No blender required, says south Taranaki iwi-owned enterprise Kaitahi, whose frozen smoothie drops using Māori ingredients have tapped into the convenient ‘superfoods’ market. Jihee Junn talks to business development manager Leonie Matoe about how Kaitahi’s innovative drops are reviving the use (and growth) of indigenous ingredients.
Fossil fuels have long powered Taranaki’s economic engine. But when the government announced earlier this year that it was going to stop offshore oil and gas exploration in New Zealand, the region’s mayor described it as “a kick in the guts”.
While the announcement felt abrupt, it wasn’t entirely without warning. Shell said it was pulling out of New Zealand earlier this year, while Tapuae Roa – a blueprint for Taranaki’s future economy unveiled almost a year ago – touts sectors like clean energy, food and the Māori economy as key drivers for the region’s growth
It’s a path that Kaitahi – a south Taranaki-based smoothie company – has already well and truly embraced. A self-described “social-ecological enterprise”, Kaitahi’s goals as an iwi-owned agency (Ngaa Rauru Kiitahi) stretches beyond just profit, promoting the use of Māori ‘superfoods’, the employment of locals from the south Taranaki community, and the revitalisation of indigenous, plant-based ingredients in the region.
Not to mention it’s got an award-winning innovation to back it up.
“You just grab one cup of the drops and shake it together with a liquid mixer. There’s no need for a blender because of the droplet format. They just dissolve into the liquid when you shake it together,” says Leonie Matoe, Kaitahi’s business development manager.
“[To make the drops], we source all the ingredients, some of which we harvest by hand and process ourselves, and feed them into a factory that blends them together. That blend then goes through a droplet system that drops our blend onto a conveyor belt that moves instantly into a blast freezer. So our mix is frozen and packed into pouches. They stay frozen and are sold frozen so you don’t lose any nutrition.”
The ingredients Kaitahi uses for its smoothie blends includes all the usual suspects: berries, bananas, pineapples and oranges, to name a few. But Kaitahi also distinguishes itself by using a range of indigenous plant foods and ingredients, like kūmara (one of the most concentrated sources of carbs of any vegetable), pūhā (a staple green vegetable in Māori cuisine), kawakawa (an aromatic plant with medicinal qualities), and rewarewa honey (from the native New Zealand honeysuckle tree, whose nectar was collected by traditional Māori as a natural sweetener).
While officially launching in May, the Kaitahi concept has been two years in the making, spurred by concern among local iwi over the lack of sustainable enterprises, Matoe says. “Here in south Taranaki, we’re dominated by industries like dairy farming and oil and gas, so the idea was to create something that used our indigenous superfoods and native plants.”
“Early market research formed the idea [for a smoothie formulation]. But really, we just ended up making some really good friends along the product development journey who knew people, who knew other people, who knew this factory with the technology. It all just moved from there.”
Matoe, who comes from a nutrition background, says Kaitahi was also informed by her experiences working in the public health sector promoting health and wellbeing, primarily among Māori communities. “It was my frustration with the food industry and the public health world, and the frustration around good, healthy food not being easily accessible, that forced me to jump to the other side.”
As an indigenous food enterprise, there are other layers of complexity and accountability Kaitahi has to actively consider, Matoe adds. “We’re supported by our iwi agency, Kii Tahi Ltd, which means we’re owned by the iwi and supported by our 4000-plus iwi stakeholders. That means employing local people in south Taranaki, employing our iwi people if they have the skill, and revitalising local indigenous foods with a focus on availability, accessibility, as well as [keeping an eye on] those limits.”
“We know we can’t just go off and make tons of the stuff. We have to think carefully and make sure these plants are sustained and can sustain us. We’re currently trialling the growth of a native pūha species which once grew prolifically in our region along the coastline, but we don’t see that particular species as much [any more]. We want to use that particular pūha species in our product going forward. So by design, our business actively supports the revitalisation of native plant foods. And of course, we have to make money from it too.”
From the success of sibling chefs Karena and Kasey Bird to fast-casual food truck Pūha & Pākehā, the renaissance of Māori-inspired cuisine has been spearheaded by the merging of traditional ingredients with contemporary methods. Natural, unadulterated, nutrient-dense foods with cultural and historical mana behind them are in – overly processed, heavily manufactured foods are out.
“Two years ago when I started working on this project, we did a little validation exercise where we asked specific questions around traditional foods and native plant foods, and people were neither here nor there about it,” Matoe recalls. “But this time around… it’s all just been really positive. I think it’s a reflection of timing and openness to take on new food ideas. It’s interesting to me how influential trends are.”
Since showcasing their products at food shows in both Auckland and Wellington, Kaitahi’s biggest problem is trying to keep up with demand, receiving at least one inquiry a day asking where customers can purchase the product. “It kind of hurts me a little to hold them off, but it’s just the nature of startup companies and the food business. But I have full faith we’re going to get there,” she says, before adding that the company has just started a relationship with Auckland cafe and restaurant supplier The Produce Company, and is currently in discussions with Wellington food emporium Moore Wilson’s.
“The whole idea of being at these food shows is to introduce us to people who can get us stocked into stores. So we’re working on that. [We also have] second- and third-generation products in mind that move into freeze-dried snacks and powders. But for now, we’ll stick with as minimal processing as possible.”
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