Iwi empowers tangata to prosper through training programme

5 May 2023

The aspirations of Ōpōtiki kaumatua for their people to prosper through their own entrepreneurship are becoming a reality through the iwi-lead Open Ocean Te Whakatōhea mussel factory.

Founded with the return of the Whakatōhea iwi taonga through the Te Tiriti o Waitangi settlement process, Open Ocean Whakatōhea Mussels Ōpōtiki Ltd has developed one of the first commercial offshore mussel farms in the world and built a mussel processing factory that is bringing both training and job opportunities for whanau. It has a been long journey since 1986 for the iwi lead by the Whakatōhea Pre Settlement Claims Trust and the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board. Final Settlement, which also includes marine space will enable the iwi to continue its aspiration to lift its community from poverty and dependence on government welfare to prosperity.

A long history for Whakatōhea iwi

But the history goes back further. In May 1840 seven Whakatōhea rangatira signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and by 1864 the iwi had developed a thriving agricultural economy, constructed a shipping fleet and was trading extensively with the growing Auckland settlement.

But when Crown forces landed at Whakatōhea in 1865 a bloody war ensued, destroying lives (10 percent of the iwi population) and the Whakatōhea infrastructure and economy.

Te Pou Oranga o Whakatōhea Education Group Manager, Hohepa Hei, Whakatōhea, says before raupatu (the conflict) the iwi and its people were doing well. “They were great entrepreneurs and had developed strong relationships with our Pāhekā counterparts.”

The mussel farm and factory are restoring both enterprise and mana to the area. “Our kaumatua wanted to reinstate that entrepreneurship and intergenerational development that our people were recognized as having pre raupatu.”

The aspiration of Whakatōhea kaumatua to ensure intergenerational development in the area is coming to fruition.

The large mussel factory sited eight kilometres from the Bay of Plenty coastal town was built in 2020 and exported its first container of mussels to the United States in October the same year.

Mussel factory opens up opportunities for iwi

For the Whakatōhea kaumatua and iwi the big success of this enterprise is that it is providing training and a pathway to employment for whanau now and into the future.

To accomplish this Whakatōhea partnered with the Primary ITO to implement the Tuapapa Programme, which gives people the opportunity to train for jobs at the factory and continue further study towards a qualification. It has bought many people out of unemployment and prompted others to return home to the area for work.

Hohepa says Ōpōtiki’s lack of job opportunities and high unemployment has led to much deprivation in the area, but the factory and the Tuapapa Programme are turning lives around.

“There’s so much opportunity for our people to grow, gain a qualification and actually earn a decent living. When they engage in with the Tuapapa Programme we can give them that wrap around support and ensure that their journey is going to be successful.” 

Primary ITO introduced the programme in early 2021, providing resources and training, before handing it over to Whakatōhea to run. Around 20 tauira (students) enter the programme each month.

Tauira learn about the history of their iwi and the iwi provides support services to ready them to for the training and eventually a job. This includes counselling, and support for drug and alcohol addictions, housing, budgeting, and a food bank.

Once tauira graduate and gain a job at the factory they study towards unit standards in Seafood Processing. “That’s one of the good things about this initiative. It allows an opportunity for our people to engage in education and gain a qualification while working,” says Hohepa.

Almost 70% of the 2021 Tuapapa graduates are employed full time following the programme across a range of roles from line workers, shuckers, hygiene technicians, in food safety, cleaning, forklift driving and also team leader and management roles.

“It is a pretty cool success story when you get to see what has gone on to empower the community,” says Primary ITO National Manager Primary Services and Food Processing, Simon Croom.

“It has come together with the support from the iwi, regional growth fund, government agencies and Primary ITO. But the real focus is the people in the community.”

Today the factory hums with activity of 100 staff processing around 45 tonnes of half-green shell mussels per day. The Treaty settlement will enable further development of the factory and expansion of the aquaculture space.