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The Moana model: Green principles and unique people-first structure powering Super Rugby's new boys

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28th April, 2022
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We are shaped by early lessons; roots and place and sky and sea and most of all, the tales we’re told by family.

Three-atoll Tokelau has about 1,500 people living on ten square kilometers of land halfway between New Zealand and Hawai’i. Technically a dependent territory of New Zealand, but referred to by both as a nation, Tokelau is the fourth smallest sovereignty on earth and has the smallest economy.

Growing things is hard on the atolls; coconuts and bananas supplement the main protein: fish. The sea is both a constant provider and a mortal threat. No significant land on the coral islands sits more than two meters above normal high tide; here, one is truly at the mercy of the wide expanse of sea, Moana.

In 2013, Tokelau became the first land to go 100 percent solar powered. Getting there is the same now as it was a thousand years ago when first settled: you sail the Moana. Now, from Samoa. Each fortnight. A five-day round trip. Usually. You wait. You hope. You bring your own mattress for the trip.

Imagine how remote a Tokelauan life would be, the longing for connection, the sheer appreciation of how small we are, and how clearly at risk alone, how much we need each other, but also how vital it is to own a thing, a place, a destiny?

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Moana Pasifika coach Aaron Mauger, captain Sekope Kepu and star player Henry Time-Stowers joined The Roar Rugby podcast for a special edition. Stream it here on on your favourite podcast app

The CEO of Moana Pasifika — Pelenato Sakalia — is a descendant of the people of Tokelau, perhaps the most emblematically Pasifika isle of all. The stories he heard as a boy echo that life far away.

Raised in a communal way by his grandparents; in the end he made his way to New Zealand as many do. School was difficult until he bridged the language gap. Oh, how he did.

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The genial and generous Pelenato — bedecked in a Moana Pasifika tracksuit top — unleashed waves of words during our recent chat: perfectly evocative, enlivening, and clear.

Throw him almost any topic and he will give you a three-pointer. “Harry, I’ll give you three points:”

– “People, culture, talent.”
– “Asset, rights, sovereignty.”
– “Trust, license, perpetuity.”

His energy is solar: intense, but warm. He went far in school, studied industrial relations, became a negotiator, went into corporate governance, ran M&A and gigged startups, focusing on creative disruption of industries.

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After retiring from for-profit corporate life seven years ago, Pelenato served as CEO of Pacific Business Trust, Pasifika’s economic development agency.

Now he thinks he’s found the disruptive pathway for Pasifika in the business of rugby, and the future of an overlooked people.

“Pasifika has no assets. No rights. Māori people in New Zealand have rights; land rights, cultural rights, and legal rights. How do we create a vehicle for Pasifika by Pasifika?” Pelenato asked me rhetorically.

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I knew he would answer his own query, probably in three parts, so I waited.

“Look, professionalism is fueled by money. Money invests in performance. High performance. That’s it. Three levels: province, pro club, national test level. When the architecture is all about mere performance, the sole arbiter becomes money.”

For Pelenato, the model had to reach deeper and longer than that: “Yes, we have to satisfy NZRU licensure requirements and show commercial viability. But that can still be a one-off. It can fade when this moment or this group ends. I wanted to lock it into perpetuity, with our people and culture embedded into the apex of the vehicle. The goal is to bestow rights on our people.”

And so, a unique club ownership system, evoking the very pattern of a Pacific map dotted by islands, was formed. No longer the striped tie blue blazer old boys schmoozing with fat cats in corporate suites, Moana Pasifika is owned by a charitable trust, sponsored by a green non-profit.

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This, from the man who as a lad heard of this family’s home: an atoll only a couple of metres higher than the wide, blue, rising Moana, two days’ journey from the nearest neighbouring island.

Small wonder he knew the value of resources, and became a master of learning how to own and acquire and negotiate with new and different cultures.

Moana Pasifika’s partnership with EarthX and the Pasifika people is one of a kind; sui generis.

Yes, there are fan-owned franchises: the Green Bay Packers was famously grandfathered by the NFL to allow resident ownership not permitted going forward. But there are shares and a for-profit structure. Various AFL and NRL clubs have fan-participating financial structures.

But I can find no prior example of Moana Pasifika Ltd. — the orthodox rugby entity — which is fully owned by a charitable trust, the Moana Pasifika Charitable Trust, registered in New Zealand in June of 2021.

The initial trustees? How about Sir Bryan Williams, Sir Michael Jones, Tonga’s Solicitor General Asipeli Aminiasi Kefu, and business leader Debbie Sorenson? “Unpaid. They have to meet our competency framework. 100 percent Pacific Island. Committed to a platform of values.”

The beneficiaries? The Pacific people. “We will be wholly transparent about all of it: triple bottom line reporting.”

The future subsidiaries? Other sporting codes, soon to begin to be announced.

The goal: to cohere a people of many peoples, a culture of distinct cultures, retained intact and respected and “amplified by rugby” but also “insulated from the machinations of profit.”

Pelenato wants to address the health of Pasifika. “People admire our power athletes, and rightly so, but we have problems with obesity and diabetes.”

He thinks in three to five years there will be a base built, using talents, culture, and people (there’s the triad) to empower Pasifika to have more autonomy.

The plan is a Pacific network of schools and camps addressing leadership and heath. “Moana binds us together. But we need equity. We are together on this.”

He is weary of mere advocacy. “Just saying something is unacceptable is fine, but it lacks power. True disruption creates facts. A setup with doctors, physios, high performance, a community, and a new standard.”

Earlier this year, something happened which made Pelenato’s vision take a more vivid shape. Charitable trust-owned Moana Pasifika announced a sponsorship deal with non-profit organisation EarthX, a global environmental media platform.

From across the seas, in Texas of all places, EarthX became the side’s principal partner and jersey sponsor for their inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season. The agreement includes branding, content and promotional opportunities.

Is this a version of the Apple TV show “Ted Lasso” for rugby? What does EarthX know about rugby? How did that line up?

“Three things made me like it. I wasn’t looking through a rugby lens. I believe in stories, purpose, and alignment. EarthX tells stories about the Pacific, and has a strong work purpose. It has been a great match.”

I saw this first hand at the Earth Day conference where I chaired a panel with UN ambassadors from Pasifika and two Moana Pasifika team representatives, including Sir Michael Jones’ son. We discussed the role of sport, in this case rugby, to transform society. The audience gravitated to Niko Jones and Taylah Johnson as they explained how rugby, and rugby values, fit perfectly into the art of change.

Later that evening, at a garden party hosted by EarthX’s founder, island spirit was on full display as Niko, Taylah, and Lotu Inisi led the entire assemblage in a joyful dance, celebrating the food and the place and the time.

There is a delight to Pacific values; and a sadness too, that it has not ever achieved equity in the sport its people excel in.

Pelenato is a talented, charismatic leader who knows how to convince the listener. He will need all his persuasive powers.

But more than that, he is Pasifika to his core, and in the core of that core. Bet against him, his people, the trust, the idea, and bold EarthX at your peril.

In a couple of weeks, a very large Tongan expatriate community in Texas will be up and in a theatre for a midnight viewing of their team, Moana Pasifika, taking on Fijian Drua, during an Earth Day film festival. I’ve been asked and will be honoured to serve as MC.

Already, you can see the wild and disruptive vision of atolls and islands and continents finding their way home to each other across Moana taking shape; hearts even bigger than the sea.

In the meantime, donate to help the Kingdom of Tonga recover from the horrific results of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano eruption at this joint EarthX/Moana Pasifika site. 

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