Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Ngā umanga – Māori business enterprise

by Matene Love and Tyron Love

Alienation of tribal land limited the economic opportunities for Māori tribes, but restoration of some tribal assets and a renaissance of Māori language and culture have spawned a new breed of Māori entrepreneur – film-makers, software developers, brewers, chefs and clothes designers.

History of Māori enterprise

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.

Issues of Māori enterprise

In the 1990s and early 2000s the number of self-employed Māori increased at a greater rate than self-employed non-Māori, though Māori were still less likely to be self-employed. Māori and Pacific Islanders had the lowest proportion of self-employment in New Zealand. Similar disparities between Māori and non-Māori are evident in general employment statistics. The economic restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s forced many Māori to participate in the small enterprise sector as ‘necessity entrepreneurs’.

Attaining capital

Low earning capacity, low levels of savings, and collective ownership of land and other assets made it hard for many Māori to secure funding for new ventures.

In the early 2000s some mainstream financial institutions were looking to develop policies and procedures that would allow them to take a more flexible approach to lending to Māori, especially where collectively owned assets could be used as collateral or security. Larger Māori-owned trusts and incorporations were also looking at funding their owners’ business ventures, using iwi-owned money rather than relying on the financial sector.

Business structures

In the early 2000s Māori businesses had a wide range of structures, from a conventional business structure (sole trader, partnership or company) to a marae-, whānau- or iwi-based structure. These businesses did not always follow the generally accepted economic models of best managerial or commercial practice. Collectively owned tribal-based structures were sometimes unsuited to efficient decision-making, management and reporting.

Operational skills

Māori businesses were more likely to have less managerial expertise due to lower levels of education, especially at the tertiary level. Lack of business skills or managerial experience often limited growth. In the early 2000s a large proportion of Māori businesses were still in their infancy, or were very small. Many had not yet gained the essential experience or skills needed to survive, let alone succeed, as a competitive business.

Cultural obligations

Cultural and social issues, such as the dependence of family groups on business for financial support or employment, often affected Māori businesses and their chances of succeeding. The ‘tātou tātou’ (we all look after each other) philosophy often makes it hard for Māori business owners to say no when asked to give away products or services.


The median age of the Māori population was 13 years lower than the non-Māori population in the early 2000s, and Māori often entered the business sector at a younger age than non-Māori, compounding their problems of inexperience.

Opportunities for Māori enterprise

The motivation for Māori to enter self-employment changed in the late 20th century. While previously Māori had mainly entered self-employment out of necessity, because of job losses and lack of skills in other areas, many Māori were now taking advantage of new opportunities in the marketplace, including those associated with the revitalisation of their language and culture.

The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 became the basis for Crown acknowledgement and resolution of Māori historical grievances. Treaty settlements have provided an investment base and allowed Māori to be more self-reliant.

Agriculture to service

After 1981 the focus of Māori self-employment steadily shifted away from the agricultural sector towards the service sectors. To some degree this mirrored the overall shift in Māori employment away from the primary and manufacturing sectors towards service-oriented sectors.

There was a rapid growth of Māori service industries built on the demand for cultural knowledge, for example film, television and radio, and the music and fashion industries. The advent of Māori-language schooling led to the establishment of a number of Māori publishing companies.

Te Māngai Pāho, established to make funding available for Māori radio stations, and for the production of Māori-language television and radio programmes and music CDs, came into being as a result of a Treaty of Waitangi claim.

Culture and business

In the early 2000s Māori were increasingly using their culture as a point of difference in the creation of new enterprises. This ‘Māori renaissance’ and public acceptance of Māori culture saw business opportunities established in many sectors of the economy, including retail, tourism, fishing, art and cuisine.

The three Fs


The Māori asset base was once dominated by ‘three Fs’ in the primary sector – fishing, farming and forestry. While these still provide opportunities, a new generation of Māori entrepreneurs are finding opportunities and success in three new Fs – film, fashion and food.


In tourism – the largest single contributor to export earnings – Māori culture was increasingly seen as one of the defining points of difference for visitors who wanted an authentic ‘Kiwi experience’. Only Māori could deliver a Māori cultural experience.

Māori small and medium enterprises

In the early 2000s a range of Māori businesses were involved in a variety of fields.

Kiwa Media Group

Kiwa Media Group was one of a number of Māori film production companies in New Zealand in the early 2000s. The establishment of Māori Television in 2004 gave these companies a boost. Rhonda Kite of Te Aupōuri was the director of Kiwa. The company got its start translating overseas cartoons into Māori for television. They produced a number of documentaries and went on to make a series called Kete aronui and a number of feature films.

Acting up


Entrepreneurial Māori talent has made it to the world’s film and television heights. Taika Waititi was nominated for an Oscar for his short film Two cars one night, and his first full-length film Eagle vs shark premiered at the Sundance festival. His 2019 film Jojo rabbit won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Wiremu Grace has had short films in the Cannes Film Festival (Tūrangawaewae) and at the Berlinale (Kēhua).


Pareārau Group

Fiona Wilson established the first Māori chartered accountancy firm in January 1996, in partnership with Rangimarie Parata Takurua. In the early 2000s the Pareārau Group worked with tribal groups to develop their management of assets.

Indigenous ale

Taakawa, an ale infused with native kawakawa leaves, was created by Simon Burney from Fiji and Bruce Smith from Ngāti Raukawa. In the early 2000s they went from home brewing to producing approximately 30,000 litres a year in an Auckland-based brewery.

Ezy-flo trailers


Bill Groves developed a prototype for a ground-loading trailer using cardboard boxes, an ice-cream container and milk-bottle tops. He took it to an engineer who developed the trailer from the model. Groves borrowed money from a friend to build the first trailer, then secured a worldwide patent for his design. Hydraulics allowed the trailer to lower so cars could drive straight on without ramps or manpower, and then be raised.


Kia Kaha

Kia Kaha clothing started in 1994 as a family-owned and -operated backyard business selling T-shirts at a flea market in Bay of Plenty. Maintaining whānau directorship and encouraging whānau involvement, Kia Kaha was a Māori enterprise which saw whānau support as a principal factor driving the enterprise. Kia Kaha's vision was to be New Zealand's leading Māori clothing company, and to develop an international market.

As well as having a Māori name and product design, Kia Kaha directors adhered to Māori customs and protocol. All designs were first approved by kaumātua and kuia (elders) before release, new clothing and premises were blessed, and designs were traditionally inspired but did not exploit iwi cultural property.


Taylormade was a small advertising and video production company begun by Ian Taylor of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāpuhi in 1990. By 2009 it employed 30 staff, including animators, programmers, writers, designers, actors and producers. In 1992 Taylor’s company Animation Research developed sports graphics for coverage of the America’s Cup yacht races, which allowed races to be tracked and displayed on screen in real time, using global positioning. Animation Research developed this technology for many sports and has sold it around the world.

How to cite this page: Matene Love and Tyron Love, 'Ngā umanga – Māori business enterprise', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 12 August 2022)

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