Connecting French Polynesia’s artisans to global markets

Man in red shirt carving wood (© Tahiti Art Crafts)
Polynesian woodcarvers and other artisans use techniques passed down through generations, carrying on long-standing cultural traditions. (© Tahiti Art Crafts)

French Polynesia’s artisans craft baskets and wood carvings using traditional techniques handed down through generations. Yet the South Pacific islands’ geography limits access to international markets.

Manuia Maiti founded the online marketplace Tahiti Art Crafts to connect artisans across French Polynesia’s 118 islands with international markets and provide greater exposure to traditional Polynesian goods.

Manuia Maiti smiling, wearing flower crown (© Manuia Maiti)
Social entrepreneur and U.S. exchange alumna Manuia Maiti trains Pacific islanders to run sustainable businesses. (© Manuia Maiti)

“In some islands, a lot of people know how to weave and make mats,” says Maiti, an alumna of U.S. government exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which invites current and emerging leaders to travel the United States and pursue their professional interests. “If you have exposure outside of where you live, only then you can sell your products.”

During her IVLP travels, Maiti studied cutting-edge startups and was impressed by Detroit’s economic revitalization. “I was so inspired by the stories of social entrepreneurs — seeing how Detroit went from decay to revival through startups and new technologies, attracting more small businesses,” she says.

She launched Tahiti Art Crafts after returning home. Maiti also started a nonprofit, TUPU, that is teaching French Polynesia’s indigenous crafters skills they need to earn a living from their handicrafts, which are called rima’i in Tahitian. Workshops offer instruction on registering a business, simple accounting and taking smartphone photos for promotion.

The Rima’i for Sustainable Living project is supported by a small grant from Young Pacific Leaders, a U.S. government exchange program for civic- and business-minded youth across the many islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

With her entrepreneurial experience, Maiti was a natural fit to lead the State Department’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs’ (AWE) first cohort in French Polynesia in 2021.

People lined up, posing outdoors in mostly pink clothing (© Manuia Maiti and TUPU)
Maiti and AWE participants celebrate the end of training on the island of Mo‘orea. (© Manuia Maiti and TUPU)

Launched globally in 2019, AWE has empowered more than 16,000 women in 80 countries with the knowledge, networks and access they need to launch or scale a business. More than 500 women have participated in AWE across New Zealand, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and Samoa since 2021.

On French Polynesia’s remote islands of Bora Bora and Mo’orea, AWE trained 60 women in two months. AWE’s training touches on all aspects of business and uses digital technology, including Arizona State University’s DreamBuilder online learning platform, to teach skills including strategic planning, financial management and marketing.

“AWE is transformational,” Maiti says. “In four weeks, we saw women go from being shy with hunched shoulders, to standing up tall, showing prototypes of their products and trying new things.”

Two women standing, four women sitting in bazaar (© Manuia Maiti and TUPU)
Maiti visits artisans at a local market in Bora Bora as part of entrepreneurship training. (© Manuia Maiti and TUPU)

Her involvement in U.S. government exchanges, Maiti adds, not only helped her as an entrepreneur but inspired her to pass business skills along to others.

“When you feel you want to do something — go for it,” Maiti says. “Dream your dream. You have to shine, so that you enable others to shine.”

A version of this article was previously published by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.