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Diversify to thrive

In a world where Covid-19 has impacted on tourism and limited engagement with indigenous businesses, finding new ways to diversify and create revenue is all- important. Matai O’Connor went to Tolaga Bay to talk to the people involved in a social enterprise working to create sustainable livelihoods in our rural homelands.

The great thing is the grassroots businesses are still going here,” says Tolaga Bay Innovation (TBI) founder and facilitator Lily Stender.

“One thing we all learned from the Covid-19 lockdown was the importance and possibilities that exist when you have a business online.”

After the lockdown, Tolaga Bay Innovation's grassroots businesses looked for ways to improve their online presence and keep growing as they did not want to close their business.

Lily has always aimed to utilise technology and the internet to improve the lives of those in Tolaga Bay, and in July 2020 she got the opportunity to learn more skills that utilised internet technologies.

Lily along with Holly Maitai, Jodie Reid, Jacinda Moran and William Maurirere from Tolaga Bay Innovation received scholarships from Te Whare Hukahuka to participate in the 12-week Ka Hao programme that focused on e-commerce and digital marketing supported by global online sales giant Shopify.

E-commerce, also known as electronic commerce or internet commerce, refers to the buying and selling of goods or services using the internet, and the transfer of money and data to execute these transactions.

“The kaupapa of Te Whare Hukahuka is about improving the lives of 10 million people worldwide, which is similar to our goal on the Coast but on a much bigger scale,” Lily said.

After graduating from the 12-week course Lily was able to create an online store — www.theinnmarket.com

“We can't sell beers on that, so I started thinking about what else I could do. On the course we learned about print-on-demand services, where people put orders in for an image to be printed on a canvas, cups, shirts, hats and more. I wanted to find a print-on-demand business that was working out of New Zealand, because if it was international, shipping times could be way too long and not eco-friendly.”

Lily jumped on Google and found Gelato, a Norwegian company that has a facility in Auckland that prints custom orders.

She thought this would be useful for the grassroots businesses of Tolaga Bay Innovation. She went on Google again to find out who the CEO was and discovered it was Henrik Muller-Hansen who also founded Gelato.

Gelato a low-cost way to take a risk on a dream

Lily used Linkedin, a professional networking site, to send a direct message to Henrik explaining what she is trying to do in Tolaga Bay and asking for any sort of help.

“Before the internet it was almost impossible to talk directly to CEOs. It's a whole different world out there now,” Lily said.

“I explained what I was wanting to do and how we could not afford to make our own factory in Tolaga to produce our own products for distribution.

“Henrik of Gelato offered the support of his team in Norway to provide Zoom sessions with his key people in marketing, customer services and print on demand throughout October and November, to help us prepare our stores for graduation in the Ka Hao Programme.

“There was no cost at all for this advice. It was absolutely brilliant,” Lily said.

“Our missions were aligned. Gelato have their own dream of helping anyone create their own money — which is coming true. We were like their pilot programme in Aotearoa.”

Since the path to global scaling of a business runs through technology, e-commerce and print-on-demand are powerful tools for the crafting, production, sale, and delivery of products anywhere in the world, without the need for upfront investment or advanced technical skills.

“Our people want to gain the skills, tools and knowledge that can empower them to create a sustainable income here, in our homelands — e-commerce and print-on-demand are the tools that can make it happen,” Lily said.

“We work from a growth mindset, and our members dream not of only selling their products at the local store, but to customers anywhere in the world, and to build global companies that can support their families.”

Lily is also an Edmund Hillary Fellow (EHF) and has organised for a group of Fellows to visit Tolaga Bay in February to share knowledge that will help the grassroots businesses.

“I am hoping to tap into the EHF a lot more to help grow and diversify our businesses,” she said.

For every order placed in January, Gelato will make a donation to Tolaga Bay Innovation, Tauawhi Men's Centre and the Maori Women's Development Inc. to support community organisations that are helping grow a new generation of Maori entrepreneurs.

With the global e-commerce market expected to top $USD4.2 trillion in 2020 and reach more than $6.5 trillion by 2023 according to Shopify's Future of e-commerce report, the need to make production local has become paramount, and the Maori businesses from Gisborne are a case study for the Norwegian company.

Holly Maitai founded the clothing brand Dirty Mulle and went on the Ka Hao programme to learn how to run an e-commerce store.

Dirty Mulle creates hand-printed, locally designed men's street-wear with a wider mission of bringing awareness to men's mental health and suicide prevention within Gisborne.

The idea behind Dirty Mulle evolved from the personal experience of Holly and her desire to inspire her son during a challenging time.

