A deep history and ancestral knowledge is just the start for Māori food producer Kono, which is reducing the use offertilisers, experimenting with growing indigenous crops and mapping the region’s biodiversity to marry Western science with traditional knowledge, says Becca Warner.
Hua a te whenua me te moana,” reads the first line on Kono’s website in bold italics. “Our gift from the land and sea”. That gift is, itself, a kono: a basket, laden with colourful food and drink grown under New Zealand’s warm sun and in its diverse soils.
(Image credit – Kate MacPherson)
Tauihu, the top of the South Island, a fertile area rich in minerals. But European colonisers weren’t far behind them, and in the 1850s a settlement was agreed that set aside 10% of the land for the indigenous families. In 1977, the families finally gained control of that land from the government. They joined together to form Kono’s parent company, Wakatū Incorporation: a family business, or a ‘business of families’.
“Overnight, we became farmers of a fairly large estate,” explains Rōpata Taylor at Wakatū Incorporation. “And that made sense for us because our heritage is one of fishermen and gardeners. We were the first provodores of the region, and the first exporters of food and primary products beyond our shores. So that’s always sat well with us, and we’ve stuck to our knitting really.”
Today, Kono sells the fruits of the sea and land – kiwifruits, apples, pears, hops, wine, mussels, oysters and lobster – to more than 30 countries in Asia and North America.
Rōpata is General Manager of People and Culture at Wakatū Incorporation. It’s a job that’s even broader than it sounds, its edges blurring beyond human resources and corporate communications to philanthropy, consumer engagement, and brand management. There is no separation, in this sense, between the company’s internal workings and its external marketing. Fundamentally, Rōpata says, “I’m responsible for ensuring that there’s both authenticity and integrity in the way that we communicate to people.”
‘Authenticity’ is, of course, a business buzzword – an important concept that has had its meaning dulled and diluted in the wash of corporate messaging we have become used to. I ask Rōpata what it means for Kono and Wakatū. “We’re an intergenerational business that traces itself back centuries,” he explains. “One of the things that is immutable when you think about multiple lifetimes is a value set that’s passed from generation to generation. And while the context may change, the ethos of those values remains the same. When you’re testing for authenticity, you want to make sure that you’re being true to yourself – and in the pursuit of wealth, you are really clear about what you will and what you will not do to achieve your objectives.”
(Image credit: Tim Williams)
(Image credit: Kate MacPherson)
(Image credit: Tim Williams)
In a business like Kono’s, where culture is its defining force, this comes with a particular challenge. Rōpata explains that “authenticity is also about ensuring that we are not exploiting our cultural heritage or commercialising our culture in a way that makes us uncomfortable.” It’s a matter of instinct, Rōpata says. “The closer you get to us, the more interesting we are, and sometimes the talented people that are creating collateral for the organisation come up with ideas that don’t quite feel right in the pit of your stomach.” Remaining culturally appropriate, he adds, comes down to a “gut decision”.
This is evident in how Kono talks about its sustainability. It would be easy to ride the coattails of its indigenous heritage, to offer it as a shorthand for any number of environmentally conscious practices. But the company’s deep history and ancestral knowledge means they know enough to know they don’t know everything. “For us, it’s a journey,” Rōpata says. “So we try and give our customers an insight into our aspirations and what we’re trying to do. And we try lots of things – it’s an entrepreneurial mindset, they say, to fail quickly. We don’t for any moment think we know all the answers.”
‘Lots of things’ is right. Kono’s current initiatives include growing apples trees on frames that make them ‘two-dimensional’ to reduce the use of fertilisers; experimenting with growing indigenous crops like kūmara and pumpkins; and working towards organic growing practices. It is carefully mapping the biodiversity of the region to better marry Western science with traditional knowledge, and building relationships with the Quechua people of Peru, who historically traded with the families of Wakatū.
Andy Wotton, Kono’s Chief Operating Officer, speaks enthusiastically of one of the company’s ongoing initiatives to support native birds like tūī and tauhou. The project creates flight paths that connect the mountains to the sea, by planting native plants in Kono’s orchards. “It’s almost like your service stations,” he says. ”[The birds] can drop down and have a rest, have a feed, get themselves fuelled up, and then hop on again.”
Andy moved from the UK’s south coast to New Zealand’s more colourful shores 35 years ago. Unlike Rōpata, he doesn’t belong to the indigenous families that own Wakatū. Currently 17% of the company’s 468 employees belong to the families, with the goal to increase this to 25% in the next ten years. It’s unusual, Andy explains, for someone outside the family to be in his role – and it can be intimidating. He describes his experience at one annual general meeting. “You have to give your introduction in Māori. So you’ve got me standing up as a newbie round here, in front of 600 Māori trying to emulate what they would do. It’s quite daunting at times. But fun – they were a really patient and friendly audience, put it that way.”
