Northland iwi turns family pastime into multi-million dollar manuka honey operation
Blanche Murray's introduction to the manuka honey industry was not without pain.
Moving hives at night with only a beekeeping half-suit, she bent over in front of a headlight in thin fleecy trousers – her backside becoming an illuminated target she reckons was stung about 80 times.
"I jumped like a kangaroo," she says.
The young mum is a face of the manuka honey industry that is turning what was once considered wasteland into liquid gold and bringing jobs and prospects to Maori in areas including her own Far North community.
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Blanche is the granddaughter of revered Maori rights champion Saana Waitai-Murray, who co-lodged the historic "flora and fauna" claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, wanting a bright future for whanau and whenua.
Saana told her the burgeoning industry was "a great opportunity for our whanau", says Blanche, 30, who gathered her sister and brothers together to launch Kai Ora Honey from the family home in Awanui three years ago.
Blanche says Saana told her they were "the kaitiaki (guardians) of the land where this high-active honey is produced".
"She said, 'lets make sure our people are the ones who own and operate this particular industry up here in the Far North and employ our own. And make sure that our own are contributing positively to our society'."
Her grandmother, the eldest of 14 children, learned the demand for honey early in life. Saana was taught by her father as a teen how to smoke out wild bees from rock nests around their Spirits Bay farm to extract the sweet food to trade for flour, batteries and gasoline, Blanche says.
Her grandmother was also aware of the traditional use of the manuka plant for medicinal reasons. "She said when they were younger they used to eat the pod seeds of the manuka flower to help with upset stomachs."
Manuka bark was also used to make teas as tonics.
Blanche recalls when a scientist began explaining the health benefits of honey produced from the nectar of the manuka tree, Saana told him: "Our tupuna (ancestors) have known and shared this rongoa (traditional Maori medicine) for generations."
The financial lead for Maori honey coalition Tika Miere, Blanche got her entrepreneurial streak from dad Rapine – the youngest of Saana's 13 children.
A pig hunter, fisherman, founder of Kaitaia Safe Community Patrol and oyster farmer, Rapine also took tour groups on off-road adventures along Ninety Mile Beach to around the North Cape.
Blanche says he would entertain the tourists so well he ended up close friends with many, including a Japanese business group who would later give Kai Ora Honey a vital kickstart.
Rapine began housing hives on manuka-covered lands at Spirits Bay. As the value of manuka honey began to rocket he encouraged Blanche and sons Tae, 28, and Samson, 32, to help out.
Her mother Mata, a weaver whose korowai (cloak decorated with flax) have been displayed at Te Papa, isn't involved hands-on in Kai Ora Honey, Blanche says. But she successfully studied to become a qualified beekeeper.
"She got sick of us talking about the bees and telling her what to do, so she was like, 'I'm going to go and learn it myself'."
The family was shattered when Rapine died in 2010 of a heart attack aged just 44, following a battle with kidney failure.
Saana passed away a year later, at age 84.
The Ngati Kuri kuia was the last living claimant of the six iwi representatives who lodged Wai 262, aimed at securing recognition of rights around and control of traditional Maori knowledge, customs and relationships with the natural environment. Saana was described in a tribute as a "living taonga".
Blanche had discussed the name Kai Ora with her grandmother.
"She told me it was a good name. Kai meaning food. Ora meaning health, life, and wellbeing.
"Life would encompass our way of life; our sustainability; our kaitiaki. Health would be our people, in terms of our mental health, our physical wellbeing, our connection to the land. Wellbeing - our state of mind as people.
"And Kai, food, yes, but for the body and soul not just the tummy."
Saana told her granddaughter the use of a koru for the O in Kai Ora was a good symbol for their new ventures – the unfurling silver fern frond symbolising new life and growth.
"Our grandmother was all about fighting for the land that we do the bees on. Even though it was scrubland and considered wasteland, she fought for Maori control over Maori assets which includes land, fauna and flora."
Manuka had been regarded as wasteland by European settlers and continued to be cleared in farms to preserve grazing land. But manuka honey, noted for its antibacterial properties, is now a top export earner for Aotearoa and a growing employer.
New Zealand pure honey exports were worth $315 million for the year ended June 30, 2016 - up 35 per cent on the previous 12 months, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
The number of registered beekeeping enterprises rose 21 per cent to 6735 over the same time, and registered hives increased by 108,174 to 684,046.
A target has been set of $1.2 billion export revenue for manuka honey alone by 2028.
Guided by Saana's vision, Blanche approached brothers Tae, who had returned from beekeeping around the country, and Walter, back from a rugby scholarship in the United States, to launch Kai Ora Honey.
Friends Jody and Ralph Mitchell of Kaimai Range Honey Ltd supported the trio through the launch.
And shortly afterwards Blanche's husband Liam and her brother Samson and younger sister Mabel joined Kai Ora Honey to further complement the family business.
