Māori business: Weaving the fibres of the future

Māori have a very long history of innovation. Now, as Suzanne Middleton discovers, the digital age is offering Māori businesses a whole new realm to explore.

The digital revolution hit Aotearoa a few years after the first Treaty settlements, at a time when Māori managing the return of assets and money to their iwi concentrated their investments in forestry, farming, fisheries, property and tourism. After all, Māori had been in business for centuries, trading pounamu, flax and seafood, then farming and exporting in the first half of the 19th century, so making money from the land and sea was obvious.

But Māori were successful in business in the early days of European settlement because of their talent for picking up new technologies like the plough, sailing ship and flour mill. To what extent have they applied this skill of early adoption to digital technology?

​Māori businesses are different from Pākehā ones, as Dr Sharleen Howison, principal lecturer at the College of Enterprise and Development at Otago Polytechnic, describes: “Māori businesses are very relationship focused. It’s about taking the people you care about (whānau) with you. Profit comes second or third, it’s a by-product.”

It’s the whānau and cultural aspects that make Māori-owned businesses unique, says Richard Kerr-Bell, chairman of Te Kupeka Umaka Māori ki Araiteuru (KUMA) the Southern Māori Business Network. “One of the key drivers for getting into business is whānau. To enable further growth and opportunities, and once one’s own family is set up, creating opportunities for others is our next goal.”

Māori proudly acknowledge this quality, as well as other strong drivers of Māori businesses: sustainability, investing for the long term and holding onto assets for the coming generations, qualities that are highly compatible with land and sea-based businesses.

Ian Taylor, CEO of Animation Research Ltd, sees the fast-changing world of ICT, where access to new knowledge and technologies is paramount, as being yet another tool that Māori can use to serve those common values. “I think we have always been more innovators than inventors,” he says. “We take tools that others have made and use them in ways that suit us as Māori, in ways that match our values. Rather than look on the primary industries as being ‘old industries’, I think there is a huge opportunity to focus on IT solutions for those industries that create IP, that brings value and creates jobs for our young people. We want young Māori building and flying the drones to monitor the grass, not washing down the cowshed.”

Photo by Daryl Ward for New Zealand Story

But the Māori tradition of oratory and storytelling also finds the perfect vehicle in the lucrative fields of animation and gaming. Kerr-Bell sees it like this: “The digital sector already has a high uptake by Māori because it expresses story and ideas easily, it can be done with relatively few resources, and doesn’t require large capital or significant finance. International markets can be accessed without leaving your whare.”

Games developer Maru Nihoniho’s company Metia Interactive is a shining example of a Māori export business based on narrative using the latest technology. Likewise, Rhonda Kite’s KIWA Digital’s experiential digital books and Taylor’s Animation Research Ltd, which was recognised for its contribution to technology with a special lifetime achievement award at the 2014 New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards. Māui Studios Aotearoa is a dynamic new arrival on the Māori storytelling scene, working closely with the Māori community but preparing to take on the world with its multidisciplinary design.

Creating and maintaining relationships and networks has become exceptionally simple with social media, and Māori SMEs are big users according to ANZ’s ‘Te Tirohanga Whānui: Māori Business Key Insights 2015’. The comparison with non-Māori businesses is dramatic. 63 percent of Māori respondents used social media for business compared with 42 percent of non-Māori businesses. And 46 percent of Māori respondents said that mobile technology had changed their business, compared with 31 percent of non-Māori.

Statistics NZ’s ‘Household Use of Information and Communication Technology: 2012’ reported that 75 percent of Māori used social media compared with 61 percent of Europeans. More Māori were also downloading and listening to music, downloading or watching movies, playing or downloading video games, and using mobile phones to access the internet than Europeans.

The numbers from both of those studies may be a reflection of the youth of the Māori population. The projected median age for Māori in 2021 is 26.8, compared with 39.8 for the country as a whole. There’s huge potential here on both sides of the digital counter.

