Iwi-owned enterprise Kaitahi came out on top on Thursday night, winning the major prize in the nationwide competition, FoodStarter.
The company based in Waverley, South Taranaki makes frozen smoothie drops from locally sourced ingredients and native plants traditionally used by Māori. The brand has steadily grown since it was launched in 2018.
The competition is run by New World and start-up advisors Ministry Of Awesome, seeking out new and innovative food and beverage products. The winners will be ranged in New World supermarkets throughout the country and receive marketing support.
From 217 entries, 10 finalists battled it out in a Dragon's Den-style pitch on Thursday night.
"What I'm so excited about is, as our brand recognition grows people are starting to engage with us directly," Arohania Owen said.
"We've spent a lot of time helping people learn and understand our business but now we are at that point where we get random emails all the time."
While the product is front and centre, community is the focus. It was Ngaa Rauru Kiitahi Iwi's opposition to the proposed seabed mining of iron sand that led to the launch of Kaitahi in 2018.
Iwi were opposed to compromising the environment but not opposed to industry, so set up a think tank to come up with business ideas.
"We know that there are problems. We know that we've got so many Māori in jail. We've got low life expectancy. We've got our kids who are struggling in education," Owen said.
"And it's like, why? How do we solve it? How do we be part of the solution?"
Creating employment in sustainable industries was seen as the key.
"How do we bring it back to ourselves with what's already ours, Māori ingredients. And how can we then diversify and innovate and create something that's new and different? And that's how it all came about."
While Māori believe many native plants are superfoods, the science is scarce.
An unexpected invitation to partner with The Riddet Institute through a national science challenge fund may provide proof.
"All the research that is going to come out of it is going to identify all the benefits that come from Kaitahi's current smoothie drops range. We're about two weeks into the research but they're really excited."
Positive findings would help leverage the product and achieve the original goal of ensuring a better future for generations to come.
"It's intergenerational," said Owen. "Whatever we do, it's to ensure that our babies know that if they want to be a CEO or if they want to cultivate kai or if they want to work in production - they can do it. It's their choice."
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