Nau Mai Rā CEO Ezra Hirawani with Huntly power station in the background. (Photo: Supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Nau Mai Rā CEO Ezra Hirawani with Huntly power station in the background. (Photo: Supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)

BusinessApril 12, 2022

Kaupapa Māori power company Nau Mai Rā is ready for the spotlight

Nau Mai Rā CEO Ezra Hirawani with Huntly power station in the background. (Photo: Supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)
Nau Mai Rā CEO Ezra Hirawani with Huntly power station in the background. (Photo: Supplied; additional design: Tina Tiller)

For over 100,000 New Zealanders, having to choose between electricity, food or petrol is an everyday reality. Reweti Kohere speaks with Nau Mai Rā CEO Ezra Hirawani about his mission to alleviate ‘power poverty’.

In a recent Facebook video, Nau Mai Rā chief executive Ezra Hirawani extended a warm welcome to New Zealanders – and laid down a simple challenge: “Whether you’re Chinese, Tongan, from Madagascar or Wakanda, we don’t care – our invitation is the same. Come join us, and do more with your power.”

Do more with your power, he says. But what else can you do besides heat your home, boil the jug and charge your electric vehicle?

Turns out, quite a lot. By donating a portion of their power bill to local marae, community initiatives and a pooled “whānau fund” to help those struggling to keep on top of their power bill, some 2,000 Nau Mai Rā customers have given back about $45,000. It’s part of the company’s broader mission to alleviate “energy hardship”, a term describing the experience of an estimated 100,000 New Zealanders who cannot afford to heat their homes to support their wellbeing. It’s a complex problem that still doesn’t have an agreed definition (MBIE is working on it), but power poverty is pretty simple to Hirawani: “Every day, 100,000 whānau have to make the choice between hot water and heating, or doing the laundry and cooking dinner,” he says. “This isn’t a Māori problem, this is a national problem – and the situation is worsening.”

Hirawani (Waikato Tainui, Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Rangi), together with co-founder Ben Armstrong (Waikato Tainui, Ngāti Hine), believe they can make a difference through their digital electricity platform, which they founded in mid-2019. The whakataukī “Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou, ka ora ai te iwi” – everyone prospers when they pool their resources together – explains its purpose and is reflected in an unconventional business model. Nau Mai Rā won’t turn away customers with bad credit or even run credit checks; it won’t cut a household’s power because of late or missed payments; customers are billed weekly to help keep on top of expenses; and budgeting or energy efficiency services are available in case customers need extra help. It offers customers a fixed electricity price only for what they consume, and it claims customers have saved a total of $100,000 on their power bills. It all sounds laudable, and people are paying attention – Kiwibank awarded Hirawani the 2022 Young New Zealander of the Year title for his mahi on energy hardship. But in a sector influenced by the actions of a few giants, Nau Mai Rā is just one of numerous smaller, independent players trying to make their voices heard.

With a combined 1.6 million customer connections, Genesis Energy, Mercury, Meridian and Contact Energy – three of which are majority-owned by the government and all of which generate power – sell electricity into the wholesale market and retailers pay a volatile “spot price” to then supply customers (in the case of the big players, their generation arms sell to their retail teams). The spot price changes every 30 minutes to account for the delicate balance of supplying just enough electricity to match demand, so it’s prone to dramatic shifts – higher prices generally appear during peak periods of demand, like breakfast and dinner time, during winter and usually during “dry years” when hydro lakes are running low. By contrast, wholesale electricity is generally cheaper during off-peak hours and when the wind is blowing, the lakes are bursting and gas is flowing. 

A scarcity of the last two, plus market uncertainty, has characterised the past few years of the electricity sector, driving up wholesale prices and often hitting the pockets of smaller players that haven’t hedged their exposure with long-term supply deals. Some have called it quits while others have cried foul. When I first met Hirawani in 2021, as autumn gave way to winter, Nau Mai Rā was fighting to stay alive – shedding hundreds of customers, closing its doors to thousands more and launching a petition calling on the country’s generators to support it with a deal on wholesale prices. Back then, average spot prices were above $200 MWh – even hitting $450 MWh at times – when usually they’d trade around $100 MWh (they would surpass $1,000 MWh on August 9, when tens of thousands of customers lost power on one of the coldest nights of last year). 

Hirawani says Nau Mai Rā was on the verge of collapse but it persevered, thanks to landing supply deals from the wholesale market. By year’s end, it hopes to have 10,000 customers. I spoke with him about the implications of having more whānau jump onboard the waka, and the meaning behind Kiwibank’s recognition.

Nau Mai Rā founders Ben Armstrong (Ngāti Hine) and Ezra Hirawani (Waikato Tainui) (Photo: Supplied)

Bring me up to speed since we last talked. What was the outcome of your actions last year?

They worked. Right from the start, we were always at the mercy of the goodwill of the big players. You have to trust they’ll believe in the same things that you believe in, with no evidence [to show them]. All you’ve got is a kaupapa and belief system. It took us on the brink of collapsing for these industry players to think “these guys are serious, they’re not mucking around, they’re prepared to lose massively to stick to their kaupapa”. It’s heartening to know the powers that be are starting to realise the role they play in this space – no, they don’t need to look after [vulnerable customers]; no, they don’t need to change their business practices; and yes, they can continue to chase profit but they can actually work with us, in a mana-enhancing way, to fill the gaps a commercially driven business leaves behind as it blazes toward the top of the food chain.

How did you settle on the target of 10,000 customers?

We had a conversation with a rōpu we call our “power avengers”, who have been there for us right from the start to guide us through the industry. They mentioned if we could get 10,000 customers to jump onboard the Nau Mai Rā waka, then that would equate to a minimum of $20,000 a month [in extra whānau fund contributions], which we would accumulate from whānau paying their power bills. That might not seem a lot in May but that turns into $40,000 in June and then $60,000 in July. You can really get some strength behind your waka when you have that kind of financial momentum. We’ll use that in the whānau fund to pay their power bill but we’re hoping that’s the last thing we need to do because we’re giving them a great fixed price, we’re working with them daily, we’re helping educate them and providing tools and resources so they don’t run into that problem. That fund moves people from being a teina to a tuakana, where they can look after the person behind them that may need a hand up. If we can get more [customers], that’s great, but 10,000 is a great start and a great way to build impact.

How do you feel about the Young New Zealander of the Year award?

It’s overwhelming, that’s for sure, but in a positive way. We didn’t apply for it, it wasn’t something we were aiming for. But when we won, we realised how much of a cool opportunity it was to use that platform to share our kaupapa with more tuākana, and to let tēina know “we’re coming”. It’s almost like, the more exposure we got, the more exposure whānau got so it meant a lot. People dream of getting out of obscurity with their businesses and look, Nau Mai Rā has had that same problem. And, to be fair, we haven’t sought out opportunities to expose ourselves more. We’ve been head-down, bum-up and working with what we’ve got to support those we have. The timing of it is nice because we’re ready for exposure now. 

Keep going!