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What is needed for southern Māori businesses to succeed? An Otago research team has discovered that more than simply economic considerations are required. 

The Māori business economy is a diverse and dynamic system that shouldn’t be pigeonholed – there is no “one size fits all”.

One of the key differences in a Māori business is that there is an unclear distinction between economic and social environment. There are multiple bottom lines: making a profit is still necessary to survive, but cultural values are integral.

Dr Diane Ruwhiu, from the Otago Business School’s Department of Management, has led a research project that identified this and other critical success factors of Māori small to medium enterprises (SMEs), specifically in the southern region. The project was funded by Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE).

Māori business is regarded as where the owners identify themselves as Māori.

The Māori national economy is estimated at $42.6 billion, but Ruwhiu says economic analysis only provides half the story of Māori business contribution in regions.

“We wanted to build information on how they operate and view their role in regional development – what stages in the business lifecycle they are in, what opportunities and tensions exist within those stages. This will help to identify what is working well, what the barriers are to success, what resources are needed and how they maintain cultural integrity within a business framework.”

Ruwhiu worked with an Otago-based research team of Dr Katharina Ruckstuhl, Dr Maria Amoamo, Janine Kapa-Blair and Anaru Eketone, and an advisory group of representatives from Te Puni Kōkiri’s Māori Business Facilitation Service and Te Kupeka Umaka Māori ki Araiteuru (KUMA), the Southern Māori Business Network.

Their research described the ownership, governance and lifecycle characteristics of southern Māori SMEs. They also examined the frame of institutional arrangements that provide support.

Alongside this, the research team examined regional Māori SMEs and the cultural, social and economic context within which they operate to better understand their contribution to economic development.

The study looked specifically at Māori SMEs and the role they play in supporting both their economy and whānau. Some identify themselves as distinctly Māori, others temper their identity depending on the context of their market demographics. Many gain confidence identifying as a Māori business as they become more successful.

This potentially raises questions in regards to the role of indigenous branding within the context of indigenous business start-up and development.

The study demonstrated that to fully understand the contribution of the Māori economy we need to explore the many diverse forms of enterprise that have evolved, ranging from SMEs, tribal enterprises, social enterprises – and even those often hidden enterprises involved in customary economies.

Mentoring is important to Māori business owners, not only in a formal way, such as KUMA, or Te Puni Kōkiri’s Māori Business Facilitation Service, but also by having a strong informal network of Māori business people who put each other in touch with knowledge, resources and connections, as needed.

Despite this, more collaboration, co-ordination and communication is an identified need when it comes to drawing from mainstream business support agencies.

The innovation system, in particular, is hard to engage with. Māori business owners feel they are not being exposed to the opportunities provided by a traditional, narrowly-defined innovation system, and that better-directed support of diverse needs would greatly improve support for regional development.

Business incubators, with a strong Māori dynamic that understands the underpinning cultural values of Māori business, would be easier to engage with and help to foster innovation.

This research formed the basis of a broader national research project on the development of the Māori economy, the many forms of enterprise, and the innovation capability of Māori SMEs.


  • Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga