Designing a purpose

Ana Heremaia. Photo / Kate Evans
Ana, Ruby and Felicity - Team ĀKAU! Photo / Bev Meldrum
Kaikohe yeah!
Youth Designers, Te Teira and Rakky experimenting with clay
Youth Designer Rakky in our installation for Hui-a-tau.
Inside the Taonga Wāhine Exhibition. Credit: Caren Davis
Youth Designers on a site visit at Miria Marae.
Ruby facilitating a 3D Projection Mapping workshop.
Constructing the 3 Kete of knowledge!
ĀKAU Pop-up!
From London to the Far North, Ana Heremaia has come a long way to find her purpose to use architecture and design to help Kaikohe rangatahi find theirs.


Ana Heremaia knows a few things about finding your purpose and how the design process can empower communities and rangatahi (young people).

In 2014 Ana and her friends Ruby Watson and Felicity Benchley co-founded Ākau, a social enterprise working with young people to create real-world designs and innovative solutions for their community.

It’s been a personal and professional journey for Ana, an interior architect who left London to set up shop in Kaikohe, inspired by her late parents Christine and Ngawati.

Ana tells us about the projects and people in Kaikohe and their vision. You can also catch Ana at Festival for the Future in Auckland, 23-25 September.

The journey to Kaikohe

After six years in London as an interior architect Ana came back to NZ to be with her father, Ngawati Heremaia, who was terminally ill. When taking him home to be buried with his ancestors, Ana rediscovered his childhood home in Kaikohe. He had moved to Christchurch to create a better life for his family. 

Ana visited the Far North a few times as a child, but went on with her life in Christchurch before studying interior architecture at Victoria University in Wellington and then working at architecture and design firms in Christchurch, London and Melbourne.

She was instantly struck by the Kaikohe community and wanted to reconnect with her whanau and whakapapa.

“People are sick of waiting and just want to get in there and do something and see tangible outcomes." 

“I was just thinking about what my life would have been like and the lack of opportunities these youth have compared to what I had.”

The idea to use design for change formulated with her mother Christine Heremaia, a well-known landscape architect, who Ana describes as “a bit of a visionary who liked to rock the boat”.

After her mother passed away, Ana’s purpose grew even stronger and she was joined by Ruby and Felicity. She moved to Kaikohe to live with her auntie on a pig farm.

“It’s been a whirlwind. I never would have predicted for myself a few years ago in my London office I was going to Kaikohe to live on a pig farm and do this youth programme.”

The national spotlight was on Northland in 2015 as the by-election drew politicians and media to the region, highlighting problems and unemployment and promising solutions.

Some of it is visible with empty shop fronts but the lack of confidence and boredom could be felt, says Ana.  

“We keep hearing exciting things are coming but people are sick of waiting and just want to get in there and do something and see tangible outcomes.

“Everyone is quite honest and open that there are major problems, the youth talk about it, so we are trying to be honest but also think positively and the community is taking that on.”

From Pop-Up to Start-Up

ĀKAU Pop-up!

Ākau started with a Pop-Up in the 2014/15 summer holidays on Kaikohe’s main street, with workshops including designing and building an outdoor living classroom in a vacant space. They were overwhelmed by the response, with 70 young people joining in, and the change in confidence as their design ideas came to life.

At the same time the Ākau founders joined the Akina Launchpad, a six month accelerator programme for social enterprises. Ana says they were pushed to look at the business model, how to make an impact and be viable.

“It’s real life tangible outcomes, that’s been the key to it. Thinking like a designer and architect to creatively solve problems.”

“It blew my mind, I’d never done strategic stuff and social outcome models. It was really exciting to find out what I didn’t know and I’m still learning.”

She discovered to be entrepreneurial they had to hold their ideas lightly, so they could quickly pivot them.

Ākau's main delivery became a six month training Level 2 programme with funding from Ministry of Youth Development. 

For some of the young designers it has been a launch-pad to higher education and work. Ana says for others it’s created a sense of purpose and direction, creative thinking and problem solving.

“It’s real life tangible outcomes, that’s been the key to it. Thinking like a designer and architect to creatively solve problems.”

In the past two years Ākau projects have included designing Miria Marae, a Women’s Safety campaign, a paddle stool, Kaikohe library and Te Kohekohe Drop-in space, Northland College school pool, and The Orchard co-share space for entrepreneurs in Whangarei.

Social Enterprise

Ana, Ruby and Felicity - Team ĀKAU! Photo / Bev Meldrum

Ana didn’t know what a social enterprise was until Akina Launchpad and meeting people like Guy Ryan, Inspiring Stories founder and CEO.

“I thought we would have given up by now, and it hasn’t been easy. I’m so stoked, I feel like we’re getting there.”

Guy says social entrepreneurship is about tackling one of the many challenges we face, using entrepreneurial practices to do it. 

"Ana demonstrates leadership and a response to the challenges in Kaikohe. She’s a professional architect who could work anywhere in the world, but put a stake in the ground and said ‘I want to reconnect with this place for the young people of Kaikohe’." 

The power of creativity to transform young people is something Guy often sees, along with inspiring stories from grassroots communities, who represent about 50 per cent of the young audience at the Festival for the Future in Auckland.

Ana and the team are now looking at their future growth and how they can make an impact on a national stage.

“I thought we would have given up by now, and it hasn’t been easy. I’m so stoked, I feel like we’re getting there.”

To get to the future, Ana says they are focusing on working with others to realise Ākau's vision to "create thriving communities around Aotearoa where young people have a voice and purpose by actively designing real projects.”

Written by

Cathy Aronson

21 Sep 2016


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