To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the Herald and online magazine E-Tangata are telling the video stories of six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women, made with the support of NZ On Air. Today: Social entrepreneur Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o.

When she was 18, Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o lost her best friend to cancer. It was a devastating loss that changed the course of her life.

At the time, she was living at home in Māngere and studying optometry at Auckland University. But after her friend Susan's death, she made a couple of big decisions.

The first was to ditch optometry for a social work degree, so she could help young people dealing with life-threatening illnesses.

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And the second was to move out of home. That was a big deal for a girl who'd had a traditional Pacific Island upbringing. But, as she told Dale Husband in this interview, "I realised that I needed to leave that community where we'd been so close."

Emeline had intended to get right out of Auckland, but only got as far as Massey University's student hostel in Albany — she hadn't realised that Albany was on Auckland's North Shore. "I was one of these South Auckland girls who'd never been over the bridge."

But it was at Massey, away from her close-knit family and her South Auckland community, that she started to become her own person, to "individuate", as she calls it. "I actually think it was in the absence of my culture that I really appreciated who I was."

After graduating, she spent time in Tonga writing her master's thesis and learning "about my culture and my identity". She's since added a philosophy degree to her qualifications, which isn't bad for someone who'd never read a book before she was 19.

In 2001, when she was still "just a kid" of 25, Emeline set up her first company, to provide mentoring and support for young people.

Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o at her community cafe in Otahuhu in 2013. Herald / file photo
Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o at her community cafe in Otahuhu in 2013. Herald / file photo

"Initially, I worked for the Manukau Youth Centre and I had a programme called Affirmative Women. Then Affirming Women. At the time, I was working in nine secondary schools with young women, teenage prostitutes, and youth who were suicidal. It was really about self-values, self-respect, self-esteem. All those things.

"It was really popular and we had many more males than females referred to us. So we ended up, five years later, changing the name to Affirming Works (AW). And we've just kept mentoring more and more young people."

Emeline says one of the biggest struggles for New Zealand-born Pacific kids is the cultural disconnect between them and their island-born parents.

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"It's common for there to be two completely different worldviews in one household. In my case, there were my parents, learning how to become more like New Zealand people. And then there was me, born in New Zealand, trying to understand them as Tongans."

Affirming Works has worked with thousands of young people, meeting needs wherever they find them — everything from literacy and numeracy to leadership and transition from school to work.

"It's really just heart," says Emeline. "You probably give more than you get from it, but there's so much value and satisfaction in seeing a need, finding a way to help, piloting it — and then rolling it out."

"Heart" is a word that comes up a lot in Emeline's interviews. She has a heart for community, for Tonga, for the Pacific, for the young people AW serves. What Affirming Works does, she says, "is really just to be a heart in the community".

Emeline Afeake-Mafile'o is a social entrepreneur, helping young people in South Auckland and running a string of cafes. Photo / E-Tangata
Emeline Afeake-Mafile'o is a social entrepreneur, helping young people in South Auckland and running a string of cafes. Photo / E-Tangata

Anyone who knows Emeline knows this is completely genuine. Like the social policy she's written for the Ministry of Social Development (including the family violence programme she designed for Tongan families), it's grounded in a love and knowledge of the communities she serves, and a deep faith.

There's also an entrepreneurial streak that's seen continuing innovation and growth for her social agency, including community cafes (there's one in Māngere, one in Mt Roskill currently being revamped, and two more planned for Ōtara), and a Fale Coffee at the Ōtāhuhu train station.

A key part of the operation is Tupu'anga, the coffee business Emeline and her husband Alipate bought in 2010. The coffee is grown, harvested and produced in Tonga, and pickers are paid a living wage. So as well as improving the lives of their workers in Tonga, the profits are channelled into programmes here, helping more than 400 children and their families every year.

Emeline is named after her father's mother, the equally remarkable daughter of a Māori-English tradesman and a Sāmoan woman who ran businesses in Tonga. "Grandma came to New Zealand, worked, bought the family home in Otahuhu, and then brought her husband and 12 kids over from Tonga. And because they owned their home, no one checked for overstayers at the back."

The house is still in the family. Emeline bought it a few years ago and it's now the head office for AW and her home when she isn't in Tonga, where she and Alipate and their three boys now live.

Social entrepreneur Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o is one of six women featured in Conversations, a six-part video web series created by E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage