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ŌKU: Nurturing Sustainable Innovation

When ŌKU's story began there was a notable absence of New Zealand native herbs in the natural health products market. Founders Scott Smith and Helen Smith (Tapuika, Ngai Te Rangi) recognised this gap and embarked on producing their own original blends and products.

Before ŌKU's inception, Scott experienced kidney failure. His health challenges prompted him to explore the combining of modern medicine with natural medicine and in particular, the use of New Zealand native herbs. "Modern medicine kept me alive, but it was herbal medicine that enabled me to thrive. It's the marriage of these two systems that made all the difference for me," Scott shares.

To Scott and Helen, building ŌKU wasn’t about making money, it was about telling the story of New Zealand’s native plants and the benefits they can provide to people’s wellbeing and our natural landscape. From the outset, their product range of tea, elixirs and skincare focused on incorporating New Zealand's wild native plants and sustainable approaches to scaling the business. Scott emphasises “A very early part of the journey was that every product that we sold we gave a portion of the profits into restoration and protection of the native forest.”

ŌKU started in Tauranga where Scott had been running his Naturopathic and Herbal Clinic for 10 years but eventually for a number of reasons, including attractive schooling options and good infrastructure, they were led to the Waikato, where they restored a block of land in Tamahere into native bush to increase their supply of native herbs. Now, they are in no hurry to move.

To keep up with consumer demand, ŌKU has since established a network of suppliers that harvest herbs across the country and they are on the lookout to forge new partnerships with local landowners who possess natural bush areas. “There’s been a lack of value attached to blocks of land that are in bush. We’ve always identified those blocks of land to have intrinsic value in two ways; in the plants growing on the land and in the land’s positive effect on climate change.” In line with their sustainability values, ŌKU is nearing the completion of the B Corp certification process, a testament to their dedication to operating as a responsible and ethical business.

If building the capacity to sustainably grow and process their own natural products wasn’t keeping ŌKU busy enough, they have multiple research partnerships and projects on the go. ŌKU is working with the University of Auckland, AgResearch and the University of Otago on projects that utilise native herbs in unique ways to drive their new product development. Although we can’t share specifics yet, keep an eye out for a new product to be launched in early 2024 In the meantime, their current product range is not to be missed with their tea and elixir products containing high concentrations of native herbs and are also a treat to drink.

As they venture into international markets such as Australia, Vietnam and Germany, engage in research projects, and work toward achieving their B Corp certification, ŌKU is actively looking for more local partners to help grow the business. They are particularly interested in partnering with local Iwi with established native bushland.

Scott offers advice to those embarking on their entrepreneurial journey: "You've got to be persistent. You've got to be prepared to keep working at it until you get those breaks. And those breaks will happen if you keep at it long enough. Be bold, be brave."

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The Waikato is full of people and businesses doing great things. Their stories help build our understanding of the strength of the Waikato and the benefits of living, studying, visiting or doing business here.