From tradition to innovation: Exploring the creative path of ŌKU

May 7, 2024

We plant, grow, and harvest NZ Native plants that form the basis of the ingredients in our range of tea & topical uniquely NZ range of products.

Written by Scott Smith – Co Founder & Director

Our history

For centuries, Aotearoa New Zealand’s rākau (plants) have been used in traditional Māori remedies to help maintain or support ora (wellbeing). Today, these ancient traditions are being rediscovered by a family business in the Waikato, aptly named ŌKU. “In Te Reo, the name ŌKU means ‘belonging to’, because it’s our collective responsibility to be kaitaiki (guardians) of these plants,” explains co-founder Helen Paul-Smith. “They’re here to help heal us and reconnect us to ourselves.”

Helen, of Tapuika and Ngāi Te Rangi Māori descent, studied Ayurveda Medicine and Te Reo Māori, while her husband Scott Smith is a Medical Herbalist and Naturopath with over 20 years of experience. Combining their skills and their passion for native plants, ŌKU was born out of a desire to help people experience the amazing properties held within the ngahere (forests) of Aotearoa.

“When we first started ŌKU, few products were using native herbs commercially,” says Helen. “And yet there was this rich traditional medicinal use in Māoritanga (Maori culture) showing us how beneficial these rākau can be. Our aim was and is to offer an alternative to Western herbal products.”

Thirteen years later, the couple grows and harvests many of their own plants on their land in Tamahere, Hamilton. “It’s amazing how many plants you can fit on a 5,000m2 section!” says Helen. Other plants are sourced from harvesters in the wild all around Aotearoa New Zealand.

Product benefits

All of our products are unique in how they incorporate the more widely known western and eastern herbs blended with the lesser known NZ native herbs that were traditionally used by Māori. We were the first company here in NZ to create a range of teas placing these native herbs front and centre.

All tea blends have a clearly defined purpose – Digest, Energise, Relax, etc. They are all beautifully presented in plastic-free packaging and distinctly Kiwiana artwork. All native herbs are wild harvested from pristine native bush blocks whilst all other herbs are certified organic. All blends are made up of 100% herb with no additives or flavours added.

Our topical range also follows this philosophy of blending the best of NZ natives with other more well-known herbs like calendula or arnica giving them clear indications but with unique actions due to these additional herbs all in a completely natural base. We have received awards for the products here in NZ with the business being nominated as a finalist in many different award categories including Helen being the winner of Businesswoman of the year 2022 in Sales & Marketing in the Māori Business Awards.

Ethical considerations and practices

We are in the final stages of B Corp certification and also EKOS certification (zero carbon/climate-positive certification). To be able to gain these certifications it backs up that we are not only talking it but we are walking it. We are conscious of Māori Tikanga, a traditional Māori concept meaning to ‘do things the right way’ that is very embedded in how we do things and the decisions we make. “At the heart of ŌKU, we strive to make the business about kaitiakitanga (guardianship), and we do this by always trying to give more than we take,”. Our circular business model means we are constantly planting more natives, harvesting sustainably, and developing our packaging to be compostable or recyclable. A portion of the profits of every product we sell goes back to trusts we support who are all about restoring and protecting our native flora and fauna.

Importance on a global, ethical and sustainable level

So many people have yet to discover these incredible plants that can only be found here in New Zealand. One of the key goals of ŌKU was and is to raise awareness of these to as many people as we could whilst operating ethically and sustainably. Another key goal we strive to succeed in is bringing people along this hikoi (journey) with us. To help people identify the inherent value of the native bush and that when harvested sustainably can create income and employment for people, especially in those areas where there are low socio-economic populations and high unemployment.

Product demand in the natural retail space

As more people come to experience these plants in our products, we find word of mouth as well as repeat customers support natural growth for our business. We have had the last three years of solid growth, launching in Australia last year on Amazon & David Jones we are now moving to phase 2 of our plan in Australia where we intend to bring a distributor on board to help grow our brand more comprehensively throughout Australia.

Product/business innovation

We did pivot during covid in that we began to look at export options rather than focusing on domestic NZ options. Our Australian journey is a continuation of this. Our innovation has come about through the fusion of NZ native herbs with other more well-known herbs creating unique blends, flavours and properties in our formulas.

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