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Te Kukuwhatanga umanga ō Iwi Māori (the business evolution of Tribal Māori)

It’s roughly 27 years since Sir Bob Mahuta and Tā Tipene O’Regan signed the first Iwi settlements in the mid-1990s, and from the outside looking in, many considered these payments to be the panacea for tribal Māori. Upon closer inspection though, it is clear they haven’t been. Societal ills, such as poverty, alcohol & drug abuse and unemployment are just as prevalent, if not more so, and seem unlikely to abate any time soon. And whilst our post-settlement entities try to stay on top of things, the tribal demands grow larger.

According to the Hobson’s Pledge website Iwi have settled for a total quantum of about $3.7 billion so far, with a further $535 million in incomplete financial redress packages. And a recent TDB Advisory (Wellington firm) report from 2020, said the total value of Iwi settlement assets was $10.8 billion (known to be more now though). So, in effect, the Iwi asset base is worth around three times the original collective quantum. It’s impressive, no doubt, but is it entrepreneurial or just the astute purchasing of well-performing assets?

I want to preface what I’m about to say by admitting that I agree with Iwi asset holding companies accumulating well-performing assets, especially if there is the purchase of land involved. However, and although there is a perception that each tribe’s social side is well catered for (usually by the Rūnanga), there is a layer within that tribal community that may not be considered as much as it should – the small-to-medium sized business owner (SME).

Māori have been widely acknowledged as entrepreneurial, and you don’t have to go too far back to see how effective we were. Our tūpuna (ancestors) were known to supply produce to New South Wales in the 18th & 19th centuries, we owned and / or operated fleets of sailing ships, mills (rope, flour and so on), our farming land-trust & incorporations (post 1840) were among the best in Aotearoa, some still are. The Ahu Whenua Trophy is arguably the who’s who of Māori Agriculture, and now Horticulture too.

But what is “entrepreneurial”? Google defines "entrepreneurial activity" as developing and starting a new business, and implementing a business / marketing plan, often with the end goal of selling the company to turn a profit. So is purchasing a going concern (i.e. a farming systems business, a commercial building or an iconic tourism company etc) on behalf of your tribe entrepreneurial? I’m not sure. Is there fear, and are their next meals threatened if anything goes wrong? I don’t think so, and THAT is a key difference in my opinion.

Iwi asset holding companies are well resourced and therefore, they should do well anyway, and they generally do. The area where things aren’t well-resourced, and possibly not well-considered either, is at the grassroots level, i.e. SME businesses owned by tribal uri (offspring). In my mind it is not only an opportunity, it is a necessity for Iwi to apply resource to the tribal SME layer – where the real business-owners reside.

I’d even go as far to say this is a social issue and therefore, should be a focus of any Iwi rūnanga strategy. I mean grassroots is grassroots, but throughout Covid there was much support out there for whānau, and rightfully so. How much help from Iwi was there for the Māori SME though? I’ve heard of varying tribal support, with many offers coming in the way of assistance from the likes of Chambers of Commerce (via the RBP programme) and other NGOs. However, support is one thing, investment (in terms of resource and money) is another, and both are required to get entrepreneurial ideas established.

Investing in uri-owned start-ups may become the next big thing for Iwi. Don’t get me wrong, buying going concerns to drive bottom-line growth and provide employment for uri is noble, but I could easily list examples when the latter hasn’t occurred, especially in the tourism space. Maybe this is a way for Iwi to ensure uri are employed, via these SMEs - it could be an agreed outcome.

Strategic financial goals vary from Iwi to Iwi, so what could success look like in this case? For some Iwi, investment in SMEs may just be about enabling uri to kickstart their venture, for some it may be as simple as the SME providing jobs for uri, and for others it may be about taking a stake in the SME business to grow the tribal bottom line. There are wins in all of the above options and plenty more where they came from.

The opportunity for Iwi is to believe in their uri, I mean really believe, scrutinise each business case (as they should), and explore the ideal investment scenario for both parties. Depending on the circumstances the Iwi can set aside a "total amount to invest" per annum, which has a stringent criteria attached to it. It’s unlikely there’ll be immediate home-runs (never say never though), but when uri SME business-owners know their tribe is behind them, and prepared to invest in the right idea, the world is that Iwi’s oyster, and nothing is impossible for that uri.

Can Iwi support their uri SMEs better?

  • Āe! Iwi need to support/grow their uri SME layer!

  • Kaore! Iwi have enough things to worry about!

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