In what is believed to be a world first, Ngāi Tahu-owned Te Kāika has entered a sponsorship arrangement with the Highlanders rugby team.
Ōtākou-based Te Kāika, an organisation that delivers healthcare, and social services to Māori, Pasifika, low income and refugee communities across the Otago region, has signed a three-year deal that will see its name and logo appear on the Super Rugby side's shorts, and in return have the Highlanders promote hauora initiatives in the community.
Highlanders team doctor Asheer Singh is also a practitioner at Te Kāika. He says that the crossover between working in the community as well as with professional athletes helped him push for the unique partnership.
"Working in an organisation where we've got professional athletes and role models, a big part of that was to combine the two and try to help those communities. A good example of that is for our childhood immunisation programmes, trying to drive the message home about the importance of that.
"Most of our boys at the Highlanders are not too dissimilar to some of those kids we're trying to reach out to. They come from humble beginnings. I think it shows both those tamariki and the greater community that, if you can dream big, you can achieve your dreams, whether it be rugby, or anything else."
Te Kāika chief advisor Māori Matt Matahaere is excited by what he calls the beginning of a formalised partnership between the hapū of Ngāi Tahu and the Highlanders at Taurakapipipi - the traditional name for the Logan Park area of Dunedin where the Highlanders are based.
"The Ōtākou Highlanders are very much a focal point for the whānau and communities of not only Dunedin but right across the Southland region. So you know, it's pretty cool. We're really rapt."
Te Kāika has been been a highly visible presence during the Covid-19 pandemic in Dunedin and the wider Otago region, providing more than 80,000 vaccinations last year. But Matahaere and Singh both see the partnership as being more than simply about Covid-19.
"It's about where we will get the best protection for our whānau, our tamariki, our rangatahi, the pakeke," Matahaere said.
"We look at the Highlanders and, as Asheer was saying, a lot of Pasifika, a lot of Māori, they're just normal people like us, right. So it's about how do we take those big stars who are All Blacks back into our communities, where we have our whānau," he said.
Get on board
As momentum builds in the push to remove alcohol sponsorship from sport, particularly with a private member's Bill by Green MP Chloe Swarbrick before Parliament, the partnership between the Highlanders and Te Kāika can be seen as being ahead of the curve.
"Te Kāika has always been known to do things differently and the Highlanders were looking for a way to help that organisation," Singh says.
He says this is a good avenue in trying to overcome disparities "and get out there in the community at the ground level and use our role models to drive the messages on healthy living, eating well, exercising because I think the biggest thing we're experiencing at the moment is obesity and diabetes. So to get these guys out there to show the community that it's possible."
Matahaere says the challenge now is for other Māori and iwi hauora providers to follow suit and get on board with their Super Rugby teams.
"I see a lot of our ministers are Blues fans or Chiefs mana fans, so why don't they get their hapū in behind their Super Rugby team."