years, and through this waived rent, we would have enough time to replicate what we are doing successfully in Waimānalo.”

Ki‘owao Farms
Sean and Christy Tomas, co-owners
Honolulu, O‘ahu

Sean Tomas KSK’05 and Christy Tomas started Ki‘owao Farms with two main ingredients: their backyard garden in Mānoa and a secret family recipe for liliko‘i (passion fruit) butter. Their passion project began to take root when family and friends encouraged the couple to sell their creation. Thus, Ki‘owao Farms and its signature value-added product, Lickin Liliko‘i, was born.

Sean has always nurtured his love for growing fruits and vegetables, and works as an agricultural specialist for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Christy is a senior community affairs consultant for Hawaiian Electric and always dreamed of owning a small business that gives back to the community. Together, the Tomases aim to produce the highest-quality liliko‘i butter in the state while instilling a passion for farming in their daughters.

“We want them to experience the hard work and dedication that goes into growing our own food instead of just buying it at the store and to show them that through hard work and going back to the ‘roots,’ you can make a living and a business right here at home,” Christy said.

The pair aim to expand beyond their backyard to a year-round farm operation while refining their product. In the next five years, the Tomases hope to feature their signature butter in a luxury Hawai‘i hotel before exporting it to the continental U.S. for more foodies to enjoy.

“Winning this competition would be a dream come true and the jump start we need to take our business from a backyard mom-and-pop hobby shop to a full-scale farm and value-added business. It would also be a full-circle moment – being a graduate of Kamehameha Schools and now having an opportunity as a proud Hawaiian farmer to win this competition – it would be amazing,” Sean added.

MetroGrow Hawaiʻi
Kerry Kakazu, owner
Honolulu, Hawai‘i

More than seven years ago, Kerry Kakazu recognized an opportunity to combine his passions – plant science, technology, and Hawai‘i’s unique food scene – into an innovative new venture: a vertical farm. Now, Kakazu’s MetroGrow Hawai‘i is the first indoor, vertical farm in the state, growing high-quality, nutritious and clean hydroponic produce for chefs, gourmet markets and the community.

“I knew that starting off we had to target a higher-end niche market, but I always had in my mind that these technologies could be applied to more general local food production,” said Kakazu, who holds master’s and doctorate degrees in plant physiology from the University of California, Davis.

Kakazu, who was born and raised on O‘ahu, farms produce like lettuce, microgreens, shoots and ice plants in protected structures with help to control temperature, lighting, humidity, irrigation, pest intrusion and contamination. The hydroponic facility in Kaka‘ako also operates on a fraction of the land and uses about 90% less water than a traditional outdoor farm.

Kakazu entered Mahi‘ai Match-up with hopes to expand MetroGrow Hawai‘i by constructing a larger vertical farm that will be able to produce 2,000 pounds of fresh produce weekly.

“Winning the competition would allow us to take the knowledge and experience we’ve accumulated over the past seven years growing specialty crops for restaurants and gourmet markets and apply it to increasing food self-sufficiency and security for more of our local community,” Kakazu said.

Waiāhole Poi Factory
Kelikokauaikekai “Liko” Hoe, owner
Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu

For Kelikokauaikekai “Liko” Hoe KSK’92, running Waiāhole Poi Factory and growing kalo (taro) is in his DNA. Hoe, who was born into the family business and raised in Hakipu‘u, has seen the business morph over time to meet the community's needs while staying true to its roots. Its mission is simple – “Hānai i ka ʻai, hānai i ke aloha” or to be nourished by the food and spirit of our kūpuna.

“Waiāhole Poi Factory is part of a long history of nourishing community that goes back centuries and will hopefully continue into the future,” said Hoe, a Kamehameha Schools and University of Hawai‘i alum. “We have helped to preserve and perpetuate Hawaiian food culture and practices for both the local and visitor communities.”

The restaurant is a fixture along Kamehameha Highway in Kāne‘ohe, serving authentic Hawaiian food like kalua pig, lau lau, fresh poi and the iconic Sweet Lady of Waiāhole, an ‘ono dessert with warm kulolo and haupia ice cream.

The KūHana program allowed Hoe and the Waiāhole Poi Factory to connect with other Native Hawaiian-owned ʻāina and food-based businesses and plan for the future of his business. Hoe adds that winning the Mahi‘ai Match-up competition will help Waiāhole Poi Factory “realize the vision of reestablishing connection to ʻāina-based food in the urban core of Oʻahu,” with a potential new take-out location.