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Pasifika patterned fabrics, dresses and other items
Some of the goods on offer at Niu Nesian (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 2, 2023

Retail therapy and health support combine for Tauranga’s Pacific community

Pasifika patterned fabrics, dresses and other items
Some of the goods on offer at Niu Nesian (Image: Tina Tiller)

A new retail hub makes Pasifika goods accessible for communities in the Bay of Plenty, while taking care of their health and wellbeing at the same time.

Seven years ago, AvaNiu Pasifika – a Pacific healthcare, education and social services provider in Tauranga – was established in Greerton and during their years of service, they tried to expand their offering by selling Pasifika goods at the local markets. There was a little bit of interest, but the Pacific community wasn’t big enough to keep it alive. “People were engaging with it, but they’d still shoot up to Ōtara for their materials,” says operations manager Chris Tongalea.

Fast forward to March of this year and Tongalea’s mum, AvaNiu Pasifika’s managing director and registered nurse Sameli Tongalea enquired about a lease that was available at the Historic Village here in Tauranga but she was told that we couldn’t lease it as an office space purely for our AvaNiu Pasifika Services unless there was a retail element included as it was a space set up to cater to the tourism and travel sector within Tauranga. 

Operations manager of AvaNiu Pasifika Chris Tongalea
Operations manager at AvaNiu Pasifika and Niu Nesian store, Chris Tongalea. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

But after just six weeks, Sameli saw the limitations of the lease at The Historic Village and decided to set up a separate retail space for her community. On April 8, Niu Nesian opened its doors in Greerton, just five minutes’ walk from AvaNiu Pasifika, selling Pasifika-themed clothing, fabrics and accessories.

Sameli, who comes from the village of Avatele in Niue, is known for being community driven and purposeful, say her colleagues. Chris had watched his mother put everything on the line for what she was passionate about, having raised three children as a solo parent, completing her nursing studies in Auckland before moving to Tauranga and refinancing her mortgage to start AvaNiu Pasifika in 2016. Chris had no doubts that she could bring any idea into fruition. 

Local shoppers in Tauranga visiting the Niu Nesian store
Locals in Tauranga visiting Niu Nesian, checking out the Pacific clothes in stock. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Sameli specialises in mental health and has worked in the health sector, both public and private, for more than 25 years. Throughout that time, she saw Pasifika people end up in the acute unit, later learning there could have been support put in place earlier to manage crises before they got to such a serious point. That’s where AvaNiu comes in. “My mum wanted a space specifically for Pasifika people, a place that acknowledged cultural differences and practices,” Chris says.

AvaNiu Pasifika soon became much more than a health provider, explains Chris. “People were presenting to AvaNiu Pasifika not only for health, but for financial support. Most of the time there’s a family bereavement where money is spent, trips are made, puletasi outfits are bought and we thought having a shop that sold items that are commonly needed by our people – so they don’t have to take annual leave to go up to Auckland to shop for Pacific items – would help alleviate a bit of stress and ease the financial burden,” he says.

The family-owned and operated organisation holds weekly GP clinics through phone and video appointments, in partnership with Ngā Kākano Foundation, as well as vaccination clinics, community sporting and social events.

Last year, AvaNiu Pasifika entered the Tauranga Business Awards for the first time – also the first time the awards had a Pacific category. AvaNiu Pasifika was awarded runner-up for that category, but also received the highly commended award in the community section. As the service grew and technology advanced, the team started to look at ways to upskill. Pacific Growth, a service that assists Pacific businesses in Tauranga, then approached AvaNiu Pasifika to see how they could assist.

“The director Aifai Esera was the person who encouraged us to enter the awards and it benefitted us immensely as we gained huge exposure in terms of who we are and what we do,” Chris says.

Fabric and Pacific clothes inside Niu Nesian store
Pacific fabrics and clothes at Niu Nesian. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

The team has noticed the Pacific population in Tauranga has increased over the years, largely made up of people migrating from Auckland, and as a result their services are in demand.

“The demand is there for our Pasifika clothing,” says Chris. “There’s been a strong response from the community of how happy they are to have a place to shop for last minute outfits for fakame [White Sunday in Tonga] or a birthday celebration,” Chris says.

Niu Nesian is open from Tuesday to Saturday and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, those seeking social services are encouraged to drop by the store. From Wednesday to Friday, a qualified seamstress is on site and on Saturdays, store manager Sameli can be found behind the counter.

Niu Nesian is believed to be the first of its kind in Tauranga and serves a dual purpose – people can browse Pasifika fabrics and accessories while getting advice on the many health and social services offered by AvaNiu Pasifika. 

“For instance, somebody might come in to buy fabric, we might have a conversation and something health-related might come up. It’s an opportunity for us to be present and be available and offer our assistance in real time,” Sameli Tongalea says.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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