A high level of ethical and sustainable certification (plus kick-arse design) is the point of difference for Da’ Maha coconut water.
Coconuts reward innovative thinkers.
You can turn them into bikinis, brooms, bowls, buttons, and bridges, not to mention banging them together to make the sound of horses’ hooves when you want to pretend your gang of knights is fancier than it actually is.
Nelson entrepreneur Max Jones is an innovative thinker. When he realised he wasn’t making enough money from organic market gardening to support his growing family – well, enter coconuts, stage left. More specifically, the stuff sloshing around inside them. Max chucked in the trowel, got in touch with the world’s largest coconut-growing nation, the Philippines, and launched a coconut water brand, Da’ Maha. Recent customers include Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce. Not bad for a bevvy that’s yet to hit its first birthday.
Coconut water is enjoying a moment. Formerly a funny-tasting drink you might order on a Thai beach for novelty value (drill hole in top, insert straw), it’s now the fastest-growing non-alcoholic beverage in the world, according to The Independent.
Being all-natural, low-sugar and minimally processed, it’s bang on trend. Rich in potassium and electrolytes, it’s touted as a hydrating sports drink that’s not radioactively coloured or cloyingly sweet. (There are even claims floating around that coconut water can be substituted for saline as an intravenous hydration fluid. This isn’t recommended, but it was common practice during the Khmer Rouge.)
The coconut water category grew by 540 percent between 2008-2012, and in 2010, Madonna bought shares in the world’s leading brand, Vita Coco, which was forecast to make $250 million in 2013.
The taste of coconut water is dubbed ‘acquired’ at best and ‘old socks’ at worst, probably because its lack of sweetness is the opposite of what you’d expect from a drink in a can. It’s only faintly reminiscent of coconuts, and has a light, savoury flavour.
So how did a Nelson guy tap into one of the biggest global food trends? Jones is lean, wiry and tanned – exactly what you’d expect from a market gardener – and he doesn’t exactly do life in the conventional way.
Originally from California, he spent his formative years as a “vagabond and world traveller”, making his way through more than 50 countries “doing whatever it took to keep on gallivanting around the world”. He met his wife, Nishkama, at a healing arts school in California, and the pair turned to organic market gardening.
“We come from sort of a hippie background,” he says. “We’re very natural, back-to-the-land, homesteading types – we like tattoos and moko and world music, we don’t do well in cities.”
The Joneses knew they didn’t want to bring up kids in the States, so turned to their formidable travel record for ideas.
“I’d spent a total of nine months in New Zealand, over an eight-year period in the 90s,” says Jones. “I came for the America’s Cup in 1999 to work on boats. I always knew it was a place I could live some day.”
Once they decided on Nelson (Nishkama vastly preferred it to the runner-up, Peru), everything fell into place. They’ve been in the country for just over three years. “Once I gained residency I began to homestead [that’s American for self-sufficient living], raised a couple of pigs, had a worm farm and a massive veggie garden.”
Jones started fishing around for other ideas when he realised the garden income wouldn’t go far. “We did have a little bit of money that we came here with and I felt that we needed to spend that money very wisely.”
Coconut water just popped into his mind one day. He and Nishkama had enjoyed it in California but it wasn’t available in Nelson. So he headed online to see what was out there. “I found a supplier who could provide it. It had to be organic and Fairtrade certified.”
Coconuts are primarily grown for their flesh, with the rest of the fruit discarded. Securing a supply of coconut water didn’t mean establishing new coconut farms – or going through the rigmarole of getting it independently certified. Jones simply tapped into an existing operation in Mindanao in the Philippines.
Da’ Maha’s difference is that there’s no other product on the market, in the world, that carries the same level of ethical and sustainable certification. It’s sold not in conventional plastic or Tetra Pak bottles, but in cans made from steel, the most recycled packaging material globally.
In other words, Da’ Maha is a product with such a vast amount of eco cred that it basically has a halo. But Jones is savvy enough to know that being terribly worthy isn’t a selling point. Being hip is. “I spent a fortune on branding,” Jones says. “I think branding’s everything for a commodity product.”
He went right to the top: award-winning Auckland firm Dow Design, which has created or reimagined product design for a congregation of familiar supermarket brands, from Anchor to Vogel’s.
“[Coconut water] isn’t anything new, so we needed to be special. And it really paid off.”
Since then, it’s been a quick sell-in to gyms, cafés, health food stores and celebrities.“One of my stockists supplies the international artists that come to New Zealand. Lots of famous people have been drinking it – like Bruce Springsteen. Beyonce did the same when she was here. It was in all the green rooms at the Big Day Out, a major rugby team is drinking it – I send it to them on a regular basis now.”
Da’ Maha’s distinctive can, featuring a manaia (a half-bird, half-fish creature from Maori mythology) has been spotted in the clutches of Fat Freddy’s Drop as well as top international athletes.
“Our brand is very much inspired by New Zealand’s Polynesian heritage,” says Jones. “Da’ Maha came from here, and the inspiration came from here. We weren’t supposed to do it from the States – we needed to do it from New Zealand.”
Jones cites how New Zealand is consistently voted one of the best places in the world to do business. “Once I had the idea, I could start a business online in five minutes, and I set up my trademark registration online – I didn’t have to pay a trademark attorney like I would in the States.”
His adopted town, Nelson, has nurtured a handful of food and beverage start-ups – Pete’s Lemonade, Pic’s Peanut Butter, Proper Crisps and Absolute Wilderness call it home.
“I like that it’s small, I like that it’s really compact,” says Jones. “The city itself is surrounded by mountains, so development is very limited – there’s a lot of international people living here from all over the world. There’s lots of art happening which my wife and I are really into.”
Sure, the airfares to Auckland are a bit steep, and Max’s sleepout is currently jammed with almost 300 boxes of Da’ Maha cans, but he’s looking forward to moving further out of town into the countryside.
What’s hindering his world domination plan is the lack of investors with the same values. So far Jones has been approached with offers for the business, but isn’t interested.
“I wouldn’t sell it for a hundred million bazillion dollars. It’s not about the money. I don’t have any money – I’ve started this with bugger-all.”
Although the focus at the moment is on simply maintaining cashflow, the Joneses have generous dreams. Da’ Maha’s ultimate business goal is to flow revenue into a non-profit the Joneses are in the processes of registering: The Maha’ni Foundation. The aim is to support a range of community projects, with complete transparency around where money is being spent. It’s this that Jones is most fired up about.
“We’re very driven by the desire to set an example in the business world.”
There’s plenty of long days to come before Da’ Maha reaches that point, but Jones’ equanimity doesn’t falter when he talks about the future.
“How do you immigrate to a foreign country? It seems so daunting, but you just start, and there’s another step, and another step, and another step. All I need to do is keep showing up.”