Flax roots Whanganui partnership growing in all directions

Story By Nicola Young

Steam drums heated till combustion point, to release optimum heat for pasteurization.

Pupunu Tukuafu with steam drums heated to release optimum heat for pasteurisation

In the first six months of the pioneering partnership between Ngā Hononga Marae (Charitable) Trust and the MacDiarmid Institute, many layers of change have happened already—and not just in the compost. The Trust, which aims to help Whanganui Māori develop sustainable, community-based ventures to provide local economic and employment opportunities, signed a ground-breaking agreement with the Institute in September 2014. The partnership aims to connect science and research to the Trust’s business arms, which include a green waste compost product and a mushroom farm. The first layer of change came with the Trust inviting Institute-funded scientist Keoni Mahelona to work alongside the Whanganui team and identify opportunities for two summer interns. Mahelona saw great opportunity to bring science discipline into the mushroom farm’s operations. The next layer was eight weeks over the summer, with the Trust hosting two University of Auckland science undergraduates. The pair, Pupunu Tukuafu and Te Amorangi Rikirangi-Thomas, focused on two main projects—monitoring compost to identify the perfect production conditions and growing quality mushrooms. Trust chairman Ron Hough said the interns were a perfect fit. “Whoever chose these two, made the right choice. They have blended in well with our team.” Hough said, like himself, some of their staff at Natural Earth Solutions Limited had ‘bugger-all’ secondary school learning. “It’s been so inspiring to have these two young people immersed in our business.” Rikirangi-Thomas said she felt right at home. For her, it was a stepping stone to imagining what it would be like once she graduated to be able to go help her own people. Her motivation to study environmental science and geography was to bring scientific knowledge to her Iwi to help understand and test proposed geothermal energy developments on their land. Hough impressed her as ‘one of the hardest working men I’ve ever been around’. He would respond positively to any of their suggestions plus contribute his own ideas. “He’s not in it for himself—he’s real passionate about what he’s doing.” Tukuafu added that it was a definite exchange of knowledge. “These are really intelligent people with lots of their own ideas and information I don’t know about.” He said it was great being able to put his university theory into practice, to learn at the same time and being part of working in a team. Plus an expected bonus—Tukuafu has “fallen in love with mushrooms!” He says that he’s seriously interested in getting involved in mushroom farming when he finishes university. Hough is the next layer of change. He volunteers that since becoming involved in the Trust, Nihi Houia, the Trust’s manager, and the whole partnership have opened his mind to science. “I already knew science was a great part of everything we do but when you have two capable young people analyse and gather information, define the process, take critical notes and go step by step by step—I’ve been really amazed at the results.”

Trays of seeded spores under room condition

Trays of seeded spores under room condition

Houia agrees. “The potential business pay-off is real. I was astounded to see how the composting bays looked—they were preventing cross-contamination risks, recording and managing temperature and humidity so we can respond to the key conditions for the best harvest,” said Houia. “These young scientific minds are able to bring knowledge to us and the farm workers in particular who oversee the growing processes.” Houia said Hough undertook a great balancing act in when and how to share the information they gained over the eight-week journey, to help their team see its relevance and put into action to improve productivity consistency. “Ron has always had these questions in his head and they have been validated by others”, said Houia. “Yes,” said Hough. “If you open your mind to science, you can look deeper than a blade of grass—there is more happening there than you really realised.” And Hough’s language demonstrates his grasp on science—he explains a future project they hope to explore: “We also discussed how to turn green waste into methane—if we can source cow manure, enclose it in a vessel, it creates a micro-organism environment, then feed it with carbon from organic waste, it creates methane—then we have a secret method to capture it!” Houia sees further opportunities to develop connections between science and business, Māori and flax-roots business and the application of new technologies. He adds, “We’ve been absolutely stimulated by these kids.” And while they didn’t completely reach the end with one of their experiments, they are continuing on and remain in close contact with the Institute. “It’s been a mutually-beneficial partnership,” says Houia. The Trust has been inspired to investigate whether they can convert the mushroom farm into a much-needed community science, education and training centre. It looks like the partnership between Māori business and science for transformative change is here to stay.