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Māori businesses now account for an economic asset base of more than NZ$42.6 billion, made up mostly of small and medium-sized enterprises. Judith Lienert/Shutterstock, CC BY-ND

Strong sense of cultural identity drives boom in Māori business

Māori entrepreneurs with a strong sense of cultural identity and guardianship over the land and the sea are driving a boom in Māori business.

Māori businesses now account for an economic asset base of more than NZ$42.6 billion, according to the latest estimates. Small and medium-sized enterprises make up the largest part of the Māori economy.

These entrepreneurs are building on a business approach with ancient roots – a Māori way of thinking and doing business and its ability to reconnect with our common heritage as descendants of Papatūānuku, mother earth.

Drivers of Māori entrepreneurship

A number of developments are likely to be driving this. Chief among them are Māori frustration and anger over the negative effects of loss of land, language, culture and tribal autonomy over successive generations. The response has been a cultural renaissance. It started in the early 1970s and set out to reaffirm Māori as tangata whenua (people of the land) with enduring rights as the indigenous people of Aotearoa.

Out of this period of tumult came the Crown’s attempt at peace and reconciliation with Māori through the Waitangi Tribunal. Settlements under the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in 1840, are probably the single-most important factor in changing perceptions of the Māori economy.

Read more: New Zealand's indigenous reconciliation efforts show having a treaty isn't enough

However, settlements made up only about 1% of the NZ$36.9 billion Māori economic asset base in 2010. It is the 15,600 or so Māori small and medium-sized enterprises, managing NZ$26 billion in assets, that make up the largest part of the Māori economy. Bankers, investors and suppliers are drawn to Māori enterprises as potential partners, eager to understand how to modify their offerings and methods with this market in mind.

Air New Zealand’s increasing use of te reo, the Māori language, springs to mind. While casually introduced, it belies a much sterner “behind the scenes” challenge to normalise Māori language and culture within our national carrier.

Māori economic renaissance

Not since the burgeoning tribal economies of the first half of the 19th century, when surpluses from hapū-based (subtribal) enterprises sustained settlers and tribes, has entrepreneurship been viewed as an appealing possibility among Māori.

Until recently, being Māori and an entrepreneur was an anomaly. The mainstay of Māori livelihoods since the 1930s was employment in labouring jobs in “salt of the earth” professions such as construction, forestry, fishing, health and education. Yet, appetite for entrepreneurship is growing among Māori.

The Māori renaissance brought forth support for other forms of Māori-centred policy. Kōhanga reo (Māori language preschools), kura kaupapa (Māori language secondary schools), and wānanga (Māori tertiary institutions) are examples of successful Māori-centred initiatives in education. There is also acceptance that Māori health models and practitioners are needed to improve Māori health. The official recognition of the Māori language as a taonga (treasure) led to the institution of Māori radio, television and spectrum to sustain it.

Read more: Kia ora: how Māori borrowings shape New Zealand English

Māori ingenuity in business

While Māori ways of thinking and doing were becoming increasingly normalised within health, education and the media, the same acceptance was not apparent in commerce and industry. For instance, few Māori business leaders in the 1980s and 1990s could easily point to their equivalent of Māori health’s “te whare tapa whā” (four dimensions of health) as a model of how Māori do business.

The power of enterprise to transform Māori lives was embraced when a decade of Māori development was set in motion following the Māori Economic Summit (Hui Taumata) in 1984. Within its remit, enterprise development was identified as an important means of realising Māori aspirations for self-determination.

Somewhat against the tide of the then government’s withdrawal of direct support for industry, a number of initiatives to assist Māori enterprises were established following Hui Taumata. Some of them still exist today, including Poutama Trust and Māori Women’s Development Incorporated.

Among many examples of successful Māori business leaders are Business Hall of Fame inductee Mavis Mullins, iMoko innovator Dr Lance O’Sullivan, Kono chief executive Rachel Taulelei, animation entrepreneur Ian Taylor, horticultural robotics entrepreneur Steve Saunders, Federation of Māori Authorities chair Traci Houpapa and 2017 Young Māori business Leader of the Year Blanche Murray.

All are exemplars of a rich vein of modern Māori entrepreneurship, integrating Māori and Western capabilities to create value.

An ideal model for enterprise assistance

This history shows that public funding of enterprise assistance for Māori ebbs and flows with changing political ideologies. My doctoral research shows that Māori businesses operate on an uneven playing field where Māori providers face a different level of scrutiny as to their value for money. Māori enterprises need both Māori-specific and mainstream support, but the knowledge of what works for Māori has so far been limited to policy evaluations rather than empirical research.

My research found that Māori entrepreneurs identified seven main features of the ideal model of enterprise assistance:

  • operates within an entity substantially owned and controlled by Māori;
  • partially government funded;
  • delivery by Māori in partnership with mainstream providers;
  • multiplicity of assistance (e.g. information, advice, facilitation, training, grants, and finance);
  • cultural authenticity and flexibility;
  • long-term relationships with Māori enterprises;
  • and varying assistance over the business life cycle.

Within Te Au Rangahau, a Māori business and leadership research centre, we are building on this work. We found that Māori-specific providers tend to resemble these characteristics, but mainstream providers could improve.

Research identifies three key competencies that consistently matter to Māori entrepreneurs: cultural competency (knowledge of the Māori language, culture and history and the ability to use it), relational competency (time invested in forming relationships with Māori entrepreneurs) and technical competency (delivering on promises).

It also identifies principles that providers (Māori and mainstream) can use to evaluate their assistance against Māori entrepreneurs’ needs and preferences. With such change in enterprise assistance all of Aotearoa is set to benefit from the “new normal” – Māori entrepreneurial success. Mauri ora!

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