COVID-19: One year on - an interview with David Johnston, GM, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kuia


In 2020, we ran a series of local leadership blogs with a focus on Leading Through COVID-19. That series was designed to inspire and support a sense of togetherness as the region moved through the initial brunt of that challenge.

Now a little over a year on, we are taking the opportunity to reflect back on some of those interviews and revisit some of our local leaders and organisations. We're interested in finding out what's changed, what their outlooks are, and what's gone back to 'normal'.

In this interview, we talk to David Johnston, General Manager, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kuia. When we interviewed David last year, he shared some challenges Ngāti Kuia were facing around supporting staff and their whānau. He also spoke about the benefits of a collaborative approach across all iwi of Te Tauihu (Top of the South), as well as relationships across iwi, government, and community organisations. 

What difference does a year make?

How are things going now, one year on?

Tēnā rā tātou katoa e ngā whānau whānui o te Tauihu o te waka ā Māui.

He moana pukepuke e ekengia e te waka
A choppy sea can be navigated by a waka

How our world has changed in the last 12 months. Although we have come through this relatively well compared to what has happened globally, my mind and thoughts turn to India and other countries that are still being severely impacted.

In terms of Te Tauihu, I am heartened by the collective efforts and continued collaboration across our iwi, government, councils, businesses and communities.

Iwi in Te Tauihu have set up a collective entity Te Kotahi o Te Tauihu Charitable Trust which is led by the CEOs and GMs of each Iwi entity. Our respective Iwi chairs have given us the challenge of working together with others to create the best conditions for whānau to thrive. This includes:

  • Making sure no one goes hungry
  • That we shelter the homeless and provide long-term solutions for housing
  • That whānau have access to meaningful work and or training
  • That whānau wellbeing is advanced


This is just one example of kotahitanga (working collectively) that we are seeing in Te Tauihu.

What have been the biggest changes for Ngāti Kuia due to the pandemic? Were any of these changes a surprise?

There have been no real surprises in terms of how we do things as a result of the pandemic. If anything, Iwi type organisations are well placed given our operating models and focus across multiple measures. Where cultural, people and environmental measures are just as important as economic.

Twelve months on, we are even more focused and determined. There is a sense of urgency to help whānau and to work with others in a way we weren’t before. Navigating our new way of working and keeping to a plan has been both rewarding and challenging, especially trying to keep ahead of everything.

As an example, our Iwi completed a significant Hauora (Wellbeing) research project that was officially launched at Te Hora Marae on 22 May 2021. This report sought to investigate the underlying reasons for disparities and inequities in Hauora for whānau. This research will now help guide us as to which areas to focus on to support the wellbeing of whānau.

Has the impact of the pandemic led to new opportunities or business innovations?

Ngāti Kuia was already looking at new opportunities and business innovation prior to the pandemic. Covid has just delayed this from happening however we are now moving at speed.

We will be opening a new Kānuka Processing Facility in July at Titiraukawa, our centre of excellence.  In this facility, we will process kānuka sustainably harvested from whānau lands using the best of traditional and contemporary methods.

Our earlier trials of kānuka related products have gone well. We will be looking at exporting products once the facility is fully operational.

We are also focusing on pursuits that are best for our whenua and environment which includes organic practices and identifying the health benefits in everything that we do.

How has the engagement of your people changed?

Many whānau who live outside of the rohe just want to come home. For this, they need jobs and somewhere to live.

Ngāti Kuia has grown quickly in the last 12 months.

As part of this, we have recently taken on 15 students who have 2 days paid work experience, and 2 days training per week over 12 months. This is part of developing our tribal economy and providing training and jobs for whānau. Students will complete a level 3 Horticulture qualification via NMIT. In turn, this will help establish an organic native research plantation and learning space with mātauranga Māori at the centre of this initiative.

What are the biggest challenges facing your industry moving forward and how do you feel they can be managed?

Across all sectors, I have noticed that everyone seems to be very busy. Whilst the opposite of this is not ideal I’m hoping that we are all working on the right things and not heading to burnout.

I hope we all have learnt lessons from Covid including being present and appreciating each other more. In our day-to-day at the office, we are more proactive managing annual leave, quite flexible with sick and whānau leave, and operate with a high trust model.

Over a year since the country went into lockdown, the vaccine is being rolled out globally and our borders are slowly starting to open up with our neighbours. What’s your future outlook for your business and industry?

Waiho i te toipoto, kaua i te toiroa
Let us keep close together, not wide apart

This whakataukī speaks to the importance of keeping connected, and of maintaining relationships and dialogue so that we can keep moving forward together.

At this present time, our neighbours in Melbourne and Fiji are experiencing a new wave of community Covid cases. We hope that we are not impacted overly by this. We should not underestimate the freedom we have been able to enjoy relative to others, however, we are but one case away from another breakout.

I think there is greater tolerance and mutual respect in our society, more than at any other time in our history. We can especially see and feel this through examples like the recent decisions by Nelson and Marlborough Councils about establishing Māori wards.

When we look back in time 20 years from now, I hope we will be proud of how we overcame these challenges and how we were all the better for them.  That the decisions and actions we took have had a positive ripple effect both locally and globally. And, that we’ve heard the call of Papatūānuku and are taking up the challenge to ensure that our mokopuna have inherited a planet and world that is better from our collective efforts to care for her and our people.

Enjoyed this interview? Read more from our COVID-19: One Year On interview series here.

Whakatū | Nelson

Te Whanganui-a-Tara | Wellington

Ōtautahi | Christchurch

Waiharakeke | Blenheim

Better people make a better world
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