Traditional art form weaves a new business for young entrepreneur

It's a life change that started as a call to come home to run a marae art gallery and blossomed into a thriving online business.

Over two years, Whatu Creative business owner Awhina Murupaenga (Te Hiku o te Ika) has built a business selling kits for people to make their own tukutuku (latticework weaving) panels.

"I have always wanted to run my own business and be an entrepreneur. I had some pretty big goals," Murupaenga said.

She's already achieved that, recently being selected alongside seven female business owners from Aotearoa for a global entrepreneur programme run by Coralus.

However, she wasn't always convinced she'd make it.

"I wasn't the person I am now, 10 years ago, I was quite closed and I was lost."

Growing up in west Auckland, Murupaenga always knew her whakapapa to Te Hiku o Te Ika - the Far North - but felt removed from it.

"They were just words that I had learned to recite for my pepehā, but I didn't know the ripples of our moana and the hau - blowing of te ara wairua - I didn't know, they were just words."

Then she got a call asking her to run the art gallery at her marae Roma.

So, while all her friends were doing their OE, the 25-year-old packed her bags and moved instead to the small seaside town of Ahipara, a population of 1200.

"It was a huge culture shock for me to move home. I had grown up in the city of busyness, everything at your disposal. I would move back to Ahipara, and the isolation was deafening."

Whaea Pareaute Nathan, who is an expert weaver, took Awhina under her wing.

"She had been brought up in Auckland, she had the reo, but she wanted real grassroots stuff."

Every month, Nathan ran weaving workshops at the marae to ensure the skill was passed on to the next generation.

Te Whare Whiri Toi, the marae art gallery, was one of her innovations.

"When we set this place up, we were putting it out there to market their wares, so they get something back," Nathan said.

And it was this entrepreneurial spirit that inspired Murupaenga.

During the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2021, inspiration struck - to take the tukutuku workshop that she ran in schools and turn it into a craft kit for people to do at home.

Over the next two months, she would build a social media presence, before launching Whatu Creative.

"I would sell out. 200 toi kits in one hour and make $26,000, which was a lot of money. That would have been more money than I had made in that whole year," she said.

"We had to come up with a really quick way to mass-make these kits because there was obviously a demand... I had to draw on all my whanau and friends to start our business."

The commercial use of Māori language, designs and symbols has become a hot topic in recent years, something Murupaenga was conscious of with her business.

"I had a huge fear when I started my Instagram page, 'oh my God, I'm like profiting off mātauranga Māori, people are gonna hate me'."

She encourages people to seek guidance from their kaumatua or experts in the area. She's received the nod of approval from her kaumatua.

"I know it [tukutuku] will never be lost because they are here carrying it through," Nathan said.