Ten years ago, when Reni Wereta-Gargiulo was made redundant, her marriage ended and her father passed away, all within the space of a year, she was left wondering what to do. But, inspired by her lemon tree and the marinated raw fish her father loved, she decided to make raw fish and sell it at local markets.

Now, a decade on, Reni (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru, Te Ātiawa), is the owner of a multi-armed business that has won numerous accolades; she exports product to Australia and she was named New Zealand Māori Businesswoman of the Year in 2022.

It’s been a long road of taking risks and developing new ideas for Reni but thanks to Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu WAVE funding, she has been able to develop Kiwi Kai Nelson into the successful parent company that it is today, preparing and producing healthy, sustainable Māori-inspired kai and seafood – hangi, creamed paua, raw fish, inhouse smoked fish, pâté and whitebait are just a few of the options.

It is the umbrella company for her associated workstreams – Kai FusioNZ (indigenous fusion catering), an Artisan Market outlet and Atutahi, which produces the company’s successful native range of drinks, chutneys and spices.

Atutahi (named after Reni’s grandfather), was developed three years ago.

“We’ve always worked with native leaf and we originally created a range of drinks for markets. They were so popular I decided to create a carbonated drink. We talked with a brewer and the outcome of that was our first drink, Kawakawa, Lemon and Lime. We launched the brand just before lockdown and have since added flavours, including kumarahou, and horopito with blackcurrant and boysenberry,” Reni says.

WAVE funding is now being used to move ahead with the Atutahi chutney and spice range, and to work with Otago University researchers to develop a new drinks concept.  Currently commercially sensitive, the new product should be ready to market within the next six months and Reni is excited about its potential.

Always a ‘one-man-band,’ Reni has focussed on contracting out the manufacture of her product ranges and she works with people around the globe. Her three children take care of Atutahi drinks in Queensland; her designer lives in South America; her marketing person lives in Singapore and her editor lives in Germany.

The company has grown fast and Reni says Wave funding has made all the difference.

“I have very high drive. I’m like a racehorse with blinkers on once I get an idea – I just go for the finish line; but Kiwi Kai wouldn’t be where it is today without WAVE funding. The work Te Pūtahitanga does is outstanding and it makes a massive difference to new, small businesses like us. They know Māori, they understand our way of working and their accountability process are fantastic. They inspire you to worker harder.”

“We’ve been learning as we go and I’m very proud of how far we’ve come in a short time. It feels good. Everything is coming together nicely. It’s been tiring but I feel very positive about the future.”