Accelerate - March 2015

R&D investment key to Māori business

open this image in new window: Hemi Rolleston

The Māori economy and innovation performance is similar to that of mainstream New Zealand businesses – but its differences are worth noting for the country's future.

“Investing in R&D and technology is like learning some fancy rugby moves once you're up to speed.”

“Māori have some unique products, a unique story, are here for the long term, and view things from an intergenerational perspective,” says Hemi Rolleston, Callaghan Innovation's general manager Māori economy.

“It is a generalisation, but Māori don't view a business as something to sell on. There's a willingness to use the business as an asset for the good of all its members.”

This doesn't mean that all existing and emerging Māori businesses are fully up to speed in applying new technologies, or even in researching and developing new products and services.

Rolleston says that Callaghan Innovation's role is often to work alongside other Māori-focused groups in government, such as MED, MBIE and Te Puni Kokiri – most of whom focus on capability building.

'We're probably at the cutting edge, looking at the high-value, high-end part of the Māori economy,” he says.

Using a rugby example, Rolleston describes how once tribes have received their settlement monies it is as if they have to get match fit, to know how to pass, catch and kick a ball. That is to take an initial conservative business path and learn the ropes.

“Investing in R&D and technology is like learning some fancy rugby moves once you're up to speed,” he says, and this is where his team is particularly interested in talking to Māori businesses.

“That's when businesses are looking at new products, ideas and technology. For example, across agricultural and horticultural industries, it could be making clever use of drones, robotics and sensing technologies.”

Then there are products and stories that can be unique to Māori– Kawakawa derived pharmaceuticals, and manuka and kanuka honeys, for example.

“Māori have a great story around many products because of the tie to the land, the longevity of outlook, and the fact that most of the profits go back to the people and to education,” Rolleston says.

“Countries such as China, looking for authenticity, provenance and sustainability, see real value in those attributes.”

Part of his role is helping to build a collaborative approach, which has come about through the creation of a health and Māori food and beverage cluster.

Getting many of the Māori fisheries companies to collaborate has also been another target.

“Naturally, what people around the world want is fish that is as fresh and well-presented as it can be,” he says.

“But today it is also making use of the by-products, creating value from what used to be waste. We've got players in fishing, and in other industries, collaborating around innovation and R&D. Some of it is also about the smart use of technology – in agriculture, for example, how to do more with less.”

Rolleston says another major part of the role is to inspire, motivate and connect Māori businesses.

An example was taking a diverse range of Māori businesses to a Stanford University Design Thinking course, followed by a couple of days at a major food technology conference.

“Suddenly you had these different businesses thinking and discussing how you profile, promote, display and create new products. They can see that incubating an idea in New Zealand first is a good idea before trying to take it to the world market. Develop local, test, and then go global.”

Rolleston says that in a few years he expects to see clusters of collaborating Māori food companies leading in R&D and technology development – with high value products as a result of their efforts.

“What you'll see is that it will be part of the nature of Māori businesses to invest in R&D.”

Updated: 4 September 2015