The next step should be obvious according to IT expert Antony Royal: “The state of the play at the moment is the Māori economy is very strong in the four Fs – fishing, forestry, farming and foreigners. That’s great because Māori participate very well in all those sectors. But if you look at the economy in general, a move into the high tech ICT sector will benefit New Zealand.

“More than $3 billion is going into infrastructure bringing fibre to homes and businesses,” he says. “You can build an IT business out of your garage now. New Zealand will be far more connected to the world and we need to invest in weightless products now to build that capacity.

We should be investing and getting more people into this sector.

“To train people in the technology sector you have to start in primary school. The traditional view is that Māori don’t do maths, chemistry and physics. We need to break that cycle. There are lots of Māori youth who are au fait with technology but we need to move from users to innovators.”

Taylor expressed the same view at KUMA’s 10th anniversary hui in Dunedin in August: “We need to encourage our young people to look forward to our past. Our ancestors were great risk takers and innovators. They arrived in this country which was nothing like where they came from so they had to innovate. We come from an amazing heritage of scientists, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs didn’t know it at the time but he designed the iPad for Māori. It was never in our DNA to write, to use a pencil and paper. We tutu with our hands, we tell stories through oratory, carving and art. The iPad is the perfect platform for our kids to take on the future.”

Access to the internet is a major issue for children in low decile schools and poor families, many of whom are Māori. The 2013 Census reported that only 76 percent of households had access to the internet. The Computers in Homes programme is attempting to address this issue by providing computers, training and a subsidised internet connection for poor families. But, sadly, the digital divide isn’t going away and it creates a significant loss of human potential.

There are other grassroots programmes that make a difference for Māori children in this area. With the rallying cry “Coding is the new literacy”, not-for-profit Digital Natives Academy is showing Māori children that “they can be creators, developers and producers of tech, and not just consumers of it”. They teach coding to children and teenagers, and use Google Maps and Tour Builder to teach families how to use technology to connect with their culture. Michael Walmsley, who is Māori, used his PhD study to create Code Avengers, a business which provides online training in coding for young people, and runs Code Camps in New Zealand, recently working in Australia and China as well.

ICT businesses started by Māori include Rod Drury’s online accounting software company Xero, Rei Sciascia’s Swiftnet, which provides fixed wireless broadband using WiMAX in Hawkes Bay, and Jeanette and Gillie Cooper’s Peak Timing, which uses electronic tags to time sports events. Llanasa Peachey from Hastings is setting up a portal called e.maori.nz which will enable those creating Māori art, craft and other products to sell them online to an international market, for their true value.

Many other Māori businesses use ICT to innovate. One example is fishing company Okains Bay Seafood which has introduced a way for customers to learn more about what they’re buying. Consumers can scan the QR code on the product’s packaging and find out the provenance of the fish inside – where and when it was caught, when it was processed and how it was shipped.

Looking at the big picture, the failure of the Māori claim for the digital dividend radio spectrum (after the closure of analogue television) has been the catalyst for the Māori ICT Development Fund of $30 million, which will be distributed over the next six years. It was set aside for Māori in the 2014 Budget and will be administered by Te Māngai Pāho. Its purpose is to stimulate economic growth and facilitate the learning of te reo and Māori culture through ICT. The priorities for spending have not been decided yet.

There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience out there among Māori working in the ICT industry. They have two advocacy groups working to represent them, the Digital Māori Forum, and the New Zealand Māori Internet Society, which started up in 1997.

The 2016 New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards' new Māori Innovation award attracted 22 entries, and both KIWA Digital and Code Avengers were among the six finalists exemplifying the range and potential of Māori businesses’ uptake of digital technology. Winner Precision Seafood Harvesting has invented a revolutionary fishing technology which does away with traditional trawl nets. Finalist Straker Translations operates worldwide providing an ultrafast translation service, Origins Software is developing a cloud-based traceability and anti-counterfeiting system for the honey industry, while Whānau Tahi provides a connected care software platform for use with families.

Ian Taylor, who judged and presented the Award, described the Māori entries as “stunning”. Māori have picked up the digital ball and they’re running with it.

This story continues here with Māori business: Six digital weavers

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