Whairawa | Economy

Toitu Te Whenua, Toitu Te Tangata

From catching fish at the mouth of the Waiapu through to making high-quality content for new communication technologies, Ngati Porou has conducted business on its own terms, guided by its own tikanga (cultural understandings) and mātauranga (knowledge systems). We have sought to engage with the global economy, building relationships with others to achieve our mutual goals. The Ngati Porou economic story has been one of innovation in the face of challenge. Every whanau and hapu has their own perspective of our economy: the following is one telling of the story…

Traditional Trade | From Ngati Porou to the World (1830s-1920s) | Sir Apirana Ngata and the Development Schemes (1920s-1950s)
Working in the Cities (1960s-1980s) | The Rise of the Tribal Business (1990s-today)

Traditional trade

The traditional Ngati Porou economy was extensive, providing not only the necessities for day to day survival but including a wide-ranging trading network with other iwi. Our economy was based on our own matauranga (knowledge) incorporating the natural patterns of the whenua and moana as well as our own values. Trade, both internally between whanau and hapu and externally with other iwi was based on our own understandings including utu, or reciprocity. Under this system trade was more than just the exchange of goods, it created binding relationships between the various groups involved.

Kai was a key part of the economy. Ngati Porou food cultivations were large and complex, able to provide for a large population. In the Waiapu and at Uawa for example there were large kūmara plantations that could provide kai for thousands of people. Fishing was also a substantial operation. Waka would take out huge kaharoa (seine nets), that measured up to nine metres in depth and up to two kilometres in length, and could catch hundreds of fish at a time. This was a highly technical operation requiring great leadership and technology to make such an operation successful. The fishing would be done in set fishing grounds based on age-old knowledge. All of this activity was based on our own matauranga (knowledge) and practicing our own tikanga.

Economic activity was tied to natural patterns such as the appearance of Matariki

The appearance of the star cluster Matariki indicated that the Kahawai were beginning their annual migration, and so it was a time for preparing the nets for fishing. By the time they arrived several months later it was time to transfer the kumara seedlings to the mara (garden) to prepare for their harvesting.

Ngati Porou would trade our preserved kumara and other foodstuffs for articles from other iwi. Different forms of stone were particularly prized. We would import pounamu from the South Island, pakohe (argillite) from te Tau Ihu (Nelson-Marlborough), mata (obsidian) from Tuhua (Mayor Island) off Tauranga, and kara (basalt) from Hahei in the Coromandel. This stone would be used in everything from tools to weapons.

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From Ngati Porou to the world (1830s-1920s)

Early trade

Ngati Porou embraced the arrival of Pakeha trade enthusiastically. From the early explorers through to whalers and sealers, we rapidly reshaped our economy to meet the demand for trade. Hapu migrated to the sea to be nearer to the trade source, and by the 1830s many hapu were involved in the roaring flax trade out of Sydney. The stripped flax fibre was turned into rope and was even resold on to Britain. In the early 1830s Te Whanau-a-Ruataupare moved to Uawa for a few years to join Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti in the production of flax fibre. This flax was often traded for weapons, especially in the wake of the devastating Ngapuhi raids of the previous decade.

The wheat

The flax trade soon came to an end but Ngati Porou soon found another outlet for our entrepreneurial spirit. The wheat trade led by rangatira such as Mokena Kohere boomed on the back of the Australian gold-rush, and soon we were not only producing large amounts of wheat but maximising our profits by creating our own fleet of ships to transport this wheat to the Auckland market – cutting out the Pakeha trader as middle-man. Ngati Porou hapu grew other forms of kai for the Pakeha market including maize, melons, pumpkins and onions. Although the wheat market, like the flax market, soon struggled, the drive to commercial success was maintained.

Learn more about the Ngati Porou wheat trade...

The shopkeepers

The increase in money coming into the rohe meant an increased demand for Pakeha products. Sugar, tea, even kitchen utensils soon moved from being nice to being necessities. Our taste in kai changed, with “boil-ups” requiring cast-iron pots to cook in, flour for the doughboys, and other new innovations. Local Pakeha traders became a part of the landscape, and names such as Fox, Green and Rickard became a part of the whakapapa. The famous Manuel José had his first shop at Port Awanui and then a second at Ohinewaiapu.