The siblings put careers on hold, stumped up savings and turned to friends and extended whanau for help to get the venture off the ground, Blanche says.
For the first two months, they operated on a "very, very tight budget".
But an early lifeline came via the Japanese business group, who had heard of her father's death.
The group had spoken with Rapine about his interest in manuka honey and when they learned his children were launching their business, they placed an order.
"They bought the honey upfront, and that's what helped propel us forward," Blanche says. "Then we had a cracker of a season and it just skyrocketed."
Kai Ora Honey is now exporting around 50 tonnes of honey annually to Japan, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuwait, Blanche says. They are also developing a health food product for the international market. She expects the business to "easily" double last year's turnover.
The recent release by MPI of a scientific definition to authenticate New Zealand manuka honey should help seal its premium position overseas and protect the market from false products.
Five attributes of manuka honey – four chemicals and a DNA marker – would have to be present at a specific level to meet the definition.
The step follows questions in overseas markets about the authenticity of some honey being sold as New Zealand manuka honey.
A six-week consultation period is underway, and MPI is aiming to bring the new requirements into effect in late July.
MPI's move is good for exporters as it would give consumers assurance, says Blanche who is on the board of the Maori Miere (honey) Working Group and a member of the Maori Engagement Focus Group for Apiculture New Zealand.
The new definition would help differentiate New Zealand product from others in the international market and allow distinct branding, she says.
Kai Ora Honey produces some of this country's highest active manuka honey, Blanche says. Overseas clients are also drawn to the fact they are a whanau-owned business with generational links.
"They love history, they love traditions, they love the (Maori) culture," operations manager and head beekeeper Tae says. "And that us as a family, in general are always together."
From an initial 300 hives Kai Ora Honey now has around 2500, on sites from Spirits Bay to Kaipara Heads.
Each hive has 15,000-20,000 bees in the winter, increasing to 50,000-60,000 at the peak of the season, from September to April.
Kai Ora Honey uses Italian bees, because of their "nice calm nature", Tae says.
Regular handling of bees – which researchers say may be able to recognise individual human faces - to get the maximum gain with the minimum pain comes down to technique, he says. "If you're good to the bees, they'll be good to you. It's like humans really."
The relative isolation of Kai Ora Honey's hive sites protects them from infestation by the deadly varroa mite.
It also helps safeguard them from thefts – an increasing issue in the industry as the value of manuka honey soars. There were 400 bee or honey thefts reported in the six months to January, police said.
A beehive can cost several hundred dollars, while bees and honey can raise the value to $3000.
"We've never had anything stolen but we hear about thefts all the time," Blanche says.
The traceability requirements within the new MPI regulations would make it harder for thieves to sell stolen honey in bulk within New Zealand, she believes. Increasingly sophisticated tracing technology makes it easier to track where the honey has gone.
Blanche hopes new regulations, or a code of practice, would also help overcome tensions between neighbouring beekeepers, as well as beekeepers and landowners.
Disputes have included hives being placed close to land with manuka, without the landowner being approached or receiving any payment, she says.
Working harmoniously is a key for the Murray whanau, whose motto "go hard or go home" is put to the test in the height of the season when it's 17-hour back-to-back days in beekeeping suits in the Northland summer sun.
Samson, who also owns a courier business, and his fiancée pitch in when the heat is on, as does youngest brother Sobieski, 17, in his last year at college.
"We also get great support from Jody and Ralph. When the going gets really tough, they will bring their team from Tauranga to help too," Tae says.
Mabel, who runs administration and quality assurance, is excused from the hands-on honey extraction however.
She is severely allergic to bee stings, her airways swelling within minutes. She carries an epinephrine autoinjector for emergency use.
Kai Ora Honey now has eight staff and is set to appoint a chief operating officer and employ another beekeeper. It is diversifying as international demand continues to explode for manuka honey.
Walter, 23, is now a team leader and Mabel will operate mapping and food traceability systems. Sobieski's interest in science may be directed towards developing value-added products, says Blanche – Kai Ora Honey's director and marketer.
Kai Ora Honey is working towards having Tae become involved in the National Apprenticeship Scheme with Apiculture NZ, hopefully later this year. The move is further commitment by the Murray whanau to give back to their community.
"My passion is helping our rangatahi (youth) identify who they are, and where they could go," says Blanche, who with Liam has one-year-old son Kiwa.
Kai Ora Honey is guided by Saana and Rapine's principles, she says.
"We are all about the positive impact we can have on our communities – socially, economically, environmentally and culturally."
Weekly business planning sessions were carried out around Mata's kitchen table when Kai Ora Honey first launched.
"Now we've got a flash new office, and a flash new table - that we still built ourselves," Blanche says.
She is not measuring success in personal wealth, however.
"Someone who has a great life, somebody who has a loving family, somebody who can go fishing on the weekends or drive up 90 Mile Beach and pick pipis – that to me is rich, not assets and money."
- Sunday Star Times