Māori-owned businesses offering local alternatives to popular products
Inspired by Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, we wanted to tautoko (support) indigenous business owners
When I’m looking for something I need (where is that plastic-free toothpaste?) or something I want (new perfume; yes please!), my preference is to support a local, Aotearoa-owned business at the same time.
Apparently, that's your preference too. About three out of five New Zealanders shop locally, and our quarterly surveys have also seen an uptick in the number of people who research their choices before buying.
Buying locally means we keep money in New Zealand’s economy, which in turn creates local jobs and builds greater self-sufficiency.
Yet while New Zealand small businesses generate nearly 30% of the country’s GDP, those boutique or family-owned companies aren't necessarily the ones you’ll come across in a Google search. You really have to look for them.
With that in mind, I wanted to pull together a range of Aotearoa-based businesses to make it easier for people to find local versions of popular or commonplace products and services.
Then, during Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, I was inspired to research indigenous businesses and business owners. I also discovered that the Māori economy is currently worth $70 billion, and steadily growing at 5% per year.
The Māori business owners I spoke with didn’t exactly define themselves as “local” or “sustainable.” Rather, I understood that these words are inadequate to describe fundamental aspects of te ao Māori, where the interconnectedness of people, practices and our planet is foundational to doing business.
If you’re one of the many New Zealanders who like to research and buy locally made products, this listicle featuring some of Aotearoa’s innovative Māori entrepreneurs and their distinctive products and perspectives on business could be a great place to start.
Kua reri koe? Are you ready?
Perfume: Of Body
Nathan Taare (Ngāti Porou) designs and bottles limited small batches of handmade perfume in his Wellington lab. As an artist, performer, designer and musician, Taare has long been interested in using our senses as a way to communicate ideas. Of Body is his olfactory brainchild, born out of the DIY music scene, his travels and being behind the scenes on film sets.
Taare describes that familiar feeling of being transported to a time, country or relationship with just a whiff, and consequently, is very interested in the spirituality of smell.
“People react to scent in a way that can be positive for healing. I see olfactory art like rongoā.”
Like scent, the Of Body kaupapa is both simple and complex at once – “made by a body, for a body.”
Despite her Indian and Māori whakapapa, Nalisha Tahere (Ngāpuhi) never told anyone she was Māori. She, like many Māori, grew up Pākehā. The resurgence of te reo in recent years compelled her to begin her haerenga (journey) to reclaim her identity.
Her business, Kōmiri, which sells glass and bamboo jars featuring te reo Māori labels was created from a desire to make te reo a part of her life, rather than a task on a to-do list. Kōmiri has empowered both herself and others.
“As a mum of four, the brain fog was real! Trying to learn, let alone remember new vocab was a mission, but you don’t learn something when it's given to you. Seeing te reo more often in my home every day has meant that I’m in the habit of using Te Aka (The Māori Dictionary) when I see a word I don’t know, and my reo has improved as a result.”
The Kōmiri kaupapa is to encourage all New Zealanders to learn and use te reo in everyday life. “Our kaupapa is learning because it’s healing.”
Whitney (Ngāti Kuri) says she “accidentally” has a business, explaining that Kaputī is a kaupapa first.
The early days of Kaputī saw Whitney selling her handmade tea at a market stall in Grey Lynn. At the time she was learning te reo and committed to greeting everyone in her native language.
Whitney has always carried the kaupapa of speaking te reo at the shop, noting that many more people are able to kōrero with her these days, thanks to the great strides made by the language revitalisation movement.
“Tea connects people at a hui, through art, through nature ... and seeing the social outcomes of connecting people in these ways, through intention-setting, is what drives us.”
“There are tea practices everywhere in the world, but Kaputī is about defining our tea culture here in Aotearoa. We carefully select a whakataukī to put inside each blend.”
Kaputī blends its teas by hand and promotes the use of loose leaf so it’s easy to dispose of the steeped tea leaves in the garden.
“If you use tea bags, you are more likely to put them in the bin. But with loose leaves, you can just return it to the rākau (tree).”
Interior design: Critical
Auckland-based studio Critical turns hard-to-recycle plastic and textile waste into beautiful, durable slabs called Cleanstone. The slabs are used for retail fit outs, and commercial and residential interiors, among other applications.
