A partnership between New Zealand’s first and only commercial space launch company Rocket Lab and Tawapata South Inc, a Māori land incorporation, is a shining example of how businesses can collaborate with Māori to create a winning outcome based on shared values.
Tawapata South Inc and Rocket Lab
The name ‘Mahia’ is a Māori word meaning ‘indistinct sound’ – and for many years, that’s mostly what could be heard atop the rugged, windswept peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island – be it the distant sounds of ocean waves crashing beneath white cliffs, or local tui birds or an occasional murmur from one of the surrounding sheep or beef farms.
These days, however, a very distinct sound will be heard on Mahia Peninsula – the occasional, 30-second roar of an Electron engine sending Rocket Lab satellites into space.
The 25th of May 2017 was a significant date in the history of the region, not only because it marked the first test flight of the Electron rocket from the Mahia site, but because it represented the merging of two long journeys of innovation and discovery.
The first journey began hundreds of years ago with the arrival of Polynesian voyagers who settled in the area. The shareholders of Tawapata South Inc are descendants of those original settlers, a kinship group known as Ngāti Hikairo – part of a larger tribal grouping known as Rongomaiwāhine. Tawapata South was incorporated to aggregate a number of land interests into a single organisation to enable those share-holders to run it as a farming business.
The second journey began in the mind of a young engineer Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s chief executive. As a child, Beck was obsessed with space and went on to found the satellite launch company based on a bold vision to ‘democratise space’. Started in 2006, Rocket Lab has pioneered low-cost satellite launches, using the latest in carbon fibre and 3D printing technology. The rockets are massively disrupting the new space-race, with launches costing ten-times less than normal. After a decade of trials and investments from around the world Rocket Lab began a global search for a suitable launch site.
Through a series of twists and turns, the two roads ultimately met at Mahia Peninsula and a unique relationship between local Māori and modern, space-age technology began.
George Mackey, a spokesperson for Tawapata, describes how the group had been keen to add some more diversity to their investments in the Onenui Station sheep and beef farm, and were on the lookout for additional opportunities. It was around about then Beck called with his seemingly outlandish idea of launching satellites into space. He needed clear air and a remote, yet accessible location. Mahia seemed perfect.
Mackey was interested but there were others to convince. “When we first talked about how to sell this opportunity to our shareholders, we met with Peter on one of our local marae (traditional meeting house). He came into our environment and our people respected him for that,” says Mackey.
“He talked about things like building his first rocket engine at age 15 and racing down the main street of Bluff at some ungodly hour in the morning. That appealed to us – we call it the potiki spirit (adventurous spirit of the young).
“One of our legendary ancestors, Maui, did crazy things too, and our people saw that spirit in Peter and related to that. It was one of the key things that won over our shareholders to say, let’s get behind and support this amazing person.”
Peter Beck relates a similar experience in working with George and Tawapata, saying, “I’ve done lots of deals in America and around the world and they’re always very transactional. However, when working with Māori – and especially with Tawapata South and George – the first step was building trust and making sure that we were aligned on values. I think that has given our business relationship a much stronger foundation.”
And values are clearly at the heart of the deal. Rocket Lab has a commitment to using the site to only launch things that will do good and not harm, and ensuring that the surrounding environment is cared for. It has also reached out to the local community developing an annual tertiary scholarship to encourage students from Mahia and the wider Wairoa district to study engineering, science, and technology. It has also invested in developing local infrastructure to service the launch site, including new roads.
The deal itself is also innovative. Rather than simply offer a lease, Tawapata also takes a revenue share of each launch. The more launches, the more the revenue to the Incorporation and the more they can invest back into their land and shareholders.
“Rocket Lab actually embraces the Māori culture, and they want all of their 220 staff to feel that culture too and so we welcome them onto our traditional meeting places at the marae with a pōwhiri (welcome ceremony), where they then become part of the Onenui family. They then have a real connection to the land and so don’t want to ruin the environment or our significant cultural sites, which is really what we’re all about.”
“We have a proverb about the land that essentially says, ‘People come and go, but the land is forever.’ That’s the way we view this. In 100-years’ time or a 1,000-years’ time Rocket Lab may not be here, but the land will still be here,” says Mackey.
“We are purely the caretakers of the land in our lifetime, and we do the best that we can to take care of it and hand it over to the next generation. As I said to Peter, Rocket Lab has the experts – they have all the technical expertise to get the rocket into orbit and we’re here to give it that little bit of extra Māori magic to make sure that it’s successful,” says Mackey.
“It’s déjà vu for us. Just like my ancestors thousands of years ago looked at the oceans and thought what’s out there, we’re now looking to the stars and we’re saying the same thing.”