(Image credit: Virginia Woolf)
This is part of the principle of manaakitanga, ‘we rise by lifting others’. Another important concept is Te Pae Tawhiti, ‘over the horizon’: looking ahead, beyond what you can see.
Andy started working with Kono in 2016, but previously worked for bigger corporates. In his previous workplace, he says, “a lot of the conversations were around business plans producing a return, and the return was a financial return back to the partners.” At Kono, in contrast, “when we look at our measures of success, we’re talking about the care of our lands, our connection with our families, and how we’re supporting the education of our families”. It’s a notable difference.
The education Andy references is an important focus for a company as dedicated to the future as Kono is. It offers scholarships to selected family members to fund university qualifications, some of whom have gone on to join the business and rise through its ranks. Kono also creates job opportunities for family members looking for their first opportunity to work, alongside cultural education around the family and its history. “So that they get lifted from that sense that they’re sitting at the bottom of the heap,” Andy says, “to actually learning they belong at the top of the heap.”
This is part of the principle of manaakitanga, ‘we rise by lifting others’. Another important concept is Te Pae Tawhiti, ‘over the horizon’: looking ahead, beyond what you can see. It is an unusual approach for any business, and requires a level of care – and imagination – well beyond the norm. “We are in the business of passing forward the legacy that we’re part of, to those that follow us,” Rōpata says. “And that means that our drivers are not necessarily short term profits, or growth. They are more about making sure that we endure, that the relationships that we have with the people that we work with and trade with are robust, sustainable and respectful – that’s how you do things for the long term.”
The past and the future are equally relevant to Kono. Its view of time encompasses a vastly broader timeline than most businesses, and both its history and legacy hold equal weight in the present. Kono plans for the next 500 years, not just the next five – and Rōpata says that that means “thinking beyond your lifetime, and thinking about what will be required. But in order to do that, sometimes you’ve got to go back and you’ve got to think about the way the world was 500 years ago.” That landscape was less exploited, less compartmentalised, less commodified. In this sense, Kono is “trying to do old things, new ways”, he says.
Thinking in terms of centuries rather than quarters somehow makes more time available. “We have to be very, very careful with our behaviour,” Rōpata says, “and that means that we need to do things slowly.” Doing things right becomes far more important than doing them fast.
Kono’s view of time is inseparable from the people who inhabit each phase of it. They are the generations that make up Kono’s world – the ancestors who made Kono what it is, and the children and grandchildren who will inherit it. Kono itself is what they call a ‘business of families’: it is collectively owned by around 30,000 descendants of the Māori families that migrated to Te Tauihu in the 19th century, who are represented by more than 4,000 shareholders. “My ancestors spilt blood on these lands,” Rōpata says, “and I share blood with all of the other owners. That means that there is a visceral connection that I have to the work that we do, and a burden of responsibility that I feel.
“I don’t know what your family is like,” he continues, grinning, “but my family loves to have an opinion on me and the work that I do. And, yes, they think we’ve been helpful and constructive, but they don’t hold back with their view. And I love that. That’s very meaningful for me. I’m working for my community.”
“We have to be very, very careful with our behaviour,” Rōpata says, “and that means that we need to do things slowly.” Doing things right becomes far more important than doing them fast.
Kono’s ethos, its balance of commercial and values-led priorities, its history and its future: these multiple considerations create a depth to the company’s work that is as challenging as it is rewarding. In a typical corporate, Andy says, “there’s a simplicity to the decisions – does this contribute to a monetary bottom line?” But at Kono, “I’m loving the complexity of the decision making – when your driver is looking after our people, looking after our land, also being able to pay the bills, but also looking beyond one generation to multiple generations. It’s just absolutely fascinating for me to be able to participate in that sort of beautiful complexity, but also beautiful sense of purpose.”
In some ways, that purpose is so much bigger and brighter than can be contained by any single company or product. Kono represents a way of being, an identity, and a powerful legacy that reaches as far back as it does forward. “Ultimately,” Rōpata says, “what we do is not who we are. What we do may change over time. But what doesn’t change is we are the first families of the northern South Island of New Zealand.”
Find out more about Kono: www.kono.co.nz/#our-gifts-of-the-land-and-sea
(Image credit: Kate MacPherson)