Co-owner Rui Peng explains that our wellbeing and future depend on the natural world, so Critical’s kaupapa is rooted in uplifting that mauri by caring for our planet.
Peng says, “construction accounts for 20% of New Zealand’s emissions. It’s important for us to keep the manufacturing process simple and keep as much plastic out of landfill as we can. This uplifts mauri.”
“There is inherent mauri in everything. You don’t need to be Māori to know and feel this.”
Critical makes business decisions based on the question: What does it look like to be good ancestors? Consequently, it’s no surprise that the company buys back Cleanstone to recycle into new Cleanstone, over and over and over again.
Husband and wife team Laura and Adam (Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa) make toothpaste without the waste.
Laura has always loved making a difference to people’s lives as a dental therapist and hygienist, but the avalanche of single-use plastics involved in dental care got to her.
“It’s been estimated that 16 million tubes of toothpaste go into landfill every year, which drives me crazy because they don't have to. If you take out the water in oral care, you don’t need the plastic tube to control or transport the final product.”
Adam explains that their kaupapa is about being positive, innovative and of course, kaitiaki.
“Our responsibility doesn’t end once we sell a jar and we don’t make toothpaste tablets because we ‘love nature.’ We do this because we see it as our responsibility to protect our planet, our tamariki and everyone.
“We take ownership of what we produce. It’s cool to see how the experience of returning and refilling a jar triggers something in people. That sense of ownership and community, and knowing that our actions are all interconnected is what makes taking climate action feel like a really positive step.
“We just see ourselves as helping others to make a small, but meaningful change in an easy, open, and as inclusive way as we can.”
Toys for tamariki: Paku
Leading Māori design specialist, Dr Johnson Witehira’s (Ngāti Hinekura, Ngāi-tū-te-auru) practice focuses on how mātauranga Māori (Māori wisdom and Māori knowledge) and te ao Māori can manifest in contemporary settings.
It’s no surprise, then, that after noticing the sandpit at his son’s Te Kōhanga Reo was filled with European gardening tools like spades and trowels, he found himself reimagining that sandpit with what is now Paku’s very popular Toki and Timo - Māori gardening tools for tamariki.
Johnson designed and created the gardening tools alongside business partner James (Ngāti Pākehā), one of Aotearoa’s leading product design engineers. Then, of course, they tested the tools out with groups of kids – since they’re who the products are designed for.
“Māori seeing themselves in the products they own was a real driving force in our kaupapa.”
The designers often get comments from both Māori and Pākehā whānau who are stoked that their kids are speaking te reo, but having not grown up speaking it themselves, want to find meaningful ways to connect with te ao Māori too.
“You might think – oh it’s just a digging tool, but the product is imbued with mātauranga and engaging with these tools alongside our tamariki becomes another authentic way for anyone and everyone to connect with the Māori world.”
When thinking of kaitiakitanga from a sustainability perspective, the challenge for Paku’s Toki and Timo was a material one.
“While it’s not the easiest to engineer something out of recycled materials, we’ve partnered with a local manufacturer with a waste stream from an existing product (already made from recycled material) which is then repurposed again for use in the Toki and Timo.”
Ceramics: Thea Ceramics
Esther McDonald (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Pukenga) speaks about the moments of Zen as a ceramist on Waiheke Island where her mind slows down and her hands take over.
She explains how the strict, structurally symmetrical and repetitive style of potting she learned from her uncle, Shane McDonald, suits her personality.
“It’s incredibly intentional work, and I’m a perfectionist. I love creating the same shape over and over, and knowing that someone will enjoy using what I make as much as I enjoyed creating it.”
It’s no wonder that a huge part of Thea Ceramics’ kaupapa is to impart slow craft into people’s rituals and enhance their kai experiences.
“We believe handmade ceramics can help people to connect back to their tinana, through all their senses.”
When it comes to hand-thrown pottery, waste is minimal. Thea Ceramics also makes its glazes, which are named in te reo, from scratch.
“We love extending our vocabulary in the studio and connecting with our customers through te reo and our practice. For example, our Hōrua glaze was designed and inspired by the process of firing kōkōwai. Hōrua means ‘burnt kōkōwai’.
“Te reo is just more descriptive and poetic, and it allows us to go some way to being able to describe and share that experience with others.”
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