Thriving in a man’s world

Saturday 16 January 2021 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Weekend


Thriving in a man’s world
Francis Taoro with CICC Pastor Orometua Michael Akava during the island’s festive season. PC: DANIEL FISHER. 21011526.

Frances Taoro returned to her birthplace Mauke in October 2003 for a short visit but an experience there led her to change her mind. She stayed back and started a business operating from a small room on the verandah of their family home. Today, her one stop shop Kato’s General Store continues to thrive.

Kato’s General Store is Mauke’s one stop shop selling groceries (even Colby cheese), dry goods, meat, hot drinks, gas, diesel and petrol. It also operates the island’s only takeaway.

The shop is the brainchild of Frances Taoro. Born and raised on the island of Mauke/Akatokamanava, Taoro returned home in October 2003, after spending years working in Rarotonga, to visit her mother.

One day while cleaning and clearing out her mother’s old home, dumping old unwearable clothes ready to burn, Taoro was astonished at the island women who quickly rummaged through the clothing to salvage zips, buttons and whatever else they could.

She sensed and saw the potential and opportunity for a small business enterprise, especially for the vainetini (women).

“A light bulb went off, I thought, I could do something like this, start something here like Vonnia’s where women can purchase material, cotton, needles … I wanted to concentrate on the women on the island, to provide things for tuitui (sewing) like cotton and buttons etc,” she recalls.

Motivated Taoro flew back to Rarotonga to meet with the then chief executive of Business Trade Investment Board (BTIB) Mona Mato.

“He advised me that a business wouldn’t survive just selling what I had intended to do. Mona helped me a lot, and encouraged me to look into other products I could sell. I’m good at baking and cooking so I thought right, I’m starting a small bakery.”

Taoro began a small bakery, selling from a little room on the verandah of their old house but soon realised she was not going to survive just selling baked goods and sewing things.

Her cousin Patrick, who owned a shop up the road, suggested she sell groceries and food.

Taoro purchased what she could afford – a carton of corned beef and a carton of tin fish to sell.

Armed with determination and the dream to live on her home island comfortably, she prepared to work.

She also had the words of her former employer David Wright still stuck in her mind, “he had told me, ‘if you’re not going to make $600 per week you may as well pack up and come back to Rarotonga’.”

“I wanted to prove David wrong, I had lived on this island and I was brought up here, I could see the potential here, and I wanted to prove to myself that I can do this.”

Frances Taoro’s mornings started at 2am, baking until daylight.

“And another light bulb went off, I got excited. I thought okay what else can I do? I’ll make plates of food too.

“I took advantage of the complacency of people and would go into the sea at sunrise to collect seafood, I would collect ariri and make mitiore to sell, and people would just buy.”

Taoro didn’t leave Mauke for six months, she cooked and focused on building up her dream, increasing her weekly turnover.

“I built my business from cooking, just using our natural resources from the island.”

On a visit to Rarotonga, Taoro met with Wright for a catch up about her business.

“He told me he was proud of me and that he did not want to see me fail and return to Rarotonga, he had wanted me to prove to myself that I could run a business in the outer islands.”

Knowing the suppliers on Rarotonga is an advantage to her business and Taoro ensures she keeps updated with what stocks are available.

Enthused and encouraged she looked at other local products to add to Kato’s.

“I had to think outside the box, look at what’s here, what’s available and what else I could do.”

The women are skilled at weaving beautiful crafts and making the popular Mauke akari pi or coconut oil, Taoro ordered, purchased and sold the crafts attracting more customers.

Maukeans celebrate the festive season (rangokere) at Kato’s General Store. DANIEL FISHER/21011523

In business for nearly 20 years she is familiar with the competition and pushes herself to always think ahead.

 “For you to be in this kind of business you’ve always got to think about the people, not yourself and it’s about building relationships. You have to be committed to provide the goods and services for the people, it’s not all about yourself.”

With the rest of the Pa Enua, Mauke has always endured difficulties with transportation.

“We have always been confronted with transport issues, waiting for the boat, waiting for the plane, the costs of freight etc.”

When Mauke runs out of groceries that the island needs, Taoro charters a plane to bring the supplies in.

“People know I will bring a plane over and so they don’t worry, I’ve been doing it for 17 years with Air Raro.”

At the request of customers, Kato’s started selling gas, petrol and diesel bringing in a few drums, at one stage it was the only store that supplied dangerous goods.

The store that had previously sold the dangerous goods reopened.

“It’s good to have the other stores, when we run out, we know there’s another shop for people to buy from. When I run out, I’ll call Pere and send customers there. You have to work alongside your competitors to ensure our people are supplied for.”

For Taoro and her business Kato’s it’s not all about making money, they contribute to events and fundraisers for students representing the nation overseas.

“We are always out there and willing to help no matter what, even though there are people who don’t like me on this island, which is normal…

“It’s true, but we just all get on with it,” she says with a laugh.

Being a sole trader comes with sacrifices, she says.

Taoro acknowledged her children suffered a little during the years she concentrated on building her business and their father had passed away not long after she moved to Mauke.

“I vowed to myself, I’m going to push myself to provide for my children, it was a huge struggle in the first five years.”

When the borders to the Pa Enua closed for passengers during the country’s Covid-19 response, Taoro did not see a decline in revenue.

“But the farmers and women who supply maire and akari pi were hit the hardest, but generally on the island we were ok, Air Raro continued the freight runs.”

Committed to community events on the island, her biggest involvement is with the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC), more so in her village of Ngatiarua.

“My village has helped me a lot in my business, so I thought it’s time for me to give back to the island. Ngatiarua has always been there for me, especially to the Mamas.

“I also want to prove it to people that women can do it. You want to show people that you are strong, but there are times at the end of the day you’re in your house exhausted and you cry… but you got to do it for your kids and you always hope that they will do well for themselves.

“Over the years, it’s been a lot of hard work. If anyone thinks of coming here to start up a shop, it’s not easy as there are other stores, so you have to make sure you stand out.

“The whole idea of starting a business here is to help your people.”

Frances Taoro and her siblings were raised on Mauke by their grandparents.

She named her store Kato’s in honour of her grandfather.

“My grandad’s name is Toka, I loved him so much and I vowed that one day I would name something after him, so I knew I would name the shop Kato’s,” she says.

Like many islands back in the day people were known by names imparted on them by the community and these nick names stick.

“Maukean’s change names and say it back to front, for example Toka is changed to Kato, that’s the name people knew him by.”

Taoro loves what she does and doesn’t want to be anywhere else and now the business is taking care of itself she can relax, “but only a little bit”.

“And it doesn’t mean I neglect it; I always have to spend time on it. In 17 years, I’ve seen people come and go, the elderly people pass on and you lose that customer, and even though our population is small, our income is still good, and here we always try.”

Taoro is resilient and energetic with a positive outlook and a sunny smile and feels blessed to be living on the island she loves deeply, with her mother by her side.

She is one of the few who have persevered and survived, establishing a business on their own on their loved homelands in the Pa Enua.

  • Journalist Melina Etches visited Mauke in November 2020. Her trip was sponsored by Cook Islands Tourism Corporation