A very long-term view of innovation: Doing things better. 

Wakatū Incorporation is a 4,000 family-owned Māori business with a 500-year intergenerational vision, Te Pae Tawhiti. Its drive for ‘doing things better, doing better things’ stems from Hihiritanga — innovation and curiosity. According to director Miriana Stephens, the wellbeing of people and place are central to the incorporation’s purpose. As the largest private landowner in its region, Wakatū has a key custodial role.

“There’s a massive responsibility to ensure we’re good kaitiaki, good custodians of our estate. To be better farmers, better partners, to be thinking about future prosperity, it’s important that we participate in industries or sectors that really align with our values and vision.”

The three divisions of Wakatū are Kono NZ (food and beverage), Whenua (land) and AuOra (functional foods and ingredients sourced from horticulture, marine and indigenous organisms).

It was one of the first Māori entities to partner with Callaghan Innovation, where Stephens spent six months on secondment. She collaborated with its Nuku ki te Puku cluster, and other Māori food and beverage businesses, while learning about the agency’s science and innovation expertise and funding programmes.

Stephens characterises the relationship with Callaghan Innovation as rewarding and well aligned, largely due to like-minded individuals at the agency supporting and understanding Wakatū values and goals.

This understanding has benefited Wakatū in many ways, across many projects. For example, the agency supported the development of its IP strategy and provided a better understanding of the types of innovation across the value chain. Research carried out by a Callaghan Innovation-funded intern supported Wakatū in looking at indigenous models of protecting and accessing traditional knowledge and genetic resources; models that ensured benefits flowed back to its community.

Another agency-funded postdoc student helped AuOra build the first Aotearoa functional foods and ingredients database, which is essential for new product development; other interns have studied Kono NZ waste streams to find alternative uses.

Stephens says the flexibility and understanding that Callaghan Innovation’s Māori customer managers offer is a real strength. Māori entities may not always fit the boxes that funding requires, and the managers’ grasp of the way Māori want to access and use funding helped customers successfully fund vital projects.


People talk about social enterprise now, but for many Māori entities, we’ve been doing that for 150 years; it’s not new to us.

Miriana Stephens Director

The importance Wakatū places on people comes across in the way it interacts with other organisations and possible partners — an approach that Stephens stresses is “relational, not transactional” and signals to partners they are dealing with a family with a very long-term view.

“We’re a family business, and we establish relationships at all levels of the business, not just with our sales team or the marketing team. We host our customers and partners; they come into our families to the extent that they will ask, is uncle going to be there? Uncle was there last time.”

The family approach also means that Wakatū has always had succession planning by design. It has programmes to nurture the next generation of leaders; three of the incorporation’s seven directors have come up through them. As one of the three, Stephens sees the value of the Wakatū programmes.

“It’s about having access to the best talent, the best of our wisdom and practices, the best of the science and technology — weaving those together to support that 500-year intergenerational vision. We’ve been steadily building cohorts of young people because growing our own people is important.”

The incorporation’s future leaders will be well-placed to “continue the mission to design and develop more values-led businesses according to our tikanga that will make a difference for themselves, their community, and Aotearoa New Zealand.”

And for others on the same journey, Stephens offers this advice: “Surround yourself with good people, grow them when you can and always seek relationships with people who are aligned with what you’re doing.”

At a glance

  • Owned by 4,000 families
  • CEO is Kerensa Johnston
  • Based in Nelson and Motueka
  • Three business divisions covering food and beverage, land, and functional foods and ingredients
  • Asset base of around $450 million
  • Visit website

Callaghan Innovation impact

  • Student grants to help Wakatū grow its talent
  • Networking and collaboration through Nuku ki te Puku and other initiatives
  • Assistance with access to funding
Popular Topics