Māori businesses get much needed COVID-19 help

By James Perry

The lockdown period is having an effect on many Māori businesses across the country. While some have been able to adapt to work from home or shift to online platforms others are worried about the long term prospects of their businesses if the lockdown extends beyond the four weeks originally scheduled. 

In the Horowhenua-Kapiti region alone there are more than 800 self-employed Māori, or Māori owned businesses. Daphne Luke, who is part of Te Rōpū Pakihi, the local Māori Business support network says they've been working with some of the businesses since the lockdown began.

"We didn’t really know in those early stages what we were dealing with. We knew the baker next door was in shut down. We knew the builder was. We knew that a number of other businesses were still trading, either at 100% or reduced." she says.

Last week an online hui was held where 16 local businesses spoke about what they were doing and what challenges they were facing. They also got to hear from Ministry of Social Development staff and accountants offer advice on how to find financial support like the wage subsidy.  

Since that hui, Luke has been constantly on the phone talking to different business owners.

"I think that most of the businesses that I've spoken to are probably OK for the four week period. But they're really concerned about the 8-12 weeks. We've got some that are saying they've got enough reserves that they can probably go to 8 weeks.

"Generally, of the ones that I’ve spoken to that have got staff, and even the ones that don’t, have accessed the wage subsidy and are saying that that’s helpful.

"But despite that, for that 6, 8 12 week period that’s I think when we’re going to see some problems, some real issues starting to appear with our smaller businesses," she said.

Kiwibank Head of Māori Advisory Te Ahooterangi Pihama says support is out there for Māori businesses, in the form of government packages like the Business Finance Guarantee Scheme announced last week.

"$6.2 billion kua taha atu e te kāwana mā ngā whare pūtea e tohatoha ki wā rātou kaipakihi hei manaaki i ā rātou i tēnei wā. (The government have put $6.25 billion aside for banks to assist their business clients affected at this time.)

"Kia mārama mai tātou ēhara tērā tārewa pūtea he tārewa hei hoko rawa hou, engari he tārewa kia utu ngā whakahaeretanga, kia timata anō ēnei pākihi hei ngā wiki hei ngā marama e taha ake nei. (What needs to be made clear is these loans aren't meant to be used to buy new resources, but to help keep their heads above water, so that they can continue into the months ahead.)

Luke says for some small business however taking on more debt at this time is not possible, "I had one person say to me, 'Well it's all very well for me to access the loan, but we had such low margins before COVID-19 that there's no way that we'd be able service anything increased debt going forward."

Pihama says it's important that business owners reach out not only to their banks but also to their accountants and lawyers to find ways of negotiating the months ahead. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has acknowledged that not every job or business will be saved as a result of their packages, but they will try their best to keep business going. It's a reality, Daphne Luke says some Māori business owners have to face.

"if [the lockdown] goes beyond 8 weeks there are going to be Māori businesses that will be closing and they won’t be able to open their doors again. We see one of the jobs that we have now is to support them in the least damaging way. Try to manage what that looks like and come out of it intact, as much as intact as they can.

"For some of those businesses we really do have to start thinking about what an exit strategy looks like. I’ve had a couple of people on the phone saying I need to get my head around what I need to do if it goes longer than six weeks. I can’t afford to lose my house over this.

"So a lot of our people are really onto it and having those kinds of thoughts and considerations," Luke says.

However, it's not all doom and gloom for business owners. Luke says through the challenge of adapting to working from home, and working in isolation can come new experiences and benefits

"I was talking to a woman in Porirua who is in the wellness space. Suddenly going from doing healing to providing some kind of online offerings and suddenly she’s the IT expert for her company. That was something that she was never trained for or able to do, so she was learning a lot through YouTube.

"I think for a lot of our people we’re learning a lot on YouTube, and it’s really good to see a whole raft of webinars now coming online, and online education where some of our people can chip for nothing, for free and have a look at what's available and do some re-skilling and upskilling."

Te Ahooterangi Pihama also sees the future of the Māori economy looking different once the coronavirus pandemic is over.

"Ka whakarewa ake te ohanga Māori ā ngā tau e heke mai nei, koirā tā matou e kite atu, engari ka rerekē te āhuatanga mahi, ka rereke hoki ngā whakakōnaru pakihi, haumītanga hoki."  (We believe the Māori economy will stay strong in the years ahead, but the landscape will be different, it will be very diverse, and so to will investment opportunities.)

Pihamas' advice for business owners looking for advice during this period should look at their banks respective COVID-19 websites.