Story: Ngā umanga – Māori business enterprise

Page 1. History of Māori enterprise

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Māori ran small enterprises before Europeans arrived in New Zealand. They had well-established bartering systems and regular trading patterns amongst their own whānau and hapū, within their iwi, and between iwi.

Early Māori trade

Trading revolved around regional products which were exchanged over long distances by hapū and iwi. Coastal Māori offered kaimoana (seafood), and inland Māori provided berries, preserved birds and other products of the forest in return. Obsidian from Tūhua (Mayor Island), argillite from Nelson and D'Urville Island, basalt from Tahanga in the Coromandel and pounamu (greenstone or jade) from the South Island were all traded.

Impact of European settlement

Following European settlement, Māori switched their focus away from trading amongst themselves to forging business associations with the new settlers. Māori supplied the towns and cities that sprang up with livestock and crops. This soon extended to developing business relationships internationally, and Māori traded in the South Pacific and Australia. As New Zealand developed as a country and the economy grew, Māori found their niche in the primary sectors of business, such as farming and fishing, preferring to remain within their own rohe (regions) on their traditional land blocks, and collectively deriving an income through agricultural activities.

Land alienation

With trade opportunity came threats to Māori culture and ways of doing things. Māori land was sold, or confiscated by the Crown. By 1860 almost all Māori land in the South Island had passed out of Māori ownership. By the 1900s, most Māori land suitable for agriculture in the North Island had passed out of Māori ownership. The natural resources Māori had relied on to survive and support their people were no longer in their possession. With few resources and little opportunity for development, Māori lost self-determination.

The land that did remain was held in multiple titles and was often of marginal quality. Over time, trusts and incorporations became the main bodies managing land with multiple owners.

Māori enterprise in the 20th century

In the mid-20th century New Zealand became increasingly industrialised. Labour shortages soon developed in the main towns and cities. To help fill the void in the labour market, government policies encouraged Māori to move to towns and cities and take up unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Māori urbanisation proceeded on an unprecedented scale. Māori had, in essence, traded their status of being self-sufficient on communally-owned agricultural blocks for being employees in the fast-growing industrial and service sectors.

Restructuring and unemployment

The restructuring and closure of many of New Zealand’s large manufacturing and primary-sector businesses in the late 1980s and early 1990s had a devastating effect on Māori, who were laid off in disproportionate numbers. Many Māori were left jobless and without a foreseeable future in the workforce. Many were forced to look to the government for support and welfare. However, some followed the entrepreneurial spirit of their ancestors and developed their own enterprises. The result was a substantial growth in the numbers of Māori in small to medium-sized businesses.

How to cite this page:

Matene Love and Tyron Love, 'Ngā umanga – Māori business enterprise - History of Māori enterprise', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 August 2022)

Story by Matene Love and Tyron Love, published 11 Mar 2010