Sheep and wool

By the 1870s the wheat industry had all but ended and Ngati Porou moved into wool. Like other industries, wool was dependent on outside factors. After a large initial investment almost all of the estimated 27,000

sheep were destroyed due to an outbreak of scab. In the Tai Rawhiti region Wi Pere and Rapata Wahawaha were the only Maori with large flocks of over 1000 sheep. The industry was dominated by several large Pakeha farmers who were looked to Ngati Porou as cheap labour on their farms. We did gain experience in farming, but still lacked the capital and expertise to compete fully. The Ngati Porou wool trade would not fully flourish until the leadership of Ta Apirana in the early twentieth century.

The freezing works

The movie Ngati was a fictional account based on the closing of the works at Waima

In 1882 the New Zealand economy changed again with the first exports of frozen meat to Britain opening up a huge new market. As always, Ngati Porou were quick to capitalise on a new opportunity. By 1911 the Tokomaru Bay Freezing Company Ltd opened the works at Waima, with Ta Apirana as one of the founding shareholders. The works quickly became one of the biggest in the country, and in 1920 was the same size as Southdown in Auckland and Tomoana in Hastings. The Tokomaru Bay works provided work for many whanau, directly and also through the farming and support services. The market was thriving, and in 1921 the Hicks Bay Freezing works opened as well, costing over $8 million in today’s terms to build. As always though the market was fickle. The Hicks Bay works closed after only 5 years in operation, citing not enough stock to continue. The Tokomaru Bay works closed in 1952, devastating the local community. It was so bad that Waima even lost its electricity supply until it was reconnected in 1960.

The economic impact of land loss

It was not only ‘the market’ that Ngati Porou had to struggle with as we sought to grow our own economy. Pakeha settlement of the country put pressure on Maori land, and we were no exception. The wars of the 1860s were designed to change the balance of power, and immediate pressure came on all Maori land in the aftermath. The establishment of the Native Land Court in 1862 was designed to alienate Maori from our land, putting land into essentially individual ownership that could then be easily ‘sold’. In breach of the promises of Te Tiriti o Waitangi waves of legislation followed that sought to accelerate this process, and despite strong iwi leadership much Ngati Porou land was alienated. By 1908 over half of Ngati Porou lands had passed out of our hands. Land was the basis of our economy and consequently our economic potential was severely limited and our entrepreneurial spirit was held back.

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Sir Apirana Ngata and the development schemes (1920s-1950s)

Consolidation schemes

Ta Apirana led the fight back against this alienation, leading the charge from his seat in Parliament. The Liberal Government of 1891-1912 was the latest pushing for the alienation of Maori land, and Ngata’s response was the Consolidation programme. Under this Maori owners could exchange titles to crate economically viable tracts of land owned by whanau who could then farm the block. This was the best deal Ngata could get, and although it did help to hold onto land, particularly in Ngati Porou, it also meant that some lost their rights to their whenua. In the Northern Waiapu for example, by the 1940s only 80 whanau had working titles under the scheme, out of a population of 1300.

The Waiapu farmers

Having legal title to the land was not enough to survive however, and Ta Apirana initiated other schemes. In 1912 the Waiapu Farmers Trading Co-operative was launched, with shareholders from leading Ngati Porou whanau. The ‘Farmers’ aimed for Ngati Porou farming to be more efficient and self-reliant, providing both equipment and acting as a source of credit for Ngati Porou farmers. In this way Ngati Porou farming was not solely reliant on outside suppliers or sources of funding, and profits went back into the local hapu. Eventually stores were opened at Te Araroa, Tikitiki, Waiomatatini, and Ruatorea.

