Taking traditional Māori medicine to Asia

Entrepreneur Tama Toki is using knowledge passed down to him by his grandmother to make tonics and skincare products that capture the healing properties of native plants and finding markets in Japan, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam ready to embrace them.
Leadership Network member Tama Toki

Tama: “Coming across pieces of philosophies across Asia that echo those (Māori tikanga) general sentiments was kind of cool.”

Long before pharmaceuticals arrived in Aotearoa, Māori relied on plant-based remedies to keep themselves healthy.

Growing up, his kuia (grandmother) taught him what herbs could be used to treat what ailments.

It’s an approach to wellness that he sees echoed in many Asian cultures.

“It’s a tikanga that I’ve always been aware of.

“It’s not hocus pocus – it’s just different from what you ordinarily hear.

“Coming across pieces of philosophies across Asia that echo those general sentiments was kind of cool.”

On the science, Tama’s business Aotea is working with Callaghan Innovation to figure out just how effective some of the native flora they use are, and what makes them so, backing up generations of anecdotal remedial use.

And their trials are uncovering yet more common ground.

They’ve discovered that Kūmarahou, an ingredient in a bitter-tasting brew Tama remembers having administered as a child, has the same plant agents as Asian herbal heavyweights like Ashwagandha and Asian ginseng, for example.

Aotea tonics, creams and balms lined up for display

Aotea tonics, creams and balms

Tama says it’ an awesome feeling to be building a value-driven business that adheres to principles of tikanga Māori on his papakāinga.

An added bonus: he’s discovering a huge appetite for brands like his in Asia.

“The New Zealand anchor is super significant and a lot of brands are leveraging off that.”

In 2017, Tama travelled to Malaysia as part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s food and beverage delegation – a group of young Kiwi entrepreneurs being introduced to Southeast Asian markets and getting a feel for the lay of the land. The trip was part of the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative, run by the Foundation's entrepreneurship programme.

It was Tama’s first taste of Asia and a pivotal turning point for Aotea.

Up until then, they’d been dealing in ready-to-drink tonics, served up in supermarket chillers and cafes across New Zealand.

Being on the ground in Asia, meeting local distributors and perusing the aisles of high-end supermarkets that might be a good fit for the brand, Tama quickly realised he’d need to be stumping up cash in advance and shipping a fair few bottles of his tonic if he wanted to make inroads in the market.

“The trip to Malaysia didn’t necessarily bring us to that part of the world - that was probably always to happen anyway. What it did shed light on was it gave us a better idea of the mechanics required to do business.

“It made us realise we wanted to deal in goods that had a higher dollar margin that we could distribute in smaller quantities.”

Now, China and Japan are Aotea’s biggest markets.

Tama says he’s learnt to be wary of distribution channels – there’s plenty of less reputable, “self-hungry” types, plus online shopping platforms, the only option for them in China without arduous animal testing of their products, are “hectic”, so relationship building and trust is key.

“At the same time, we need to focus on the domestic market, so we are well known here, which creates authenticity in the eyes of the customer.”

Tama presenting his drinks to an audience in Malaysia

Tama presenting at an F&B event in Malaysia supported by the Ministry of Māori Affairs

On the business horizon is a flagship store in Auckland’s Britomart, and further investment in infrastructure at home-base on the island to ensure they can achieve top-quality plant extractions to make the best products possible.

He wants his business to continue to grow but, equally, he doesn’t want to see the brand overly commodified.

“Because for us, it’s such a really personal, special thing that we are doing.

“We want to do the herbs and where we come from justice.”

The ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative is a key part of the New Zealand Government’s ASEAN Strategy.  The Asia New Zealand Foundation has been managing the initiative since 2012 on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, running sector-specific programmes for Southeast Asian entrepreneurs in New Zealand, and New Zealand entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia.