How Māori businesses plan to survive COVID-19

Aotearoa is now grappling with the formidable challenge of rebuilding a new post COVID-19 economy. 

It's estimated that one in 10 small- to medium-sized businesses are owned by Māori and form the backbone of the Māori economy - many of these businesses have been significantly impacted by the pandemic and resulting rāhui and they're having to adapt quickly to survive. 

"COVID itself is a difficult one because it's like someone coming up the back of you and hitting you over the head with a hammer - that's it, stop!" says iTraffic managing director Glen Harding Ruma. 

iTraffic, which specialises in traffic management, is a well-established Māori- and Pacific-owned success story. Its 250-strong workforce is predominantly Māori and Polynesian, a point Harding Ruma is proud of. 

"I think recognising ourselves now as a Māori and Pasifika business is good for our people to see a successful business. It's good to see it can be done," he says.

 The company, which started in 2004, was in the midst of a growth spurt when COVID-19 struck.

 "We were probably performing at the highest amount of jobs that we had in our company at the time, a bit of a peak, so it was a bit of an unfortunate time when the shutdown came," says Harding Ruma.

 When the country went into level 4, Glen and his management team not only made the costly decision to keep all staff employed, they went over and above to keep kai on their tables.

"It never entered our mind to let people go. We wanted our whanau to be happy and to be comfortable, so what we did was every second week, depending on how many people they had in their family, if they were single they got a certain food pack, if there was a big family, we put a huge food pack together for them. It was only about $100-$150 but it was received really well," he adds.

Bookings dry up

Mataatua Marae in south Auckland would ordinarily be a hive of activity hosting the manuhiri that generate its income, but it's all but deserted since large gatherings were forbidden under the COVID-19 rāhui.

"All the bookings they were either school groups, educational institutes like waananga. We also had bookings in there for family events, sporting events, but first and foremost, tangihanga always take precedence over those bookings. It was absolutely chokka to be quite honest, right up to December," says Mataatua Marae chairperson Wetini Paul.

But cancellations due to the coronavirus means the revenue the marae relies on has all but vanished.

"It has a huge impact on the marae finances, because that really is our only revenue stream, it's just through our bookings how we are able to be able to pay our bills, and the bills don't stop," says Paul.

Māori businesses will need to be resilient if they're going to survive post-COVID-19.
Māori businesses will need to be resilient if they're going to survive post-COVID-19. Photo credit: The Hui

The level 4 rāhui occurred just as Mataatua was modernising its business - joining Book a Marae, an online accommodation booking system, a bit like a Māori Airbnb.

"We need to utilise technology a lot more and that's what Book A Marae offered, because we're pen, paper and phone at the moment," says Paul.

"We've spoken to a lot of maraes, a lot of committees, and if not all of them are struggling. We've spoken to some big ones and they're struggling to pay their rates, and so we believe Book A Marae will be able to help them and generate an income for them," says Book A Marae co-founder Hyrum Sunnex. 

Business partners Sunnex and Breviss Wolfgramm are the brains behind the concept that aimed to deliver authentic cultural experiences for both domestic and international groups. 

It's estimated that around 85 percent of New Zealanders have never set foot on marae grounds.

So, after 15 months of planning, they'd got backing from the likes of Tourism Industry Aotearoa and 20 marae from around the country keen to take part in a business trial.

"Marae are going to generate an income stream, and that's the most important thing. If they can generate an income stream, they can create employment opportunities for their own people, sharing what they know - whether it's weaving, whether it's singing a song, whether it's doing a hangi," Sunnex says.

"We were applying for the Māori development fund, and we were going through that process with Te Puni Kōkiri, and we were getting to the final stages. And then Covid19 hit. Obviously Covid19 not only put paid to not only our application, but probably many more that are probably that are wonderful kaupapa as well," says 'Book A Marae' Co-Founder, Breviss Wolfgramm.

Now at level 3, about 45 percent of iTraffic's business is up and running again and it's expected to get up to 60 percent in the coming weeks.

"We have a duty to our people, our tikanga, to show manaakitanga, to really nurture and look after our people, to give them opportunities. We are quietly confident that that work will take off again when we get back out there. If anything, it's just going to ramp up even more because we'll be trying to play catch up, especially on the major projects," says Harding Ruma.

Resilience amid bleak outlook

While iTraffic is optimistic, the outlook for Māori unemployment is bleak. But Māori organisations are adapting quickly to the post coronavirus climate.

Mataatua Marae are showing the important role marae play during times of crisis. Waananga and hui at are now replaced with a free mobile flu vaccination service for whanau.

No food is being prepared in the wharekai, but donated pantry staples are being put together for vulnerable locals experiencing hardship.

Book A Marae has also refocused its business, partnering with a national food distribution company to supply marae with well-priced kai and hygiene products. Marae can then on-sell, creating a new revenue stream.

"I received a phone call from one of the maraes that we deal with in Mahia and they had a rest home up there that had no sanitiser, the people at their checkpoint had no sanitiser, and their iwi Rongomai Wāhine had no hand sanitiser. You can hear sheer desperation in people's voices," says Wolfgramm.

Despite shortages, Book A Marae was able to source hand sanitiser supplies and get them delivered.

"The purpose behind that is to not make money from those services, it's to show that Book A Marae is not just about accommodation and authentic cultural experience, but that we're here to help," says Sunnex.

The resilience they've shown will have to be adopted by many Māori businesses, if they're going to survive post-COVID-19.

And for established organisations, the crisis has provided a deeper appreciation for the workers who form the backbone of their business.

"We can have all the trucks and all the equipment, whatever else we got, but you can't do this job without the people - and the success of this company, is the success of the collective," adds Harding Ruma.

While the whakairo in the whare wait patiently for people to return to the marae once again, Māori business entrepreneurs say they won't give up.

"There has to be a plan of, 'How can we help our people?' Moving forward this will get better and our country will get better. We're focused on our culture… we have an idea, we want to make it into reality," says Sunnex.

The Hui