Dairying and development schemes

Wool had become an important part of the economy but again Ngati Porou continued to search for new economic opportunities. By the early 1920s Ta Apirana was trying to persuade Ngati Pourou whanau to invest in dairying, proposing to bring cows from 'Maui Pomare's Taranaki'. After one debate in 1925 the kaumatua responded:

'Ko te mahi nei he mahi kai, pera hoki i etahi atu mahi kai. He tau ka hua te kai, he tau ka he. Kaati mahia.'

'This is only another phase of the old problem of providing food. In the cultivation of the kumara you have lean years and fat years. I say, therefore, go ahead and make this new food.'

Ta Apirana supported Maori farming, including the Ahuwhenua Cup for best Maori farmer

Dairying was expensive to establish. Initially these schemes were funded between the Native Trustee and the Waiapu Farmers. Again Ta Apirana was not satisfied with merely producing raw milk for export and so in 1925 the Ngati Porou Dairy Company was established in Ruatorea. This meant that farmers could process their product locally and the finished product was then ‘exported’ across the country. The factory output grew quickly, from 60 tonnes of butter in 1925-26 through to 460 tonnes by 1931-32. Alongside the ‘Farmers’ Ngati Porou had established an integrated scheme of financing, production and marketing, maximising returns back to the iwi and having more control over the market.

From 1929 as Minister of Native Affairs Ta Apirana was able to expand these programmes even further through the use of state funding under his Development Schemes which spread across the country. Under these schemes the Department would provide finance, expertise and resources to help whanau develop their farms. In Ngati Porou this work was facilitated through the Waiapu Farmers under the leadership of Charlie Goldsmith. This ensured that state interference was limited and as much as possible Ngati Porou retained control of our own economic destiny.

End of dairy

The Development Schemes suffered a setback when Ta Apirana was persecuted by Pakeha political opponents and the media and resigned. However the schemes and the dairying provided many whanau with surpluses which were often invested into education. Once again the market changed its focus and the Dairy factory closed in 1954. This was also due to a lack of state investment in infrastructure on the Coast, including poor roading.

Ngati Porou culture and leadership

The Ngati Porou dairying schemes were not just for economic growth. The profits were used to support a range of activities, including the cultural revival of our people. They supported marae-building, education and even paid for the first Bishop of Aotearoa. The dairying and development schemes were a case of Ngati Porou taking advantage of an economic opportunity that presented itself and then trying to build the iwi on that opportunity. It did bring us deliberately further into a capitalist way of being, where cash became increasingly important. However we did this as much as possible on our own terms, with our own leadership, utilising our own values.

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Working in the cities (1960s-1980s)

Push and pull

The new Rehua hostel block under contruction in 1966 [Te Ao Hou]

By the late 1950s more and more Ngati Porou were moving outside of the rohe, mainly to towns and cities. Partly this was due to increasing population meaning there was only so much land to go around, so some had to move for economic reasons. However this migration was reinforced by state policy. In 1960 the Hunn Report laid out the state policy of ‘integration’, essentially that Maori should be assimilated into Pakeha society. This included ways of increasing Maori migration to the cities so that Maori could live and work amongst Pakeha and essentially, over time, become Pakeha.

The state found many ways to enforce this policy, making offers that were very hard to refuse. Cheap loans for houses in the cities aimed for Maori to find a ‘new turangawaewae’ and leave their own whenua behind. Rangatahi were encouraged to move even before they had finished school. Maori Affairs officers would sit down with senior students and map out where they would go to. In 1967 of the 52 Ngata College graduates, only 16 stayed locally while the other 70% moved away for training or employment. And this was repeated every year.

This was a time of full employment, where jobs in towns and cities were plentiful. Some young men moved from the Coast to trade training schemes, living in places like Rehua Hostel in Christchurch doing painting or electrical apprenticeships. Young women moved to work in the new factories of places like the Hutt Valley, living at Pendennis Hostel in Wellington. Whole whanau would move for employment, working in the Kawerau Lumber Mill or to the new suburb of Mangere to work in the factories of Auckland.

Ngati Porou who moved were often used as cheap, low skilled labour to make profits for large companies. It was also an attempt to strip the Ngati Poroutanga from our whanau, and much was lost. But these whanau also made new lives for themselves, and were often far more economically well-off than they had been back on the Coast. They could drive their new cars back home for tangihanga and support the whanau who remained on the land.

