It is with a lot of excitement that I introduce today’s Stellar because I have longed to talk about a unique tribe on this planet that has always been part of my upbringing – Māori from New Zealand. I grew up drawn to the abundance of wisdom behind their culture that strongly connects human beings to the environment that surrounds us by respecting the harmony between all elements. In addition to their philosophies, there are fascinating stories and legends that accompanied us as children.
As with every culture and community, we grow up with things that we do because our parents say their parents told them so. Be it some superstitious tradition, or how to stop yourself from hiccups (All you need is a big sudden fright…right?). Everyone has a remedy or two up their sleeves. We barely ever question the rationale behind these things, they just work.
There are many ways for us to preserve and extend our legacy. Some by passing on stories, teaching otherwise lost skills to the next generation, reviving craftmanship. Others like Tama, our Stellar today, choose to preserve things that could be lost like an urban legend by evolving it, and back it by science. By bringing its usage to adapt to our modern lives, he believes we can pass on the ancient knowledge through modernizing its application.
Introducing Aotea, a therapeutic brand, and its founder Tama. Aotea works hard in bringing credibility to traditions from his native land with science, using this as a common language to bring the healing properties of native plants that have been used for centuries by the Māori, to the world.
By doing so, he also helps his community by creating work locally and giving back to the community by helping the younger generation through scholarships.
One of Aotea’s philosophies is that we are all kaitiaki – caretakers and guardians of the sky, sea and land. Putting a very complex and long story short, the Māori believe in a holistic environmental system where preventing intrusions that cause permanent imbalances and guards against environmental damage is key. Therefore, they work in small batches, taking only what they need, and leaving what the rest of nature needs to continue its cycle in a sustainable way. For example, leaving enough honey in the hives for the bees throughout winter.
Today we catch up with Tama to find out more about his journey.
Tell us a bit about Aotea, you started off as a tonic maker and now your main production focuses on skincare that heals. What is the vision of your brand?
Well our inspiration for what we do is mātauranga māori and rongoā māori (traditional healing remedies of Māori), and our product range is a manifestation of that knowledge.
It isn’t specific to one category or another. We actually moved out of ready to drink tonics (for a few reasons) and are looking to make tinctures using the same ingredients so that there is a more therapeutic dose in every use.
Rongoā Māori is an ancient, traditional healing system, focusing on the holistic healing powers of nature that has been passed down generation to generation.
The extensive medical application of native herbs and plants, together with other spiritual healing methods form the wisdom behind this system. The knowledge of how to apply these remedies used to be sacred and only passed on to the privileged few.
Tama’s brand is fully based on the Great Barrier Island – a little island on the northern part of New Zealand just outside of the hustle and bustle of Auckland. The Māori named it “Aotea” as it appeared in the distance as a white cloud on the horizon. Aotea literally is a white cloud in Māori.
Don’t be fooled by its geographical proximity to one of the largest cities in the country, this remote island (that barely has power…) is the home of many native flora in New Zealand and is truly surrounded by untouched nature.
What inspired you to tap into the healing properties of the natural habitat from the Great Barrier Island?
I grew up on Great Barrier Island, and my grandmother (as cliché as this may sound!) taught me about the healing capacity of some of our native flora here. I was very lucky to learn from her more about what can act as an anti-inflammatory, what can be anti-viral. Things like that.
Have you ever heard of the Kawakawa, Kumarahou (above), Mānuka or Kānuka and Harakeke? These are a few of the native flora in New Zealand that are also used in Aotea’s products. If you are interested in learning more about the alchemy of these flora, check out Aotea’s blog.
Prior to getting into entrepreneurship, you were set out to be a promising lawyer. So how do the two “lives” compare and which do you prefer?
It is definitely more fun (to be an entrepreneur) than being in the legal world. But how I got to where we are now is a fairly comprehensive story! Safe to say, I felt more inclined to create a business where I grew up, to create jobs there and to give scholarships to some of the kids there to go to high school (as there is no high school on the island I am from). This is our fourth year in business, and consequently the fourth year we will be giving out a scholarship. We are fortunate enough to employ two locals full time on production and are looking forward to hiring more this year.
Tell us your best moment on this journey so far! What fills you with the energy to keep going every day and what is your proudest moment or sense of achievement?
To date, the most fulfilling achievement has been building and constructing our commercial manuka oil distillery. Where are on a remote island, with no power and water, and so getting that built and operational was really satisfying.
What really gives me energy is some of the innovation we’re undertaking at the moment. We are looking into some science and the requisite R&D of the native flora that means we’ll be able to provide credibility to the underlying compounds and the rongoā māori.
For example, we have purchased something called a super critical extractor (it condenses CO2 into a liquid and it acts as a solvent to extract plant chemicals without denaturing them, it is used predominately in the CBD industry to extract healing cannabinoids and terpenoids from CBD) to start critically extracting these compounds to put them in some clinical trials.
Having been an entrepreneur since 2016, what do you wish you knew back then? Do you have any advice for someone that’s still on the fence thinking if they have what it takes to do it?
It’s really hard to say, probably realizing how important good people are in your business. And how important it is to delegate.
In terms of starting something up, it’s like that old adage; a lot of the time you don’t really regret what you do, you regret what you don’t do.
Risk is an important part to human experience, and I think it is more fun doing something that closely aligns with your inner impulses and desires than to not do that.
Tama Toki, Founder of Aotea