Stage one of the Meihana Koata orchard at Te Teko is completed, with 40,000 blueberry plants growing in rows of polytunnels.
Liz Te Amo forged a successful public service career pursuing trade promotion and developing Māori economic development policy. But after 18 years, Te Amo — whose iwi is Te Arawa — knew it was time to return to her home roots.
Te Amo says her work at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) taught her that "I love building businesses, especially Māori ones."
Having moved from Auckland to Tauranga in 2018, Te Amo is chief executive of Miro LP and is focused on developing high-value horticulture on under-utilised Māori land, and creating jobs for Māori in rural communities.
"It's our version of economic rangatiratanga — determining your own economic future," she says. Miro's long-term goal is to transform 500-1000 hectares of Māori land into productive horticulture.
Miro is a partnership with 28 Māori authorities and investors; among its directors are lawyer and chair Rukumoana Schaafhausen, former Zespri chief executive Lain Jager, agricultural entrepreneur Steve Saunders and former Fonterra executive Bob Major.
"Our aspiration is to build a Māori global brand and become a major player in blueberry production," says Te Amo. "There's no reason why we can't grow to a $200 million business by investing wisely, innovating and expanding on Māori land.
"We are talking about a $52 billion Māori economy in New Zealand — and the trick is to have well-managed and governed businesses, underpinned by Māori values and environmental sustainability."
Miro has organised a supply chain of 12 blueberry orchards around the North Island, formed Berry Packers with six Bay of Plenty growers, and signed up with marketer and distributor BerryCo, based in Tauranga. The aim is to become "a baby Zespri" by co-ordinating all the parts of the value chain.
Seven of the blueberry orchards will be harvested for the first time this year, while others are under development. Miro first established its pilot Fort orchard in 2018 with 24,000 plants, after leasing three hectares from a local family in Te Teko, eastern Bay of Plenty.
Our aspiration is to build a Māori global brand and become a major player in blueberry production.
Miro created an intensive growing system to increase productivity.
The Eureka blueberries, from the Australian Mountain Blue Orchards, are planted in pots in rows of polytunnels. The plants are fed by a fully controlled "fertigation" system, creating a low environmental footprint.
Miro is aiming to increase productivity from four to 25 tonnes a hectare when the plantings mature in five years. "Potentially, the returns can be as good as gold kiwifruit in five years," says Te Amo.
The Fort's first harvest at the end of last year produced 50 tonnes of blueberries or 85,000 trays, and Miro expects to increase the orchard's production to between 75 and 80 tonnes this year.
Across the road in Te Teko, Miro is developing an 18ha orchard with the potential to produce 580 tonnes of blueberries after obtaining a 20-year lease from the Meihana Koata Trust. Stage one with 40,000 plants has just been completed.
The $8.5 million project has attracted a $2.125m Provincial Growth Fund loan, Miro has invested $1.5m and is planning to raise a further $2.6m.
Miro also obtained a Ministry of Social Development grant of $1.3m for an employment and training programme. So far Miro has employed more than 150 local Māori for the Fort and Meihana Koata orchards with nearly half of them coming off the benefit. "That's GDP going straight into the households, whanau and rural communities," says Te Amo.
Miro has organised 50 hectares of plantings in North Island and plans to step up production to nearly half New Zealand's present blueberry production of 2800 tonnes.
Te Amo says 50 per cent of Miro's production is exported to Asian markets and the remainder is supplied to New Zealand supermarkets and other outlets.
She built up plenty of experience working with New Zealand exporters during her 16 years at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). "I have a real passion growing international business and I'm committed to Māori economic development — it's the fastest growing part of the New Zealand economy."
Liz Te Amo
Liz Te Amo was a regional development advisor, Director of Projects North Asia managing trade shows in China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, and Director of Māori Business at NZTE between 2005 and 2015. She helped establish New Zealand Central in Shanghai which has become an important hub for exporting companies to host meetings and functions and grow their business in the lucrative Chinese market. In 2016-17, Te Amo was the MBIE's executive director of the Māori Economic Development Unit responsible for leading the national Crown-Māori economic development strategy and partnership. She graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from Auckland University, studied at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, completed the INSEAD Advanced Management Programme, led the Te Hono Primary Sector Leaders group and was a member of New Zealand Rugby's commercial committee and Waitaha Group Holdings. Born and bred in Auckland, Te Amo spent her holidays with her grandmother and hapu in Te Puke. "I remember as a 14-year-old I was packing kiwifruit during the school holidays." Her father lives in Maketu and two sisters are in Tauranga. Te Amo says Miro provided the opportunity of going home — it was a dream job working with 28 iwi and landowners, introducing horticultural skill sets and lifting the potential and value of Māori land and their people.