How three ‘Māori boys’ are setting the world a-buzz
Culture, connection and community. These three things lie at the heart of Kiwi company Wai Mānuka. The company produces a premium Mānuka honey beverage which has taken New Zealand by storm, securing major contracts with Government House and Sky City and being named one of only two official non-alcoholic beverages of the America’s Cup, alongside global giant Coca-Cola.
The company’s rise to success has been phenomenal but behind the premium brand lies a uniquely Kiwi story. Wai Mānuka is the brainchild of three lifelong friends Lance Paora, Wayne Atkins and Joe Harawira, and Joe says the idea started over a few drinks.
“We were at a New Year’s Eve BBQ together and I was drinking pineapple kombucha and I said to the boys, this is not a good option for a social event. We started discussing other possibilities and by the end of that night we had decided that we were going to take honey from Gisborne and mix it with spring water from the Bay of Plenty. Early on we were going to call it ‘The healing water of Aotearoa’ but we soon met with a compliance expert who was like “no you can’t call it that!’ so Wai Mānuka was born.”
The company’s first big break came when a mentor sent through an expression of interest form to be part of the America’s Cup. Joe says the mentor told them it was probably too early for something this big but he wanted them to understand the opportunities that could be available to them in the future.
“We thought oh well why not, let’s just give it a crack, and then a few months down the track the America’s Cup took us on board as one of the non-alcoholic beverage suppliers, alongside Coca-Cola. In terms of launching a startup we couldn’t have asked for a better platform to generate the exposure and awareness we experienced. Off the back of that opportunity we were able to secure a number of high-end partnerships.”
From there the company has continued to grow. They have just appointed an advisory board and are looking to grow their presence in Aotearoa, whilst being a focus customer of NZTE and validating global markets in Asia and the UAE. With the help of Callaghan Innovation they have also recently proven some health benefits surrounding Wai Mānuka and are looking at how to best maximize those results.
Joe says they want to leverage the global reputation of Mānuka honey and Aotearoa whilst celebrating the Māori provenance story.
“Every day we aim to live by the values of Kaitiakitanga, Hauoratanga, Manaakitanga and Whanaungatanga, these values help guide decision making and are inherent to Wai Mānuka. This is also acknowledged in our brand identity through a Māori motif that speaks to the integral role that nature plays in the process of creating Wai Mānuka. There’s an evocative story behind the product that offers people a deeper insight and connection to Aotearoa. This is what led us to establish our vision He taonga no Aotearoa – A precious gift from New Zealand.”
That feeling of connection is one which Joe says he hopes Wai Mānuka will inspire not just here, but for Kiwi all over the world.
“When Wai Mānuka is available around the world we want people who enjoy it to feel like they have their own little slice of Aotearoa. At the same time if you’re a Kiwi offshore we would love for you to be proud of Wai Mānuka when you see it in a restaurant or a cafe or a bar, we want you to think, wow that comes from home, that’s where I’m from.”
“You know when it was just an idea on New Year’s eve it was about the three of us boys doing something to stay more connected. As time has gone on, we feel the support we are getting from our hometown and all around the country, and it’s been massive and we now realise and appreciate the fact that this is bigger than us, and if we are talking about celebrating the finest of Aotearoa on the world stage then that comes with a greater sense of responsibility. Nevertheless we feel very privileged to be in this position and if we stay grounded and true to our values then hopefully, we can do it justice”
It’s been hard mahi for the three ‘Māori boys’ from the Bay of Plenty. Wai Mānuka was funded by their savings and bank loans, and money borrowed from family members and Joe says there have been some expensive lessons learned along the way.
“We had a number of bottles explode on the production line earlier this year. We found out the hard way that one of the reasons companies don’t make carbonated honey drinks is because the honey is extremely volatile during the carbonation process. If your measurements aren’t exact or your glass bottle is slightly too thin the drink will explode. It’s a mistake you only make once.”
All three of the guys kept their day jobs while running Wai Mānuka on the side, and Joe says it’s now got to the point where their biggest challenge is time, so he has made the decision to resign from his current role with New Zealand Rugby and go full time to focus on growing the business.
Future plans include producing a 750ml sparkling version to position Wai Mānuka as the beverage of special occasions and a non-alcoholic alternative to drinking prosecco and champagne, an idea that was suggested by Government House. The boys are also keen on creating a still version to compliment the sparkling and broaden its range. The online store opens on Labour weekend and a documentary on their story is due for release on NZ screens in February.
Joe says he wants their story to be proof that anyone, especially young Māori, can achieve their dream if they want it badly enough.
“If 3 Māori boys from Whakatāne can make a premium non-alcoholic beverage throughout a global pandemic and partner with the likes of America’s Cup, then you can do anything! We started this journey to stay more connected as mates, and honestly now it feels like we’re married! But it’s great because we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we’re straight up with each other and we lean on each other during tough times. We don’t agree on everything but by working through those issues and upholding each other’s mana, we come out better for it. Our advice to anyone thinking of starting a business. Do one thing everyday that brings you closer to achieving your vision. It doesn’t matter how small. Mauri ora’
Wai Mānuka were passed on to Kea Connect by our Global partner BNZ. Kea Connect was able to introduce them to Kiwi experts in the Hong Kong and China F&B channels. The company recently reached out a second time asking for connections to high end restaurants, cafes and hotels as part of their NZ growth strategy.