It’s a lot to take in. With her humble, understated manner belying a tornado of activity within the fields of entrepreneurship, community change, policy making, and education, it seems fitting to commence with further understatement: Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o has above-average capacity. Her vocation can only be properly understood through the lens of her background. Of Tongan, Samoan, and Māori descent, her story began with migrant parents who settled in New Zealand from the Pacific Islands for their children’s sake.

“My mother worked two jobs, seven days a week as I grew up to ensure my siblings and I would have a good life,” she notes; a feat imitating the example of a generation beforehand, when Emeline’s grandmother travelled to New Zealand and worked three jobs to help pay for her own husband and 12 children to join her.

Now a mother of three young boys herself, the legacy of Emeline’s predecessors has been pivotal. “For me, the sacrifices of these women have become a significant cornerstone to what determines leadership in my life.” Her trajectory makes your head spin. Growing up in South Auckland, Emeline never imagined herself graduating. Flicking through a magazine one day, she stumbled upon an advertisement for Massey University. She enrolled, and on entering her new classes, discovered a dormant love of learning.

Fast forward six years, she had completed a Bachelor of Social Work with Honours, worked as a practitioner mentoring teenage prostitutes and young women on the verge of suicide, and started her own youth mentoring agency, Affirming Women, out of a two-bedroom unit in Auckland’s Papatoetoe.

This agency, now known as Affirming Works, has since mentored and provided educational programmes to over 6000 Pasifika children and youth in South Auckland schools. Emeline designed the innovative, community-tailored approach, hiring over 120 staff over the past 13 years to keep up with demand.

man and wife Emeline social enterprise
“My mother worked two jobs, seven days a week as I grew up to ensure my siblings and I would have a good life,”

Working across all school levels, these programmes address social and educational needs like literacy and numeracy, and assist the transition from school-to-work or further study; all based on a Pacific model of collective mentoring. Flying deftly in the face of national statistics, the last decade has seen the Affirming Works high school programme provide an astounding 80% National Certificate of Educational Achievement pass rate among students who complete the programme—well above the national average.

Apparently, if there’s one thing Emeline can’t do, it’s stay comfortable for long. In the early days of Affirming Works, she split her time between working on the ground and continuing to scale the ivory tower—this time, toward a Doctorate in Social Policy, drawing on her community work. Her competing desires for a high standard of PhD delivery and meeting her community responsibilities eventually saw her defer the doctorate, gaining instead a Masters of Philosophy in Social Policy and a Postgraduate Diploma in Social Sciences.

Given the success of Affirming Works’ programmes in turning around the lives of multitudes of kids who were previously aimless and flunking school, it wasn’t long until Emeline started getting phone calls from government departments inviting her to advise on local and national boards. It was time to set up a second business: Fofola Consultancy Ltd.

cafe sign open now community

From this platform, Emeline has been involved in shaping policy over the last 10 years; from writing the initial Pacific Youth Strategy in Auckland, to Family Violence Conceptual frameworks, as well as directly advising on the Ministerial Portfolios of Pacific Island Affairs, Social Development, Health, Education, and Whānau Ora. She uses her ample cross-sector experience in various governance roles, sitting on boards such as Youth Horizons and Pasifika Futures, advising on Pacific and social issues.

With the sheer mix of work surprising even the entrepreneur herself, she eventually discovered her niche: “For many years I didn’t understand what I actually did, until someone called me a social entrepreneur.”

In 2006, she was named a Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader, and in 2008 was invited to travel to the UK as an ambassador for New Zealand to attend the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford. Not bad for someone who read their first book at 19.

The Forum experience gave her a sense of the wider network of social entrepreneurs that existed across the globe, and the stories of the keynote speakers only reaffirmed the importance of connectedness: “We tend to think that great social change is the work of heroes—which is an intimidating view of reality that keeps most people on the couch. But a community or collective approach is about how we all get involved and take responsibility for our challenges.”

“For many years I didn’t understand what I actually did, until someone called me a social entrepreneur.”

“Community responsibility is about creating a sense of becoming more inter-dependent; where we are all creating the future that we want to see for our country.”

