For Good: In Conversation with Tama Toki of Aotea

Our ‘For Good’ series are a set of conversations with talented people behind some of our favorite environmentally conscious brands. As our team at IN BED continue to work towards our own goals around environmental and social impact we are continuously inspired by others re-thinking what it means to create through a more sustainable lens.

To begin this new series we speak to Tama Toki, founder of New Zealand brand Aotea, a range of therapeutic skincare made using a combination of indigenous knowledge and scientific research. We spoke to Tama about his unique vision, how Māori culture informs every aspect of the brand and everyday life on Aotea - the island for which the brand is named.

Can you tell us a little bit about how Aotea got started and what inspired you to move into creating your own products?

Aotea is the manifestation of what we call rongoā māori (traditional Māori healing remedies). The inspiration comes from my upbringing on an island called Aotea. It is here I learned from my grandparents about the healing flora of the bush. To give context Aotea has no public utility for water or power. Consequently we live closer to the laws of nature. There was no pharmacy, no doctor, and my grandmother would teach us with what we had in the bush. It was (and still is) a māori community. We actually started selling the rongoā at the farmers market to test the concept, and we started getting great feedback, and decided to start moving into the space we’re in now. Every single product is made, packaged and labelled by hand on Aotea. We keep bees, distil and extract the oils from the native flora on our papakāinga (land).

What role did Māori culture play in the creation of Aotea and how does it continue to inform the direction of the brand? 

Tikanga Māori (Māori practice and custom) is at the heart of what we do. We harvest, grow and run the business through an indigenous lens as much as we can. There are principles of Tikanga that are very prevalent, one is a term called kaitiakitanga (it’s actually been imported into legislation so it is becoming honoured by statute and common law in this country which is great). Kaitiakitanga means stewardship, or guardianship over resources (earth, bodies of water, flora + fauna etc), and it is an extension of how māori see their place within nature. In terms of our direction, we’re implementing a closed loop economy with our business by reticulating water for our extraction facilities, as well as a system where we make it as easy as possible for the customer to return their jars so we can reuse them. Further, our facilities are solar powered, and we’re building our own solar farm so as we scale up we can continue to utilise the power of the sun. We grow our own flora at our little plantation on the island. This direction is entirely as a result of the Tikanga we employ.

Similar to our direction being very Tikanga focused, the island of Aotea is also expressed significantly in how we operate. Life is very quiet on the island. Where we are based there is no cellphone coverage so when we are there we depart significantly from the rigours and tiring nature of always being ‘plugged in’. It allows us to think and be clear in what we’re doing. Being on the island means we get our food from the land as well as the water. Our wider family are sea people; often making a living by farming mussels or crayfish. It’s a huge part of who we are and what we do, in fact, our iwi / tribe is called Ngāti Wai, which means people of the water.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about building a skincare brand in a more sustainably conscious and less impactful way? 

Sustainability is a popular word at the moment and it means different things to different people. One of our key business pillars is ‘honouring indigneous knowledge’ and through this lens and our Kaitiakitanga values we aim to embody the traditional Māori view, which by default is innately sustainable. Being mindful and respecting the ecosystem you're working within is what we strive for in our business. The spirits within nature are far more intricate than what we see or intellectualise. Within Aotea, we're careful to propagate only from species we already have on the island or from our own nursery. We're not bringing anything new from elsewhere in New Zealand or the world. We look into how the flora works within itself and we don't disturb these intricacies; instead we work to aid them.

Aotea marries Indigenous knowledge with scientific research, how has the research & development side of your business developed over time and where do you see this heading in the future? 

We are super excited about the R&D. There is a little bit of a responsibility for us to take what our ancestors have learned, and to extend it, we believe anyway. So in light of this we have bought something called a supercritical extractor which will allow us to critically extract the plant agents so we can have them tested, and one day conduct clinical trials to learn of the efficacy of the healing compounds we work with. We have partnered with a laboratory in Wellington to do these tests and trials. This will give credence to the anecdotes and traditions of our ancestors. This is still a while away for us, but hopefully next year we can start sharing more about science and R&D.

Shop Aotea online or at our Paddington flagship store.