We’re shining a spotlight on three Pakihi Māori (Māori businesses) that have been through the Kōkiri programme, a kaupapa Spark has supported for several years. We spoke to Tom Netana-Wright (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Whatua, Whakatōhea) to learn about his business Ao Cacao.
Ao Cacao is an indigenous "bean to bar" chocolate company that is breaking boundaries in the chocolate and confectionary industry.
Tom shares that his main kaupapa is to showcase how indigenous people make chocolate because it comes from indigenous people. "The chocolate industry is built on a lot of darkness," and therefore "we got to make things right, as chocolate makers, rather than ignoring it."
Ao Cacao sources its cacao from Samoa and works with people across the Pacific in places like Hawaii, Fiji and Tonga. Currently, only 5% of the world uses Pacific cacao, with the majority of the world sourcing cacao from Africa or South America. Tom says that Pacific cacao is underrated and underrepresented.
"It's important to highlight indigenous producers more than anything else in the world and to represent all of us under one kaupapa."
He understands the importance of this relationship he is building with people across the Pacific and ensures he is paying over and above the average price for cacao. "This is honouring and building the economy, within our (indigenous) people."
Tom also provides opportunities for rangatahi, by travelling to schools across the country to teach and by also developing an edtech platform. He aims to show rangatahi that there is a wide range of jobs in the food industry. Tom explains this is a highlight for him as he gets to see that "spark or light bulb moment."
"That's exactly what my goal is, to spark the curiosity, for our young people to question 'what is possible in the food industry?'"
When asked if he had any advice for rangatahi looking to start a business, Tom says "just go for it, challenge what is seen as the norm and if you're a creative then double down on your passion."
In 2022, Tom was chosen to be a part of a kaupapa Māori business accelerator programme. Despite his venture not being traditional tech, he felt like he was meant to be there. Being in this programme pushed him out of his comfort zone. He was taught a range of business skills, learning what it takes to be a business owner. Tom says the programme helped him grow from a talented creative to someone who is now running a viable business.
"If you were to put me beside me from last year to now, it’s totally different."
Ao Cacao continues to evolve. Currently, they are in the process of moving into the retail space, learning all the processes to get it to fruition. He has recently won gold at the Vegan Awards for his vegan chocolate.
Tom plans to continue to travel to keep sharing his insights and skill worldwide, and is soon to be attending Salon Du Chocolat in Paris. He describes this event as the pinnacle for chocolate makers. "It's basically like the Olympics."
To learn more about Ao Cacao and Tom's journey, head to their website. Visit Ao Cacao