Reni Wereta-Gargiulo from Kiwi Kai Nelson has won the Supreme Award at this year’s MWDI Māori Businesswoman Awards 2022.
The inspiration of whānau recipes, traditional healing remedies and a vision to deliver healthy kai to her community were elements behind Reni Wereta-Gargiulo receiving the top award, held in Tāmaki Mākaurau on Friday, 29 July 2022. Wereta-Gargiulo also won the MWDI Business Collaboration Award sponsored by Tātaki Auckland Unlimited.
Wereta-Gargiulo’s business started from scratch around 2008, first with a stall selling marinated seafood stall at the very Kai Fest at Whakatu Marae in about 2008. The success of that led to her engaging in catering at the local marae, where she produced healthy food for events ranging from 50 people to 300, including locals and international visitors.
Later this developed into the Nelson-based food and catering business Kiwi Kai, producing nourishing and balanced kai using fresh produce and seafood in an indigenous fusion style. Kiwi Kai is available online through the company’s retail store in the Nelson township, online and at the Nelson market.
Wereta-Gargiulo says her business has developed in ways that really surprised her. “Having the shop has allowed us to try new things, experiment with customers … and receive feedback straight away.”
Entrepreneurial skills inherited from ancestors on her mother’s side (O’Carroll) coupled with her Māori values and heritage of Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru Kitahi, Te Atiawa on her father’s side are the strong foundation that drive her passion for business. These two lineages together and a love for seafood have helped her develop Kiwi Kai. Wereta-Gargiulo also draws on a background in marketing, promotion, business administration and tourism.
Wereta-Gargiulo was born in Dunedin, the oldest of four. She says, “We were brought up with lots of fresh vegetables, a huge garden. We would go fruit picking and foraging as a family. Mum made preserves, she even did ginger beer. Dad would always ensure we had a freezer full of funny looking specimens, but mostly seafood, crayfish and eels. mum was a home baker as well. A lot of the recipes that we use traditionally came from how I was taught as a child.”
In 2021, Wereta-Gargiulo’s business was one of five SheEO ventures winners, after launching a drinks business Atutahi using a brew made with the traditional healing herb kawakawa. The idea for the drink came about when Wereta-Gargiulo was suffering with arthritis in her hands, and she found d that drinking the herbal brew helped reduce the symptoms. After selling the drink though the store for about three years, she decided to go to the next level of carbonating it, and putting it in cans. With the help of Kombucha Bros in Nelson, the drinks were carbonated, and the product launched three days before lockdown 2020. “It is a bit of a risk, but we’ll see how it goes”, she says.
The path to success has not all been straightforward. One year, prior to starting the business, Wereta-Gargiulo lost her dad, separated from her husband, and was made redundant. See more of her story here.
The annual MWDI Māori Businesswomen Awards recognise outstanding performances and achievements in business by wāhine. The awards support the vision and mission of Māori Women’s Development Inc to encourage the economic development of wāhine and their whānau.
This year’s event received over 70 entries, across eight regional and business excellence categories through various disciplines such as: Business Collaboration, People & Capability, Innovation, Employment & Growth, Emerging Business, Social Enterprise, Marketing & Sales.
Interim CEO Linda Clay says, “This event is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of wāhine and showcase their businesses on the economic world stage. We’re also very grateful to all our sponsors, co-host, Auckland Council and Te Puni Kōkiri for their tautoko”.
Judges, Tina Kilmister-Blue, Partner PwC, Kiri Nathan ONZM, previous recipient of the MWDI Māori Business Woman of the Year 2019 and former MWDI CEO Teresa Tepania-Ashton MNZM were impressed with the high calibre of nominations befitting to all regions and categories.