Joe and Kristen Souza, as co-owners of Kanileʻa ʻUkulele and proud parents of three growing sons, wanted to create a family business that could thrive, generation to generation. To do this, they needed to ensure that the prized koa wood – the primary focus of their instruments – would be around for many years. In July of 2014 they acquired a parcel of land on the slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaiʻi Island in the Kealakekua uplands. The land, located 4,000 feet above sea level,  had within it a small tract of old growth rainforest primarily of koa and ʻōhia lehua trees. This was the seed bank they needed to start. They dubbed it Nani ʻEkolu to represent their three sons (Kaimana, Iokepa and Kahiau), the three surrounding mountains (Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualālai) and the Three Greatest Things (Faith, Hope and Love).

After spending time at Nani ʻEkolu and seeing the impact of the native Hawaiian rainforest on our state’s ecology, they came to realize that it was more than just leaving an ʻukulele-building business for their progeny; it was about leaving a better, healthier planet for them as well.

The Souzas learned how to safely clear invasive species from their land. They identified 38 different species of native Hawaiian plants and trees struggling to survive amongst the invasive species. They studied the newest innovations in high-yield propagation of the endemic flora and have shared their seed bank with others for the purpose of planting trees on Hawaiʻi Island.

Family, friends, Kanileʻa Krew members, musical artists, various hālau, organizations and forestry groups caught the vision and spent their time and resources to work the land. Miles and miles of fencing was put in place to keep out feral animals. Invasive species were cleared by hand. Augers were used to pierce the lava crust to the fertile soil below. Because no forest is just one species, iliahi, mamaki, poawa, maile, and other endemic Hawaiian flora were planted alongside koa. Thousands of pounds of organic fertilizer and thousands of gallons of water were trucked up the mauna to ensure the health and growth of the saplings. And in the years that followed, those saplings grew to 10-, 20- feet and higher.

In September of 2022, an incredible milestone was reached: 40,000 trees were planted and the land at Nani ʻEkolu was filled. Now the work continues 1,000 feet further upland at Nani ʻEkolu Mauka with a goal of another 155,000 trees – 1,000 trees for each of the 195 countries of the world.

It is amazing how a small seed became a full-grown, heartfelt passion for saving Hawaii’s forests, a passion that is flourishing with the planting of thousands of koa trees with thousands more planned for the near future.

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