Meet the warrior championing community-led solutions to food poverty issue


About five years ago, Kelly Francis (Ngāpuhi) had been working in the world of corporate tourism “and I’d made a lot of money for a lot of people, including myself”.

Read this story in te reo Māori and English here. / Pānutia tēnei i te reo Māori me te reo Pākehā ki konei.

While that life seemed, at first, to offer a lot, she was increasingly noticing what was missing – in particular, feeling connected to her culture and to the natural world.

So when she suddenly faced redundancy, she thought, for the first time in her work life, about what she actually wanted to do.

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She spent some time working in landscaping, “being out of an office, working outside, that felt closer but I wasn’t there yet”.

And then she took part in a Kai Oranga course at Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere which taught organic food production along traditional Māori lines. And all of a sudden, Francis says, she felt connected to something important.

Kelly Francis created Whenua Warrior after taking part in a Kai Oranga course at Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere.

LAWRENCE SMITH

Kelly Francis created Whenua Warrior after taking part in a Kai Oranga course at Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere.

“And once that connection was created for me, I thought, well, I want to start creating spaces where people can do the same thing for themselves.”

And so Whenua Warrior was formed, with the aim of setting up planterboxes at people’s homes, complete with soil and seedlings, so families could grow their own fresh, healthy food.

The charitable trust has now established hundreds of vegetable gardens in backyards, papakāinga, schools, kōhanga, marae and other community spaces.

Whenua Warrior has helped established more than 1200 backyard vege gardens from Kaitāia to Christchurch.

LAWRENCE SMITH

Whenua Warrior has helped established more than 1200 backyard vege gardens from Kaitāia to Christchurch.

But Whenua Warrior is “more like a movement than a business”, Francis says, so it’s not just about what the trust achieves by itself.

“In the Manawatū, there’s a community group and they are now getting together every Sunday and setting up a garden at a home. People in Wellington are doing this now, and in Taranaki.”

And that’s important, Francis says. Every garden Whenua Warrior builds is a little bit different, because it’s not about coming in and knowing what’s best – it’s about what a family or community want and need.

“I can’t be Kelly the Aucklander going into the Manawatū and offering a solution. It would be ridiculous for me to take a small garden box to a marae in Te Aroha which has 500 people to feed.

“Real change has to be community-led. A fancy name for it is co-designed, but what that means is the community knows best about what food they should grow and how much and who should receive it.”

Francis and the team are right in the middle of building another 600 gardens in backyards across South Auckland. But the mahi is nowhere near done yet, she says.

“I’d like for every New Zealander to have access to an edible garden in which to grow food,” she says. “And I feel like that’s completely possible if we work together.”

Kelly Francis is a finalist in NZ Gardener‘s 2022 Ryman Healthcare Gardener of the Year competition. You can vote for her here.

Meet the other finalists:

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