Taking traditional Māori medicine to the masses: Inside the story of Aotea

Tama Toki’s unusual upbringing on Great Barrier Island led him to found a company that creates products inspired by his grandmother’s traditional Māori medicine. Called Aotea, it makes wellness tonics, honey and skincare, with a social good aspect involved, as jobs are being created to help alleviate people out of poverty on the island.

Growing up on Great Barrier Island is a pretty unique upbringing, but it led to a deep appreciation for Māori traditional medicines.

Aotea founder and former athlete Tama Toki says despite the island’s idyllic image, it can be quite a tough place to live – especially in the colder months.

“It’s off the grid, which means there’s no power (unless you have your own generator) or water mains, so you have to live simply,” he says.

In order protect the family from illnesses, Toki’s kuia (grandmother) would have a pot of kumarahou or kawakawa (both native New Zealand plants) tonic always simmering on a woodstove during winter. The tonics became a staple part of the family diet.

It was these traditional Māori herbal remedies, as well as the social problems facing people of Great Barrier Island, that inspired Toki to found Aotea two years ago.

“The Barrier has shaped the approach [of Aotea] entirely,” Toki says. “Well, more the community that I grew up in. I feel as though like many rural parts of New Zealand, my community on the island and the people that live there are falling further behind and there is huge inequality there, so that’s why we are focused on creating jobs there and sourcing all the native ingredients from there.”

He says while he was at law school, he learned Māori tending to be over-represented in the negative socio-economic statistics is generally a result of poverty.

The seed was planted to create a sustainable business model that would help lift people out of poverty, while promoting the positive effects of New Zealand’s native flora and Māori herbal remedies.

Toki says the reason for targeting the health tonics, honey and skincare sectors is that health as an industry is enjoying a lot of growth.

The key ingredients in Aotea’s products are sourced locally on Great Barrier Island. Native flora such as kawakawa and horopito are picked from the bush on the island, while the mānuka honey comes straight from his father’s hives.

“We thought that there was a great story to tell and a good niche we could fit into,” Toki says.

“Having said all this, the products are only vehicles to effect change. We are creating jobs on Great Barrier Island and this year we also launched our inaugural Aotea scholarship that helps one young rangatahi Māori go to Auckland Boys Grammar school, as there is no high school on the island.”

Aotea was launched softly at Parnell Farmer’s Markets two years ago, and is now stocked in about 200 cafes, grocers and supermarkets around New Zealand.

While the wellness industry is now “super competitive”, Toki says the niche Aotea occupies with Māori medicine helps.

There’s also been research done to back up the health properties of the tonics he was raised on. He says Kawakawa has been proven to have great anti-flammatory and analgesic properties, while Aotea is currently researching the benefits of different native flora.

Traditional Māori herbal medicines have been commercialised before, but Toki says Aotea’s mandate differs to other businesses before it. He points to the Wai262, a claim made to the Waitangi tribunal that’s the first of its kind in the world to give rights to native flora and fauna.

He’s also had some help from his mother, who works for the UN as the head of the forum for the rights of indigenous people in the South Pacific, and his sister, who works for the World Intellectual Property Office in Switzerland, to help further the brand.

“So although it’s a commercial enterprise, its priority is social first,” Toki says.

As for looking ahead to the future, Toki says there is also room for Aotea to expand out into new product categories.

“We see our business not as product-centric but as IP-centric. We are excited at the prospect of moving into other categories – but not until we nail the categories we’re in.”

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).