Further land loss

Meanwhile the state ensured that remaining or returning home became less of an economic option. The rapidly decreasing population on the Coast made life economically more difficult, with fewer workers and less money. By the late 1950s the impact of erosion was beginning to be felt, a legacy of previous unrestrained economic development. On top of this continuous efforts were made to alienate Maori land. The 1967 Maori Affairs Amendment Act was described as ‘the last land grab’… until the next one came along.

White, white, wine...

Various schemes were initiated by the state to crate employment on the Coast. In 1979 the land around Tikitiki was prepared for grape vines to support an extensive wine industry. It was very promising and the wine company Penfold Wines New Zealand Ltd even offered to spend $4000 on upgrading the Tikitiki RSA for the opening ceremony. The Gisborne Herald described the potential as huge: ‘Germany has its Rhine valley, France its Burgundy region – and New Zealand has Tikitiki’. However there was soon a glut of grapes and not only was the scheme ended but the entire vine infrastructure was pulled to protect wine company profits. Once again Ngati Porou faced obstacles.

The 1980s

By the 1980s the majority of Ngati Porou were living outside of the iwi rohe. We remained economically vulnerable, working in low-skilled jobs and not benefiting from the mainstream educational system. The deregulation of the economy from the mid-1980s hit our people hardest. Thousands lost their jobs, whether it was the closure of freezing works or railways or the rapid downsizing of the post-office, or the closure of garment factories, Maori were hardest hit. Even on the Coast the impact was severe, losing many farming and state jobs. By the 1990s the economic outlook was bleak.

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The rise of the tribal business (1990s-today)

Te Runanga o Ngati Porou

The mid-1980s also signalled the rise of a new economic leadership amongst the iwi. In 1987 Te Runanga o Ngati Porou was established under legislation, and began to provide a focus for Ngati Porou economic development. Cyclone Bola in 1988 was immensely destructive in the rohe, but enabled the newly formed Ngati Porou Runanga to take up a leadership role in the rebuild and repair instead of just the council and private Pakeha owned businesses.

New iwi businesses

The iwi has made the most of these opportunities to carry on our economic development. The iwi supported the establishment of Ngati Porou Whanui Forests Limited (NPWFL) in 1992 to coordinate whanau and hapu forestry initiatives.  Pakihiroa Farms is directly owned by the Runanga and now includes Makarika station, returned after the Treaty settlement in 2012. Pakihiroa now runs over 2,600ha in its farming operation on behalf of the iwi. The other significant commercial interest of the Runanga is Ngati Porou Seafoods Group, which arose out of the Sealords settlement of the 1990s. Now the investments of the TRONPnui are managed on behalf of the iwi by Ngati Porou Holding Company, a group of Ngati Porou with significant economic expertise.

Learn more about the Ngati Porou fisheries settlement...


Ngati Porou also continues to maintain and build its relationship with outside parties, just as Ta Apirana did with the development schemes. In 1996 NPWFL entered into a joint venture with the Korean forestry company Hansol to maximise the effectiveness of its operations. The iwi has strong relationships with the state, as well as with business leaders such as Callaghan Innovation and Fulton Hogan.

The future

Today there are many iwi members who maintain the spirit of Ngati Porou entrepreneurship. Most Ngati Porou work in small and medium sized enterprises. Ngati Porou and Maori in general are more likely to be entrepreneurs than non-Maori, taking risks to establish their own businesses. There are Ngati Porou leaders in a number of business fields, whether it be in tourism, broadcasting, banking, agritech and many others. Ngati Porou business leaders are based in this country and around the world, seeking out new opportunities and overcoming challenges wherever they may be. The challenge before the iwi is to maintain our growth and embrace the challenges of the world in a sustainable way. Sustainable for the environment - for the whenua and for the moana - as well as for those of our people who go without. However that spirit of entrepreneurship, given strong leadership today by TRONPnui is still alive and well, and always looking for more opportunities ahead.