A group of kai innovators from across South Auckland have come together to create, trial, and implement innovative solutions that evolve the kai ecosystem in Tāmaki ki te Tonga toward a healthier, more sustainable and connected future for both food and people.
Supported by Foundation North and the Auckland Council, the Kai Innovators Incubator have re-imagined a new future for South Auckland food systems through collaborative solutions anchored in mātauranga Māori, and brought to life for community, by community.
Food for thought
Nāu te rourou nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi – with your food basket and my food basket, the people will prosper.
The kai systems in Aotearoa are unable to sustain the community and environment. The pandemic, extreme weather events, and rising cost of living crisis, have left communities in a state of survival. With each disruption, the gap between the haves and have nots grows larger, the impact of this inequity harsher, and more widespread.
The food restrictions and barriers faced by communities during this time has exacerbated the impact our kai systems have on those most vulnerable. Where once we were able to ignore the unsustainable nature of our food systems, the discomfort and disconnection they cause has become too glaring to continue turning a blind eye.
This extended period of uncertainty has seen the birth of many community-led kai initiatives. With kaupapa ranging from creating access to affordable food, to kai rescue, koha cafés, social supermarkets, and gardening and nutrition education initiatives.
Kāhore taku toa i te toa takitahi, he toa takitini – We cannot succeed without the support around us.
Noticing the need for action in this space, Alexanda Whitcombe (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngā Rauru Kitahi) recognised a collaborative approach was necessary to find the right solutions that will lead to widespread changes to how communities interact with food in South Auckland.
Alex brings with him a wealth of experience in the design and innovation sector, drawing on a decade of work in community development, regenerative urban environments, the social enterprise sector, and digital technologies. He created the Kai Innovators Incubator programme to build a united network of movers and shakers, and true to the collaborative vision of the initiative, co-facilitated the programme with Anaru Ah Kew.
Also a passionate design thinker, Anaru uses past learnings, collaboration, and networks to empower and inspire innovators on their journey toward more sustainable systems.
Together, the pair created an innovative, mana-enhancing, and intentional space for kai leaders to express themselves, collaborate, get creative, and share their ideas authentically with confidence.
For Alex, the success of the Incubator initiative lies in its foundations. Grounded in cultural knowledge, it’s the relationship building within the collective that enables a movement, “Using our cultural paradigms of our waka coming together, you know, you’re often paddling on your own, and you have a lot on your shoulders, but if we can come together to form one waka, then we’re paddling together – then, we’re creating a movement.”
The Kai Innovators Incubator
Me mahi tahi tātou mō te oranga o te katoa – We should work together for the wellbeing of everyone.
After months of planning, Alex and Anaru facilitated the first Kai Innovators Incubator session in April 2023.
The initiative brought together ten innovators with a passion and vision for seeing change in the local food systems. Some were already heavily engaged in the community kai space, and others were new to the idea of tackling this kaupapa, the uniting feeling amongst the participants, however, was a palpable drive to make a difference in the areas they call home.
By the end of session one – the whole room was buzzing with inspiration, ideas, and plans for the future.
When asked about why the incubator kaupapa was so important to him, Ra Besley, the now co-owner of Straight Up Urban Farms social enterprise says, “I lived in an apartment and then moved to a townhouse, we’ve got a little, tiny plot of land where our washing line goes and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll never have a garden, ever.’”
Each participant, regardless of how they came to be part of the Incubator, brought a rich history of experiences, learning, understanding, and care to their weekly sessions, creating a truly collaborative ecosystem of strengths and ideas ready to be propelled into action by their united energy.
Poipoia te kākano kia puāwai – Nurture the seed and it will blossom.
In November 2023, the Innovators hosted the Kai Innovators Mana Festival Showcase to display and celebrate seven social enterprises created through the incubator.
A testament to the kaupapa, the Mana Festival was hosted by the Papatoetoe Foodhub – a zero waste, community-led social enterprise operating within a circular economy model that rescues surplus food, turning what would have been wasted into affordable food for the community. Guests enjoyed zero-waste kai and kōrero as the Innovators shared the journey of their enterprise, from the very beginnings of an idea, right through to how the kaupapa will expand and grow, taking the community with it.
When asked about why she’s passionate about the Innovators kaupapa, Luella Linaker, who created the Toha te Koha – Urban Honesty Box enterprise, says it’s the paradox of families in South Auckland going hungry, while surrounded by homes with an abundance of fruit and vegetables growing.
“People don’t have access to good food, and fruit and vegetables are so expensive, so I thought, we’ve got all this excess food in the community, but we are not accessing it, how can we distribute that back into the community?” She says.
Bringing guests into the world of the Kai Innovators, the event was set up to represent how each enterprise fits into a step in the food chain. Beginning with seeds, gardening through climate change and urban household farms, they moved through to the food itself, processing and koha economy honesty boxes, ending the journey focused on how local communities can support the insects and animals that pollinate our gardens and enable them to thrive.
Attending the Mana Festival, it was difficult to believe the cohort had come together less than one year ago. The passion and knowledge of their role in a positive future of our food systems encompassed the Food Hub, inspiring and motivating the crowd to see themselves in the solutions in front of them.
The Mana Festival, a playful twist on words from the cohort, nods to words shared in the early days of the Incubator – the Innovators aren’t ‘manifesting’ this new future for kai, they’re manafesting it.
After the incubator
He rā anō ki tua – A new day is ahead.
Following their journey onward from the Kai Innovators Incubator – the Innovators show no signs of slowing down. The vibrant energy of the individuals, combined with the supportive and caring network they each created and nurtured through the Incubator process, fostered a growth mindset among the group.
Many have gone on to receive funding support for the continued development of their initiatives and have plans to upscale the enterprises to bring more of the community on their journey toward kai sovereignty and community resilience.
The Kai Innovators Incubator facilitators and participants have displayed the true magic of community-led solutions. Their work as a collective has put the Innovators in the driving seat toward change – showing everyone that band-aid solutions to food insecurity are a thing of the past, and by approaching the whole system and acknowledging its interconnected nature, a new future is possible.
With our food systems broken from the outset, the Innovators have shown the solution to kai insecurity doesn’t lie in fixing the irreparable. The solutions live in the hearts and minds of the community, who have the power to create a new system, one that is equitable, healthier, and serves both the people and planet.