A Kaikohe-based initiative that teaches young people design and life skills by getting them involved in real-world projects has won five years' worth of funding.

Akau, which was set up two years ago by interior architect Ana Heremaia, architectural designer Ruby Watson and architect Felicity Brenchley, is this year's sole recipient of funding from Foundation North's Catalysts for Change programme. The programme provides multi-year funding for new approaches to solving complex social issues.

Akau engages youth by getting them to work on real-life design projects. It aims to be self-funding after five years through commercial projects and workshop fees.

So far participants have designed a rebuild of Miria Marae near Waiomio, a commercially produced stool, an exhibition on the theme of women's health and safety, and an outdoor classroom.


Year 9-13 students at Northland College are designing a Northland-style Ninja warrior challenge course inspired by the TV show American Ninja Warrior. Akau is also planning several projects with the Far North District Council.

The funding, which will total nearly $2.2 million spread over five years, will allow Akau to expand its kaupapa into Kaitaia, Dargaville, Whangarei and Auckland, as well as hire three fulltime staff.

Ms Heremaia said the programme gave young people "the spark to believe in themselves and their futures" and in the long-term would help them get jobs.

The community benefited through "cool design outcomes" and youth who felt more connected to and valued by their communities.

"We've been operating on a shoestring, we've had to do everything ourselves and we were spread pretty thin. So this is exciting."

It would also allow Akau to take on more commercial projects.

"We want to be a competitive, savvy business in the design and architecture industry. Our impact will escalate with the amount of money we can make because all the profits will go back into youth workshops."

So far 300 youth have taken part in Akau projects. The aim is to boost that number to 2800 within five years. Learning opportunities range from two-day workshops to six-month courses leading to level 2 NCEA qualifications.

Despite the expansion the group has no plans to move out of its space on Marino Court.

Foundation North chief executive Jennifer Gill said Akau was an innovative programme enabling young people to find pathways into further education and employment.

"This is of real value given high rates of youth unemployment in the area," she said.

Akau was selected after a year-long application process which included interviews, a detailed investment plan and pitching to the trustees. Two other organisations, both in Auckland, made the shortlist.