The kiwifruit industry has lost one of its pioneers, following the death of Tauranga kaumātua Dr Kihi Ngatai last month at age 91.
Kihi and his late wife Maria Ngatai were the first Māori kiwifruit growers in the Tauranga area, establishing an orchard on their Matapihi land in the mid-1970s.
He went on to fill several governance roles for iwi and hapū and worked with the Waitangi tribunal.
Kihi was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014, and he and Maria received Queen's Birthday Honour in 2006 in recognition of their contribution to Māori and the wider community.
Up until his passing, Kihi and his whānau owned, managed and operated three kiwifruit orchards, one in Matapihi and two in Te Puna.
The life of a pioneer
According to Seeds of Success, a 2019 book by Elaine Fisher, Kihi began his career as a train driver before enlisting in the New Zealand’s K-force. He served in Korea for two-and-a-half years from 1950, losing his brother, Riki, in the same war.
Upon returning home, Kihi met Maria. When they married, Maria’s mother gifted Kihi land so her daughter wouldn’t leave Te Puna, but Kihi had to return home to Matapihi to run his family farm.
“I asked my wife if she would move to Matapihi and milk cows,” Kihi said.
“She was not keen on moving away but I promised if she did I would bring her home one day.”
Forty seven years later Kihi kept his promise – the couple returned to Te Puna to build a new home in 2007.
Kihi and Maria had five children. Their eldest daughter Puharangi Ngatai, who worked as a nurse, passed away in 2009.
Cattle to fruit
Kihi’s kiwifruit career began in the mid-70s, when he converted part of his Matapihi dairy farm into kiwifruit on advice from the Māori Affairs Farmers Board, who said the land would be suitable for it. Their first kiwifruit was picked in the mid to late 70s.
Shortly after, the Ngai Tukairangi Trust was formed of Māori-owned Matapihi land blocks. The land was developed with assistance from the Department of Māori Affairs and grew a variety of crops. The first kiwifruit nursery was established in 1981.
In 1984 Kihi helped establish, and later directed, the 100 per cent Māori owned Te Awanui Huka Pack Ltd, which still operates today under Seeka.
Kihi celebrated his 88th birthday in 2018, and was still working on his Te Puna orchard, taking a chainsaw to 0.8ha of Hayward vines in preparation for grafting to G3.
His Matapihi orchard grows both Hayward and G3, and trialled Zespri Red for about five years.
In Seeds of Success, Kihi said his aspirations were about empowering Māori. He wanted to see Te Reo retained, and more Māori pursuing tertiary education.
“I want to see Māori on par with Europeans.”