Members of a Maori group from New Zealand perform during a ceremony. (Reuters Photo/Jason Reed)

What's New About Social Enterprise? Nothing for the Maori


SEPTEMBER 29, 2017

Christchurch, New Zealand. As New Zealand's most disadvantaged group, Maoris are finding new ways to tackle poverty and crime by setting up businesses that aim to do good.

They have a strong track record, too, with generations of Maori ventures that set out to achieve way more than profit.

"The Maori invented social enterprise; it's just what we do," Sacha McMeeking told the Social Enterprise World Forum, three days of talks and debating held in Christchurch this week.

The indigenous people of New Zealand experience greater levels of poverty, more unemployment and lower educational attainment than locals of European descent.

And although they make up 15 percent of the population, half of New Zealand’s prison population is Maori, according to a report by the University of Victoria in Wellington.

McMeeking wrote a report on Maori social enterprises, and she presented her findings at a forum that is playing host to some 1600 delegates from 45 countries.

She pointed out that the concept of pursuing broader goals - rather than pure economic gain - has been practiced for generations, with early, inter-tribal trade conducted for the benefit of the greater clan, not for individual gain.

"Social enterprises exist to fix seven generations of hara [Maori for harm] to our people," said McMeeking, referring to the British colonization that changed the makeup of the islands.

No Lycra Needed

Maori social enterprises come in myriad forms but share a common purpose: the empowerment and well-being of a community.

One such venture is Patu Aotearoa, a gym that tries to tackle obesity in Maori.

New Zealand has a big problem with weight, with a third of adults classed as obese. Obesity among Maoris is still worse, standing at 47 percent, according to the Ministry of Health.

Patu is a gym with a difference.

"We don’t even like using the word gym," said founder Levi Armstrong. He explained that Patu is more like an urban marae - a Maori courtyard where formal greetings and discussions happen - with an emphasis on fun and community.

Membership costs 10 New Zealand dollars ($7.19)a week - lycra is strictly optional.

"Nobody cares what you look like," said Armstrong. "People turn up in their gumboots."

The organization runs classes tailored for different members of the community - children and the elderly, "big boys" and "big girls" - and Armstrong said the emphasis was on self-belief.

Some Maori dislike the term 'social enterprise', wary of a Western concept being imposed on something that has been integral to their culture for so long.

"We’re Maori. In us, there is an innate ability of thinking how to do things collectively," said Ngahau Davis of the He Iwi Kotahi Tatou Trust, a social enterprise offering community services in the town of Moerewa.

The organization has won contracts to insulate houses - jobs that were turned down by other organisations that did not see enough profit. Davis saw a different gain to be had.

"As long as the operation broke even, the social profit was huge: employment, warmer homes, training," said Davis.