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Customer story

Wakatū: Taking up the challenge to continuously innovate

This article was published on Jul 14, 2017, 1:28 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

A deep commitment to land and sea, Māori business Wakatū is continuously innovating to build a legacy for generations to come. Firmly at their side is Callaghan Innovation.

What's in this article

    At a glance

    • Māori business Wakatū is looking to build a legacy for coming generations, with an innovation strategy aiming to commercialise high-value food and beverage applications to address global nutrition, health and wellbeing challenges.
    • Callaghan Innovation has supported their journey a number of ways, including R&D Experience Grants, supporting the business in managing its intellectual IP, and in applying Lean thinking to operational systems.
    • Despite already producing well-known products like Tohu wine and exporting to over 40 markets, Wakatū is taking a courageous approach going forward, trying new technology and techniques to make a real difference.

    Building a legacy for generations to come

    A business of land and sea, Wakatū is a family-owned, Māori business based in Te Tau Ihu (the top of the South Island) with a diverse portfolio. And it’s this diversity that has seen them grow from a base of $11 million back in 1977 to a value of more than $300 million today.

    Through the passage of time, the world has challenged us to innovate — to become scientists, researchers, winemakers, branders, marketers, viticulturists and leaders. We’ve taken up that challenge without hesitation.

    - says chief executive Kerensa Johnston.

    Within Wakatū is Whenua, which covers everything from vineyards, orchards and grazing land to residential properties, large retail developments and office buildings. And then there’s the Kono brand, an artisan producer and exporter of award-winning wine, cider, seafood, pipfruit, hops and natural fruit bars.

    What makes Wakatū different is its deep connection and commitment to whenua, moana and tangata (land, sea and people), as well as its products. Its strong vision and deeply held values means Wakatū manages its assets in a way that will build on its legacy for the generations to come. And their innovation strategy, where they aim to commercialise high-value food and beverage applications to address global nutrition, health and wellbeing challenges, will be its backbone. 

    Working alongside Callaghan Innovation

    Wakatu Case Study

    [Miriana Stephens]

    Wakatū - we're a family business and we're a big family because there's 4,000 of us and we live throughout Aotearoa New Zealand as well as the world. You know we're farming around 530 hectares of land, coming on stream we'll have about 770 hectares of water space. And then there's Kono New Zealand which is our food and drinks basket to the world. We currently export to over 40 countries, Callaghan Innovation really got myself, personally, on a journey of thinking about the next stages of development for Wakatū Incorporation.

    So we have been able to think about what does an innovation strategy look like for us as a group. So for example, for the land and water wellness program, how do we integrate technology into the business, so that we can look at becoming smarter, better farmers. So we have a sensor network, it's out on our vineyards currently capturing real-time data, so for example soil moisture, then we also get external data sets, could be around climate, layering that into our platform, and it supports our managers to be able to make better decisions on farm.

    It's not just about the Growth Grants or the Project Grants but it's also about the programs because I think how we've benefitted immensely is around getting our heads, what does intellectual property mean to us, you know, what does... what is actually innovation for us. And we've come up with a catchphrase of "Doing things better and doing better things", so it's very simple, everyone understands it.

    I think we're very fortunate and Callaghan Innovation that they have a Māori economy team, say that if you are a Māori business that you are able to first and foremost approach the team. We've had an excellent relationship with the customer managers within that team who have been able to support us in our journey going forward. That's been fantastic.

    A business built on innovation, Wakatū has leveraged help from Callaghan Innovation in a number of ways.  

    With Wakatū heavily focussed on succession planning, and offering a robust programme of scholarships and skills training for example, using our R&D Experience Grants to match postgraduate students to the business, providing a pathway into the business, has been a natural fit.

    And with Wakatū also focussing on leveraging science and technology applications in two programmes: high-value add, and land and water wellness, our X programme? Has been crucial.

    Miriana Stephens, a member of the board and Executive Director of Innovation, says Wakatū’s land and water wellness programmes need to be leading edge. “This means not only do we know the state of our lands, but that our business practices will contribute to land, water and ecosystem well-being. This is all about being good kaitiaki (custodians).”

    This is realised in a project involving collecting data from vineyards and orchards and combining it with smart technology to help operational teams make informed decisions, take care of the land, and maximise potential and value.  

    Kerensa Johnston, Chief Executive (left) and Miriama Stephens, Executive Director (right)

    Kerensa Johnston, Chief Executive (left) and Miriama Stephens, Executive Director (right)

    A continuous journey

    Even with prestigious brands already in-market, such as Tohu wine and Annie’s natural fruit bars, and exports heading to over 40 different markets, Wakatū is not a business that will be standing still.

    “We’re on a journey, and there’s always room for improvement,” says Stephens. “It’s about starting, having courage to try new technology and techniques, and making a difference. We’re also working on a strategy to lift our game in the digital space. There are some real opportunities for us to make better connections with the people who buy our products, as well as to use technology and data even more efficiently to perform better throughout the value chain.”

    Stephens says, “We are very keen to partner with people and organisations who are aligned with our purpose and values, both within New Zealand and internationally. We’ve recently been to Denmark and the United Kingdom to learn from others who are also in this intersection of people, environment and technology, and to share our story with them. Having a strong and relevant network is very important.”

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