But when COVID-19 struck, she decided to pivot her social enterprise to address the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), adding facemasks to her line of products, and employing a number of local women in the process.
Prior to COVID-19, Plan International Australia’s DFAT funded New Times, New Targets Project in Solomon Islands was partnered with Kaleko Steifree to improve community understanding about menstrual health and access to sanitary pads.
When COVID-19 began spreading globally, as part of its response, Plan International Australia approached MJ Enterprises and suggested they consider designing and sewing reusable facemasks.
For the past seven years, Kaleko Steifree (formerly MJ Enterprises) has been committed to providing secure employment to women (including women living with a disability), via the production of reusable menstruation pads. With the help of her youngest staff member, Claire, Mary was up for the challenge of introducing a new product to aid in the country’s COVID-19 response.
“I have this great passion for people with disability and they are one of the most vulnerable people in Solomon Islands, so I want to find ways to engage them in employment.” She explains.
When Claire first joined MJ Enterprises she found the job quite challenging, mainly due to difficulties communicating with other staff because Claire is deaf and doesn’t speak. To assist, Mary decided to bring in a sign language translator. As a result, the entire sewing team learnt the basics of sign language and Claire, with her very precise sewing skills, quickly rose to a quality assurance role, and now provides training and supervision to the other sewers too.
With technical guidance from PIA, Claire proactively led the design and production of the facemasks, developing prototypes that would be affordable and suitable for the Solomon Islands climate, while also meeting the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.
Once the prototype was complete, locally available materials were sourced and production began. And Claire’s dedication didn’t go unrecognized —the new products are named after Claire!
To date, MJ enterprises have sold 3,000 ‘Claire’ masks, and used the income to fund their operations and continue operating throughout 2020. Thanks to the project, ten local women including Claire, were able to diversify their marketing, design and production skills, and maintain regular employment despite the difficult economic impacts of COVID-19.
“During COVID-19 I am very thankful that I have been able to keep my job,” shares Claire, “while everyone around me – including my mother – had their working shifts cut. So I am a main contributor to my family and meeting our living costs.”
And how does Claire feel having played such an integral role in the design and production?
“My confidence has really improved, as when I started this work I only knew how to sew the pads.” She says. “I enjoy sewing the face masks now as they are quicker and easier to produce [than pads], and I can sew more during the day so at the end of the day I feel I have accomplished more.”
The New Times, New Targets Project is an Australian aid initiative implemented by Plan International Australia in partnership with Live & Learn Environmental Education on behalf of the Australian Government.