Sustainable harvesting and rongoā Māori practices help embed mātauranga Māori into the business as it sets its sights on further growth offshore.
In Māori legend, humans and forests are connected by their creator. The kaitiaki Tāne Mahuta created the forests by separating his parents, Papatūānuku and Ranginui, allowing light into the world.
“Now more than ever, we need humans to be the kaitiaki of our forests, especially in New Zealand where so many of our native plants have been cut down,” says Helen Paul-Smith, co-founder of ŌKU.
ŌKU sells a range of herbal teas, balms and tonics that tap into the medicinal properties of the native plants of Aotearoa. Paul-Smith and her husband Scott Smith founded the company 15 years ago, using their backgrounds in naturopathy and Ayurvedic healing to create wellness products and a business built around tikanga Māori.
Paul-Smith whakapapas to Tapuika and Ngāi Te Rangi, both from the Bay of Plenty region, and uses those connections to continue traditional practices using rongoā – the Māori healing system that encompasses herbal remedies, physical therapies and spiritual healing.
The cultivation and use of New Zealand native plants has had a renaissance in recent years. Businesses across Aotearoa, like Tronque, are springing up to deliver the healing properties of everything from kawakawa to mānuka honey to both Kiwis and the international community.
Harvesting New Zealand plants has also spurred a fresh movement to help native bush survive and thrive. European colonisation resulted in widespread deforestation. Today, roughly a third of the country is covered in native bush, so responsible and sustainable harvesting must be top of mind, says Paul-Smith.
“We see our plants as our whānau, so when we do the harvesting, we do it with a lot of care and aroha, and they just grow so beautifully for us,” says Paul-Smith. “We don’t just go in with a chainsaw and whack down a tree.”
Paul-Smith says ŌKU has never gone into the bush to harvest commercially, instead growing its own plants to harvest. That wasn’t an easy task in the early days, when the co-founders didn’t have much land and relied on friends’ properties to harvest.
This harvesting philosophy is at the core of rongoā. The couple learned rongoā from Rob McGowan, who wrote Rongoā Māori: A practical guide to traditional Māori medicine, where they learned standards they’ve brought into their business. ŌKU observes practices like only harvesting from plants that are plentiful and taking a little bit from each, harvesting in the early morning when possible, saying karakia and giving thanks to the beings of the forest, and returning what is left over to the earth to process.
These ways of harvesting are not only common sense if you want to practice sustainability, but they also ensure that the traditional rongoā knowledge remains in practice. Paul-Smith says she also gives workshops about traditional uses for New Zealand native plants.
“We chose the name ŌKU because we see ourselves as belonging to the plants and the plants belonging to us,” says Paul-Smith. “We don’t have a lot of native bush left and many of our species of natives are endangered. So we’re all about regenerating, as well as harvesting sustainably and turning our plant material into products.”
“Another way we try to promote and embed mātauranga Māori, or the culture and way of being, is we have bilingual packaging on our products,” says Paul-Smith. “So, for example, for our Restore tea, you can turn the lid around and it will say whakaora, which is ‘restore’ in Māori.”
Paul-Smith says the next stage of incorporating te reo Māori into the business is to have an English website and a te reo Māori website.
Ultimately, the most important thing is to put the planet first, says Paul-Smith.
“Putting the planet before profit and working your business model around that is one easy thing that Pākehā can do,” she says, noting that it took OKŪ 15 years of slowly but surely planting and harvesting to get to where it is today.
Paul-Smith’s marae and whānau still maintain a lot of the Māori ways of being that are at risk of being lost.
“We have people in my whānau who can recite the whakapapa right back to the first canoe,” she says.
Paul-Smith’s uncle is well-respected in his iwi, and acts as a cultural advisor for the business.
For people who don’t have a Māori heritage to channel, but want to incorporate tikanga Māori into their business, Paul-Smith recommends doing courses with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
There are a range of business courses, such as the Mana Ora class, which teach students how to incorporate kaupapa Māori into their work and business. Paul-Smith notes her husband enrolled in te reo Māori and tikanga courses a couple of years ago, which added to his ability to do business and create products in a way that honours indigenous New Zealanders and the land.
ŌKU is preparing to do a $1 million capital raise that will give it a five-year runway to invest in sales and marketing, and scale up operations. ŌKU launched in Australia six months ago, and wants to double down on that international growth, eventually targeting the US, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Paul-Smith says it’s important to find investors that align with the company’s mission and vision. The company’s pitch deck is geared towards organisations that are passionate about the New Zealand bush, growing more plants, and being involved in sustainable businesses and Māori businesses. The company is targeting investment from iwi first “to keep the business as a Māori-run business”.
ŌKU will also pitch whānau or other tangata whenua who have land or bush blocks that aren’t being utilised “where we can upscale our plant material from and harvest sustainably” while also providing income to people sitting on unused land.
Rebecca Bellan is a journalist from New York who covers startups, technology and business. She writes about transportation for TechCrunch, reporting on everything from autonomous vehicles and battery development to gig work and micromobility. Before joining TechCrunch, Rebecca covered urbanism, culture, policy and travel. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg, The Daily Beast, i-D, The Atlantic, City Monitor and more.
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