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Launching a Māori drink range three days before Covid-19 lockdown hit in New Zealand could have been a death knell for a fledgling business.
That’s the challenge Reni Wereta-Gargiulo, Taranaki iwi, , faced when she brought out her Atutahi drink range in March 2020.
But, rather than simply ride out the lockdown, she used it to think big – international big.
Now, with the help of a $50,000 High Value Nutrition grant, she’s getting ready to ship her native drinks offshore.
Wereta-Gargiulo owns Kiwi Kai, a Māori kai cafe, and had been selling her kawakawa drink at the Nelson market for years. She decided to put it into cans along with two more flavours, partnering with Kombucha Bros.
The drink were named Atutahi after her grandfather, with the name chosen by her Taranaki whanau who also provide tikanga support.
The drinks take native leaves with medicinal values – kawakawa, kumarahau and horopito – and mix them with other flavours and light carbonation.
Despite launching as lockdown hit they had become popular, being sold in cafes around Nelson and online, as well as at local conferences, Wereta-Gargiulo said.
They’d also been named finalists in the New Zealand Artisan Awards 2020.
Then the company received the High Value Nutrition Grant, which helped them carry out market research with a view to exporting. They would also be presenting the results of that research at the 2021 Foodnomics Conference in September.
“We’re really appreciative of that funding – it means a lot to us and our whānau.
Off the back of that they were now looking for retailers to sell the drinks in Australia and Singapore – while also looking to roll out into supermarkets in New Zealand, she said.
All this came after using lockdown as a chance to look at opportunities, she said.
“I had time up my sleeve … I had time to look into what I needed to do.”
They had brought in experts, helped by the grant, to do research, and had connected with Otago University to help with product development.
“Rather than me try and do everything and taking 10 times as long I’m bringing in experts now.”
Working with others, including in the Māori tourism sector, had been a real game changer, she said.
“What it’s allowed us to do is to give us a good and professional fast track to the export world.”
Two new flavours and low sugar offerings are also being developed for the expanding company, and they were bringing glass bottles alongside the cans, as they used the Kiwi Kai business to drive Atutahi’s growth.
“Every time someone buys a hāngi it goes towards those drinks.”
The business was for the grandchildren, she said.
“Here you go, kids.”