Incentives for Change

How Māori Agribusiness is Leading Aotearoa’s Farming Future

The exec summary of a report due to be released soon outlines how tauutuutu, a key ethic for Māori business, is driving entrepreneurship, innovation and sustainability in primary production, and creating premium value chains and products – and highlights the potential for these Māori approaches to be adopted more broadly.

Imagine a world where agribusinesses flow their profits to community start-up innovations, not executives. Where waste from some farms becomes an essential input on others. Where animal welfare and environmental standards are far exceeded. Where nothing is taken from nature or people for profit, without an equal or greater value of investment in improving their vitality or dignity.

That world is within the grasp of Aotearoa’s farms and farming communities. New research from the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge describes multiple examples of these practices, exhibited by successful Māori agri-food enterprises operated by land trusts, incorporations, iwi corporations, and Post-Settlement Governance Entities. An executive summary document is now available, with a full report to be released shortly.

Māori enterprises are a significant part of Aotearoa’s primary sector. Māori own $13 billion in primary sector assets, including 30% of all beef and lamb production, and Māori horticulture has grown 300% in 12 years.

These enterprises are guided by indigenous values of environmental stewardship, social responsibility, intergenerational wealth creation, and cultural revitalisation. These values are based on a deep foundation of tauutuutu. The closest relatable English language concept is reciprocity, but there are some important differences.

What is tauutuutu?

“Tauutuutu is built on positive escalating exchange between human people, and also non-human people,” says the lead author of the report, Dr John Reid, senior research fellow at the University of Canterbury’s Ngai Tahu Research Centre. “There isn’t really an English language equivalent.”

For most tauiwi (non-Māori), reciprocity is a ‘see-saw’ within social relationships. The custom of delivering a meal when a baby is born, for example, might carry an unspoken acknowledgement of equivalent past support. This is not the same as the Māori concept of tauutuutu.

Tauutuutu is an indigenous way of thinking and acting that shapes not only social but also economic and environmental exchanges. It encourages escalating, rather than equal, ‘investments’ (in terms of time and resources).

“Tauutuutu encourages returns from these investments to be distributed equitably, creating a virtuous circle that motivates individual innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Dr Reid. “It also expands awareness of the connections and relationships between people and their environment, which encourages the adoption of new technologies and approaches for sustainable food and fibre production, and new business models.”

In pre-European and early colonial Māori society, the fruits of an individual or group’s productive activity were continually distributed to related individuals and groups, who would then return produce of an equal or greater value. Mana (dignity) grew with the ability to distribute rather than accumulate, which drove productivity, provided group security, and encouraged innovation and entrepreneurship as individuals sought to grow their personal mana. The investments between groups can be traced back generations in some cases, and they helped bind Māori society together.

The research found that tauutuutu ethics are still a core part of decision-making in Māori enterprises, although today they are less formalised, and tend to be implicit rather than openly discussed. Tauutuutu primarily operates via obligations to make social and economic investments in a way that builds the welfare and mana of others, with the anticipation that this will be reciprocated. Tauutuutu also frames exchanges in a way that means there are limited externalities, and a broad range of transaction costs are considered.

Examples of tauutuutu influencing practices

  • Lake Taupo Forest Trust has planted riparian strips up to 10 times the required size.
  • Miraka brings together a range of land trusts with an overseas investor, providing value chain integration, economies of scale, local employment, environmental incentives, and international market opportunities.
  • Wakatū Incorporation utilises waste outputs from one arm of their company as an input into another arm, such as the use of mussel shells as a compost for their vineyards.
  • Atihau Whanganui Incorporation, or Awhi, manages several land blocks under a ‘1 Farm’ framework, with a particular focus on managing the waterways that flow through their lands, and applies the Five Freedoms gold standard for animal welfare.
  • Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu funds start-up initiatives with whanau involvement via Papatipu Rūnanga holdings companies, some with co-investment from Ngāi Tahu Holdings Corporation, enabling decentralised economic development while drawing on centralised expertise and knowledge.
  • Most successful Māori agribusinesses run a mixture of dairy, drystock and forestry, along with other enterprises such as tourism.

Can tauutuutu be extended to non-Māori agribusiness?

Māori agribusinesses are becoming known nationally for their environmental leadership, social responsibility, innovation, and profitability. There is growing recognition among agrifood leaders in Aotearoa, and in government, that the wisdom inherent in te ao Māori could be our superpower when it comes to food production. (See KPMG Agribusiness Agenda 2021, the Fit For a Better World vision, and the Taiao Ora, Tangata Ora primary sector framework.)

From a Western perspective, Māori enterprises are thought to embrace a quadruple bottom line approach, characterised by environmental stewardship, social responsibility, intergenerational wealth creation, and cultural revitalisation. Indigenous values are also reflected in the increasingly mainstream circular economy and doughnut economics concepts. 

However, the values that Māori enterprises operate from are based on a deeper foundation underpinned by tauutuutu. Expanding tauutuutu ethics, principles, and modes of operating from Māori communities to the whole country would require an extension of a way of thinking and behaving from one cultural group to another.

For many years colonisation was thought of as a ‘civilising mission’ under which knowledge, and technology would flow from Anglo settlers to Māori. It has rarely been considered that learning, wisdom, and insight could flow the other way.

There are several potential constraints on this occurring. These are discussed in more depth in the research summary document, and include: cultural worldview differences between Māori and Pakeha; built infrastructure investments inhibiting shifts in land activities; low appetite for changes that entail risk; a tendency among older land stewards to resist the adoption of new ways of thinking.

The summary also describes factors that would support the broad uptake of tauutuutu nationally, including: the capacity to rapidly change and adapt; a high level of farmer innovation; a history of forming cooperatives to meet collective goals; and a strong tendency to value fairness.

Where could tauutuutu lead us?

New Zealand primary sectors have long been looking to transition from a volume mentality to a value-add strategy. The research suggests a tauutuutu land-based economy would not only push this transition but would also add more value than just using the ‘clean and green’ New Zealand brand, as Māori culture has a high global cachet.

The report authors contend that the broad extension of tauutuutu thinking beyond Māori agri-food and forestry enterprises to Aotearoa’s land-based industries in general would generate significant positive environmental, economic, and social impacts. These could include:

  • integrated catchment management
  • the development of premium value chains
  • increased market access
  • aiding biodiversity protection
  • revitalising rural communities
  • helping restore water quality
  • land use diversification
  • greater equity in capital distribution
  • an economy that promotes growth, equity, and innovation
  • an opportunity for Māori to lead the transition to a sustainable land-based economy nationally, while revitalising Māori culture and traditional knowledge

Our Land and Water is now considering a broader programme of research to look at the active extension of tauutuutu as a national approach.

More information:


Annabel McAleer

Communications Manager, Our Land and Water. Text in this article is licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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