In 2010, Emeline and her husband, Alipate Mafile’o, set up The Community Café in Otahuhu—a social enterprise functioning as a source of sustainable income for Affirming Works. Inside the café, photos of youth mentored through Affirming Works over the years cover the walls. Hundreds of people use the Community Café as their hub, gathering to re-caffeinate, get informal entrepreneurship advice, attend events, and connect with each other. “What had been planned as merely a building with various rooms for the community to use has evolved into multiple social services working closely together and breaking down individual silos. We believe a community should be served by the people from within that community.”

Champions of their heritage, that same year the visionary couple decided to extend the business to promote Pacific products and ethical trade to their customers. A weekend in Tonga visiting family lent itself to scoping out Tongan coffee beans to sell at the café. In a slightly larger transaction than anticipated, they returned with a re-mortgaged home and the freshly inked deed to an entire coffee business. Their new purchase came complete with a factory, manufacturing equipment, and the responsibility for managing 10 co-operative coffee farms in Tonga.

sign on palm tree

Four years on, after a rebrand to Tupu’anga Coffee and a new strategy, business is booming: the company sells out of its crop every year to clients all over the world. They provide 79 people with income annually, and are the largest coffee producer in the Kingdom of Tonga.

In recognition of her phenomenal social impact, in 2013 Emeline won Westpac’s Women of Influence Award in Community Service and Social Enterprise, for “innovative and extraordinary leadership.” A few months later, she was also invited to travel with Prime Minister John Key to the Pacific on a special delegation, and recently Tupu’anga Coffee was sponsored to attend the United Nations SIDS (Small Island Developing States) Conference as an identified quality “True Pacific” brand from within the region.

This was the first United Nations Conference held in the South Pacific, with representatives from all over the globe meeting to find ways to assist the most vulnerable island states moving forward in the areas of climate change, sustainable development, investment, and the protection of oceans and fisheries. 

boy with hands in beans
A family friend at the Tupu’anga coffee factory
black and white photo in frame on wall

With the Community Café already bursting at the seams, Emeline went on hunt for school premises and had the epiphany to bring the school, the newly relocated café, and Affirming Works together, to operate from a new, large-scale site in Otahuhu.

Here, parents will develop numeracy and literacy while their children pass NCEA, after which the family is connected to vocational programmes in order to bridge the school-to-work gap. Plans are afoot to run further initiatives in the future, including an on-site Private Training Establishment and a full suite of wraparound support services—all with plenty of caffeine to go around.

Emeline’s deep commitment to her startling array of endeavours pervades every conversation. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be paid to do exactly what I am most passionate about. I haven’t had business cards for three years—I wouldn’t know what to put on them! Each day brings me a variety of work. I love satisfying what I define as ‘my core,’ which for me is social wellbeing.”

In the words of New Zealand’s Governor-General, Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae: “Dreamers have vision, leaders make things happen and extraordinary people do both.” Emeline hasn’t gone out of her way to create social businesses—it’s simply an overflow of who she is. “For Pasifika, ‘social enterprise’ is just business—culturally, we wouldn’t think to run a business that didn’t also help the community.”

Emeline’s latest project is setting up New Zealand’s first Senior Pacific high school; PASS (Pacific Advance Senior School). Joining forces with other social entrepreneurs and friends Hamish Crooks and former All Black Michael Jones, the team has created an umbrella organisation named PPAT—the Pacific Peoples Advancement Trust, which sponsors the school’s operation. Helpfully, PPAT also enables partnerships for Pacific mentoring programme delivery across Auckland, starting with the combination of Affirming Works and Jones’ The Village Community Services Trust.In a revolutionary move, PASS’s innovative proposal includes enrolling entire families rather than high school students alone, thereby providing education alongside holistic wraparound family support.

“For Pasifika, ‘social enterprise’ is just business—culturally, we wouldn’t think to run a business that didn’t also help the community.”
man in hat reads inside
man making coffee black and white

Her ongoing passion is to enable others who dream of merging entrepreneurship and social impact. Be warned. Wander into that bustling South Auckland hub and you may find yourself with Emeline over a cup of fresh Tupu’anga blend, soon to be inspired along a path of your own at her favourite juncture: the intersection of business and social.

In a revolutionary move, PASS’s innovative proposal includes enrolling entire families rather than high school students alone, thereby providing education alongside holistic wraparound family support.
Jaimee Abict 2013

Jaimee Abict

Jaimee Abict was the Communications Manager at Maxim Institute in Auckland. Prior to this she worked for APN, on current affairs publication the New Zealand Listener. She has held former roles in advertising and copywriting.