Iwi-owned kai company Kaitahi As One flourishing after winning nationwide FoodStarter competition

As local iwi-owned food initiative Kaitahi As One goes from strength to strength, spokeswoman Arohaina Owen of Ngā Rauru says it's all about creating pathways for future generations. 

The South Taranaki iwi-owned enterprise was one of two winners crowned at this year's FoodStarter competition, a nationwide search for the country's most innovative food and beverage products by New World and the Ministry of Awesome.

Kaitahi As one produces a range of packaged smoothie drops, using blended and frozen indigenous ingredients like kūmara and kawakawa, which when shaken with liquid creates an easy, nutritious drink.  Flavours include 'Super Green Zing', 'Triple Berry Protect' and 'Kiwi C Boost'. 

Owen told Newshub the idea was born from a close-knit community, "looking at how we can leverage our land and our kai to create something we could turn into a commercially viable business". 

They were motivated by a need to create employment opportunities that were thin on the ground thanks to their "very rural" position in southern Taranaki. 

"It's for our babies, it's for our people," she told Newhsub. "[This company] is by Māori for Māori, for New Zealand as a whole, to create employment opportunities and use our land sustainably. "We as Māori know our kai has incredible properties and nutrition, we've been taught by our tūpuna. 

"[Now] we have to look at how we can commercialise business opportunities and create intergenerational wealth."

That doesn't just mean generating money, she says, but creating a successful business model for future generations. 

"It's about making sure we maintain our Māori, our traditions while creating wealth amongst individuals," she explains. 

"When you're an iwi-led business, it’s not just about yourself it's about your tūpuna. Everything we do is for our babies". 

Kaitahi As One was one of two FoodStarter winners crowned earlier this year, with the nationwide competition attracting small food and beverage suppliers and entrepreneurs from across Aotearoa.

Kaitahi As One.
Kaitahi As One. Photo credit: Supplied

But Owen says even entering was a spur of the moment decision by the company's working group. 

"We thought, 'We've got this great innovation, we've won awards, how do we turn from innovation to a commercially secure business, and know we have the ability to keep scaling up?" she recounts. 

"The competition, we randomly saw it. We were in some supermarkets and we were still learning about the industry, and we thought: 'Should we really apply for it? Are we really there?'"

As it turns out, they certainly were. 

After beating out over 200 other entrants to make the top 10, Owen and her cousin were crowned the winners of the high-pressure final competition, presenting their business model to a series of judges. 

Owen says it was an unbelievable moment - literally. 

"They called our name and I just looked at [my cousin]. I was like, 'What? How did that even happen?'

"They were waiting for us to go to the front and I was just sitting there for ages. I hadn't even put any lipstick on!"

Kaitahi As One Smoothy Drops is launching into 147 New World stores around the country this week.

Melody Te Patu with Kaitahi As One Smoothy Drops.
Melody Te Patu with Kaitahi As One Smoothy Drops. Photo credit: Supplied

The iwi has also been receiving mentoring and business support from the FoodStarter partners, like Foodstuffs North Island, Foodstuffs South Island, Ministry of Awesome, New Zealand Food Innovation Network and Strategy Creative.

Owen says the support of their unique business model has been phenomenal. 

"We were committed for ages but we were thinking, you know, 'how do we ensure we're telling the story right?', 'how do you turn innovation into business and demonstrate to people that you're serious?'" she says. 

"Especially as we're an iwi-owned business, we wanted to ensure everyone knows we are a waka, we will have different people coming in and out at different times - it was about sharing that story, and making sure there was understanding of that." 

But in fact, their business model is a large part of why they were crowned winners, according to Marian Johnson, CEO of Ministry of Awesome. "Kaitahi As One exemplifies the spirit of the competition," she said.

"It's an amazing example of innovation, sustainability and community enterprise, and it has been a privilege to have been able to share this journey into all New World freezers with them."

"We know New Zealanders, Kaitahi As One and everyone at FoodStarter is very excited to see what the future holds for them."

For Owen and her peers, the investment in their company means the future of their community is looking bright. 

"I remember saying when we [won], 'this is not just about us, you have no idea how much this means to our people'," she says.

"We're creating jobs, we've created this food business strategy… we're creating all these pathways for our kids. 

"We're bringing in people all the time. We just did a kawakawa pick with our rangatahi looking for work, we're bringing in more people to the hydro-farming… we're thinking education, onsite training, the building of a new factory which means even more employment opportunities…."

Entries are now open for FoodStarter 2022, and this year the competition criteria has been extended to include any product that can be sold in a supermarket.  Foodstuffs North Island CEO Chris Quin says he's excited to see what the next cohort of entrants "bring to the table".

Foodstuffs North Island CE Chris Quin.
Foodstuffs North Island CE Chris Quin. Photo credit: Supplied

"FoodStarter is an exciting and fast-growing community of innovative suppliers and we're very proud to be a part of supporting them to develop and grow. I would encourage all entrepreneurs with an innovative product to enter the competition, whether they're already a small supplier to New World, or just starting out. 

"The support successful entrants receive from all partners is absolutely second to none."

Find out more about FoodStarter and how you can enter here.

This article was created for New World.