“My son Cortez is the reason for the brand Dirty Mulle. While suffering from anxiety and depression I wanted to inspire and motivate him so he doesn't become a statistic of suicide,” Holly said.

“For years I myself struggled with anxiety and a year out of therapy has been life-changing for me. I want to be an example for my son to get the help he requires to overcome his mental health issues.

“It was life-changing, and the relationship and networks I have made by doing the Ka Hao programme are great.

”I was truly inspired by Travis O'Keefe with his goal to educate 10 million indigenous people.”

Holly said a trusting relationship between Gelato and Dirty Mulle had been formed.

“Having a business, studying and being a solo mum has been challenging, but now it is a new year and the fact Gelato is going to give back to Tauawhi Men's Centre has given me the drive and inspiration to apply what I learned last year to my business.

“It was my son's idea to give back to Tauawhi Men's Centre as when he attended, he felt like it was a space were he could openly express his feelings and would often come home inspired and motivated.”

Taking part in the Ka Hao programme and hearing from Gelato, “has been life changing”, Holly said.

“If there are people out there who want to test the market with their art work or designs but don't have the capital or funding to start an e-commerce store, Gelato is a low-cost way to take a risk on a dream,” she said.

Henrik Muller-Hansen said, “to see these entrepreneurs succeed is not only extremely powerful and humbling, but it is also the greatest reminder of what Gelato has striven to do since inception — namely provide every human being on the planet with a means to share their creativity in an eco-friendly way.”


When New Zealand went into the Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown in March last year, the outlook for businesses was bleak.

The idea of shutting up shop or providing no contact service to people was something many businesses were not prepared for.

Thankfully, the New Zealand Government created a wage subsidy that would be paid to employers for them to pay their employees in the hopes of retaining them once the lockdown had ended.

The grassroots businesses in Tolaga Bay were a tad worried, Lily said.

“But we have all learned things. It was hard to get through it all, but here in these smaller towns, we are all community focussed and would help each other whenever we can.”

Lily has managed to keep the Tolaga Bay Inn and Tolaga Bay Innovation (TBI) afloat thanks to the help of the wage subsidy and government business loans. She did not have to fire anyone.

Since the lockdown, people have gone into the inn asking Lily and others about TBI and how it works and how they can start their own business.

“Some are people who have lost their jobs and others are those wanting to pursue finding new revenue streams.

“It's people who have some skill or idea and they come here and through the TBI programme, we awhi each other to set up businesses.

“The dilemma is we have a quota of 10 people. So I am going to try to negotiate with funders to help support more.

“It hasn't been easy but we are still doing it and there are better and bigger things on the horizon for us all.”

Harley Stender who created Harley's Harvest, a fruit and vegetable trailer, realised quickly that his service could still operate throughout lockdown as he could deliver fruit and vegetable packages with zero contact.

At one point he was delivering 50-60 packages a day around the East Coast.

“After a while, I realised I didn't have enough space to do this work so I started thinking about where I could set up. A store at the Inn came up, I approached Lily and we came to a deal. Who would have thought that a nationwide lockdown and global pandemic would impact my business in a positive way? It grew. Now everyone knows where I am I won't be leaving.

“I remember speaking to a vegetable store owner during lockdown who said I should just give up because it was all doom and gloom— it did break me but I decided to use it as something to help motivate me. I was going to prove him wrong.”

Antonio Phillips of Flojo's Flattops, a lawn-mowing service, did find hearing the news of a lockdown pretty hard.

“I had 10 customers in Gisborne, and I thought ‘how am I going to manage to do that work?' ”

He has managed to retain 14 of his clients, and people have been getting in touch with him to do some other one-off jobs around their properties.

“Thankfully the wage subsidy was there for me to access — it really meant I could keep going once lockdown ended.”

He started the businesses with just one ride-on mower, he now has two.

“It's growing — we are getting bigger as I continue doing the mahi. Maybe hiring someone could even be on the cards.”

INNOVATION AT THE INN: Grassroots businesses supported by Tolaga Bay Innovation are finding new ways to grow and diversify. Pictured are Antonio Phillips of Flojo’s Flattops, Stephan Kellermann and Lily Stender of TBI and Harley Stender of Harley’s Harvest. PIcture by Liam Clayton
WHERE IT STARTED: Harley started selling fruit and vegetables in his trailer (above) . . . but after seeing a huge demand for his service, he had to find a bigger space (below). Lightshift Picture
In demand: Since the Covid-19 lockdown, Harley moved into the shop at Tolaga Bay Inn because of high demand for his services. Picture by Liam Clayton