Owner, Kokua Diaper LLC
Selected to be part of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center’s Small Business Marketing Bootcamp; SWOT analysis client
Did you know? An estimated 20 billion disposable diapers are added to landfills in the U.S. each year, creating about 3.5 million tons of waste.
For the past three years, Mele Jones has been working to address this issue through her company Kokua Diaper LLC, the only cloth-diapering service on the island of Maui, that she coincidentally launched on Earth Day in 2019.
Mele got the idea for this venture when she was living in New York and expecting her first child. “I knew I was going to cloth-diaper her,” she said. “My mom cloth-diapered all six of us. If she can do it for six (children), I can do it for one or however many children I have, and now I have two.”
Following her mother’s advice, Mele searched for a cloth-diapering service and found one just 10 blocks away from her home in Brooklyn. She was so impressed by how easy it was to make this sustainable choice and eventually got a job with the company. “I needed to make a career change and I loved what this all-woman-owned business was doing. I became their production manager and then I had an epiphany that I needed to move home and bring this service to Hawaii,” she explained. “Within a year, I learned everything and moved back in December 2018 and got my business up and running in April 2019. That’s why I started the business—because of how special Hawaii is as the most remote place in the world and how important it is for people to nail down their consumption and waste.”
Kokua Diaper provides a weekly cloth-diapering delivery service for the entire island of Maui. Customers sign up for the service online, and seven to ten days prior to the baby’s expected arrival, the first rotation of diapers are delivered to a designated pickup/drop-off area at each customer’s home. The diapers are specially made by a family-owned textile plant in Pakistan using the highest grade of organic cotton. Each diaper has a number identifier to ensure customers get the same diapers at each delivery. Once the baby arrives, customers activate their service via email. Kokua Diaper launders all diapers with a commercial washer and dryer and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified plant-derived detergent. Each load is also tested to ensure diapers are pH-balanced. Diapers are then sorted by hand and bundled. The night before or early morning of delivery day, customers place their soiled diapers in their designed pickup location and Kokua Diaper picks them up and drops off a clean bundle.
“If we made it any easier, we would come into your house and change your baby for you,” Mele said. “People could easily buy disposable diapers, but we’re trying to educate families on the amount of waste they create. People spend a premium on better-made, biodegradable diapers, but only 30 percent of the biodegradable component breaks down and landfills don’t have the proper environment for that. Diapers are an essential item and a necessity, so this is our way of offering people a better solution.”
Kokua Diaper’s service is available for $35 per week, which many people easily spend fueling their coffee habits. Mele notes that cloth-diapering is a way for consumers to combat access issues and the rising costs of disposable diapers—especially due to the pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflation—while practicing sustainability. “There’s no better way to put your best foot forward and your money where your mouth is,” she said. “The word ‘sustainable’ gets thrown around so loosely these days and there’s a big disconnect. I’m really trying to educate people on that.”
Mele has faced several challenges throughout her entrepreneurial journey. “No bank wanted to lend me money,” she recalled. “People looked at me as if this were a passion project and didn’t take me seriously. Especially during the pandemic, if you’re a mother and a business owner, you’ve gotten hit the hardest because you’re the main caregiver for your family. That constant disruption within your workday is tough. It’s been extremely challenging for me, and it tested my patience and will.”
She had to balance caring for her four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, who was born right before the first shutdown, while also running her company. She lost business during the pandemic as several customers moved back to the continent to be closer to their families. To cope with these challenges, she checks in with herself regularly, receives love and encouragement from others, and manages the business’s finances well.
Despite those challenges, Mele has much to be proud of. One of her biggest accomplishments has been diverting over 180,000 diapers from the landfill. Recently, a client even stepped up to provide a “Pacifica ohana sponsorship” for five families to receive Kokua Diaper’s services. Mele believes her children are also learning about hard work and creating a sustainable, circular business by growing up in an entrepreneurial environment. “It’ll be interesting to see how it morphs their train of thought and what they think they can do,” she said.
In 2021, Mele was part of the inaugural Hawaii FoundHer cohort for women entrepreneurs, through which she learned about the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center. “My first meeting with Marla (the Center’s director) was super wonderful. Cammie (financial counselor) did a SWOT analysis with me. I was part of the Small Business Marketing Bootcamp, and the instructors Ryan and Dani are amazing. They provided great resources, helped me think outside the box, and pivot how I think,” she said.
Mele hopes to expand her business to Oahu and get support from the municipality. She’s already talked to some legislators about cloth-diapering as a way to manage waste and continues to try to educate the community.
To her fellow woman entrepreneurs and small business owners, Mele offers the following advice: “If you’re looking at opening a business, make sure you don’t go in super fresh. Go in with knowledge of how to structure it, get an accountant, and make sure your foundation is strong—that’s one thing I did not do. I did some things and I had to go back, and it cost me more time and energy. Then, just go for it. Know that you must be flexible. You need to learn how to ride these waves and stick with it. If you have a wonderful idea and it’s something you want to offer to the community so you can have a better life, go for it, because that’s one thing that’s hard to get from a typical 9-to-5 job. Do you want to work for someone else and give away your ideas and make them money, or can you do it on your own and have more flexibility in your schedule and spend more time with your children? I’m thankful that as challenging as it was during the pandemic, I was in the position of having my own business and I was able to pick up my child and have my child with me when school was closed. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with another job. I created that flexibility, and it was a silver lining.”