Aotearoa’s first kaupapa Māori energy retailer Nau Mai Rā is empowering Kiwi’s living in power poverty.
Hamilton-born co-founders Ezra Hirawani (Te Āti Haunui-a-Paparangi/Ngāti Rangi/Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Hako/Waikato-Tainui) and Ben Armstrong (Waikato Tainui/Ngāti Hine) are putting people before profit and funnelling money back into funding initiatives that benefit whānau.
Nau Mai Rā uses a pay it forward model where customers pay a portion of their power bill towards a marae, kura or to the whānau fund which helps pay the power bill for vulnerable families.
“We discovered that there’s over 130,000 households here in Aotearoa that suffer in energy hardship or power poverty; that a massive problem,” Ezra says.
Basing their business model around the tuakana-teina relationship where an older family member supports and mentors someone younger, Nau Mai Rā customers are helping their fellow customers who are experiencing hardship.
“We wanted to apply the tuakana-teina approach, where we worked with those who could afford to pay for their power to support those who couldn’t. And doing so in a way where we did no harm to those who could afford to pay for that,” he says.
“It was a steep learning curve understanding how we could apply this approach into a power industry that saw consumers as money making opportunities rather than as whānau and people.”
In most cases, Ezra says, their customers pay the same or less than they would be charged by other suppliers.
Founded in 2019, the pair have worked hard to maintain the integrity of Nau Mai Rā whilst learning about the cut-throat power supply business.“We have been more public facing in last two years year and have acquired customers slowly in different regions as we’ve tested the product. We started with learning the complexities of the industry and understanding how we can have our own twist indigenous twist on it.”
Although based in the Waikato, Nau Mai Rā is only just beginning to get their product out to their local market.
It was a conscious decision to test markets outside of their patch in order to get genuine feedback about what they had to offer.
“If I sign my mum up, she’s always going to say, ‘son it’s amazing’. I was probably a year and a half into Nau Mai Rā might have before my mum even realised that I wasn’t studying anymore,” he laughs.
They were determined that the business would stand on its own merits and in the early stages went about quietly signing up customers and making tweaks along the way.
“We just had to make sure that the product could stand on its own without any cool story, any marketing pizazz. That we could sell power at a cheaper rate to a family, and then use that power bill to fund each project.”
One of their first projects was to purchase a 49-seater bus for a low decile kura (school) in Otangarei.
“This was proof to us, that if a community will pay their bills with us, we can actually drive impact back into the community,” he says.
Seeing the joy on the student’s faces when they had their first bus ride was the proof that what they were doing was working and making a difference in people’s lives.
“From that moment we just continued to build and now we have elevated just over 2000 people out of energy hardship, and it is starting to snowball now,”
People are at the heart of Ezra and Ben’s business model; they make bill paying easier by sending smaller more frequent bills, customers are signed in to a contract and have the freedom to move should they choose, and they don’t charge whānau daily fixed cost in addition to their bills.
“We’ve had a very low bad debt percentage. We’re sitting around at two percent. I think the industry average is around 15. And that is largely because we’re not as big as the other power companies. But at the same time, it’s evidence that if you give people a chance they will pay. If you’re willing to work with people and listen to them, talk to them, you know, they’ll do their best to reciprocate the support,” Ezra says.
In the Māori realm, whakawhanaungatanga or relationship building plays an important role in all aspects of life, and Ezra and Ben have made this a core value of how Nau Mai Rā engages with customers and stakeholders.
“What we’ve decided to do is automate as much of the industry side as possible, which is 80 to 90 percent of the operation, and then really invest a lot of time into connecting with our customers in genuine need.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing in the power generating world, they were close to folding the company last year when an electricity supplier pulled out at the last moment.
“We’d oversubscribed by 500 customers. And it was kind of ironic the power company that supports those who can’t afford power, couldn’t afford power,” he says.
“We thought we had connected on a lot of different values (with the electricity supplier). And then it became more commercially beneficial for them not to finish off those conversations about the contract.”
They pulled it together in the end but their business saviours were their customers.
“We were really lucky to have a group of people within our Nau Mai Rā waka who could afford to move away. We called all our customers and said, ‘hey, look, this sucks to do this. But would you would you be able to jump out of our waka so that we can support those clients who can’t jump out of the waka?’. The response was insane, they said, ‘Yeah, I’ll jump out. I’ve got your back. I’ll be right back as soon as you get the contract over line.”
Since then, Nau Mai Rā has done a complete turnaround. Now with thousands of customers, they have set a goal of onboarding 10,000 customers by the end of the year.
Ezra was named Young New Zealander of the Year 2022 for his work helping people in energy hardship.
He laughs and says he took one for the team when he accepted the nomination.
“Ben and I thought, if they call us and say we’ve have been nominated, we’ll just choose the best looking one to go and collect the trophy if we win. And that just happen to be me,” he laughs.
“All through the preliminary stages, we were making sure that everyone understood that this isn’t an Ezra award. This is a whānau award. I know it is cliche to say we’re nothing without our people, Nau Mai Rā literally is nothing without its people.”