Whenua Warriors

Kelly Francis (Ngāpuhi) started Whenua Warriors in Auckland last year. The mission – to feed, teach and empower community via maara kai. And the vision – to have a harvestable garden available to every New Zealander.

So far Whenua Warriors has established over 280 gardens in people’s backyards, papakāinga, schools, kohanga, marae, emergency houses, women’s refuges and community spaces.

The volunteers who work with her (and she doesn’t draw a salary either) are committed to helping families become self-sufficient which, she says is just a fancy word for learning to survive without money.

Kelly explains how she got started and how Whenua Warriors works:

“I was 12 years in corporate tourism, then two things happened together, a difficult relationship split and redundancy so I thought it was time to think about my own happiness. I had a year working for a landscaping company where I became the yard manager and learned about project management.

“While I was there I read about Ka Eke Poutama on Facebook. That’s the governance course run by Te Whare Hukahuka. I did the course and it was life-changing. There were 45 of us from around the country attending three noho and staying overnight on a marae and having keynote speakers, coaching sessions and team-building events. It was my first time living on a marae, except for tangi. It not only gave me the basics on how an organisation is run, it taught me about the Māori world. It taught me to go home.

“Then I went to a Kai Oranga course at the Papatūānuku Kokiri marae in Mangere. The course is provided by Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and Lionel Hotene is the kaiako. It was on pre-colonisation planting techniques: maramataka, or traditional gardening by the lunar calendar; and hua parakore, the six principles used while planting. Hua parakore is based on mauri (life force), whakapapa (history of seed and soil), te ao turoa (natural forces in gardening), mana (how you gain strength from gardening), wairua (spiritual connection), and maramatanga (using the moon).

“It was inspiring. I decided then what I wanted to do – teach the community to feed themselves and then empower them to teach each other.

“So we established our charitable trust, with a three-person board. All are people that I met on the course and I started working with volunteers – people I knew who shared the vision.

“In our first project ten of us helped to build 127 gardens in two days in South Auckland.

“We found people who were wanting gardens through our networks. Only about 12 percent were Māori – there were Samoan, Pakeha, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Asians – everyone needs to learn to grow food.

“Then we held four gardening classes where people could learn some of the traditional practices of Māori gardening.

“Before building the gardens we had six working bees. We sourced free wood to make the gardens, the soil came from construction sites, other community groups donated seedlings, and we made compost bins from rubbish bins that had been left at the dump. We drove around Auckland in borrowed trucks and vans and picked these things up.

“For some of the gardens we build we get materials using a kind of a time bank system. So if someone supplies something for free or gives $500 we can come in and build them a garden using non-recycled materials. It’s a kind of barter system.

“Whenua Warriors has four arms.

“There’s the community-run and community-donated arm. When we are using this model people don’t pay anything for their garden – and we use recycled materials and free seedlings. We don’t provide tools.

“Then we have the social enterprise arm. For example at the moment we are in the process of moving an old cow shed from a farm near the airport, and it will become a seed raising building so some of our people can build up a social enterprise growing and selling seedlings. We also sell T-shirts, and people can buy one for $60.00 and give a free one to another person.

“And there is a business arm where we build high standard gardens for a price. We’ve also had council contracts. For example the Auckland City Council has funded a garden at a community centre.

“And the fourth is the charitable trust arm. We need to be a charitable trust if we want to apply for funding.

“We have had some external funding. Te Puni Kokiri has given us funding for five projects including building gardens at a respite home and a kohanga, as well as 20 gardens for the Orākei papakāinga.

“At the moment another kohanga reo wants a garden. We are applying to Te Puni Kokiri but if the money does not come through the community will donate time and materials. We just don’t, then, have the money to buy higher quality materials and tools.

“Our outgoing costs are minimal and we are trying to grow our business arm and get more contracts with the council and push the social enterprise arm, empowering people to make their own money.

“I earn some money through keynote speaking and running classes. A lot are free – but some I charge for.

“It is amazing how having a garden based on traditional practices changes lives. People don’t only learn about getting good free food and learn how to look after the land. It connects people. We are recreating our communities so they become places where people share food and information about gardening and care about each other. When people go away their neighbours water their gardens. Their homes become a place where kids come first – and where kids learn about the natural world.

“And people build on what we start them with. I see that when I go back to the places where we gave them a compost bin made from an old dust bin that they have often built bigger compost bins and they are becoming confident and successful gardeners.

“For Māori, being able to take a fresh bunch of silver beet to an auntie’s place gives them mana. It is the same as taking a crayfish. It gives them pride.

“We have been educated to believe that happiness comes from money but we see people becoming expert about gardening – looking things up on YouTube and reading about gardening, and that is making them happy. In a way, we are running under the commercial radar and creating a place where money is not required.

“In the next few years we will continue to work in Auckland and the north (my home) as well as taking up invitations to come to Taranaki and Whanganui where we are to build a papakāinga garden. And I have been invited to go to Hawaii in March next year...

“I need to keep learning too. I have just completed Tikanga level 4 at the wānanga. I did the course because I could see that I needed to make sure all our work is culturally safe. There are different cultural practices in different parts of the country. The course has taught me to be aligned with the tikanga and kawa. It has also given me the confidence to do the things I do, empowered as a rangatira with my tupuna behind me in every decision.”

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Summer Newsletter 2018.