Manuka honey pioneer Phil Caskey is noted for his focus on ensuring that rural communities benefit from the increasingly rich harvest being generated from their land.

"Today Manuka is an international icon of health," said Mr Caskey, the founder and chairman of New Zealand Manuka, based in Awakeri near Whakatane.

"The pathway has been supported by many people. Our mission is to make sure the opportunity from Manuka is imbedded in those rural communities that have struggled for so long. There is, ultimately, plenty to share."

Mr Caskey was born and brought up in Taranaki and has a background in sheep and cattle farming. After breaking off to do an engineering apprenticeship, he returned to farming then got into the live deer capture industry. He eventually moved into deer farming and venison exports, and by the late 1980s, had a factory in Rotorua processing deer byproducts.

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"Then as part of that we developed a product for export using deer velvet extract and honey," he said. "And because it was a new market opportunity we decided to use Manuka honey because in those days it was essentially a low value honey."

He became aware of the work of University of Waikato professor Peter Molan. The professor was the first to document the medicinal benefits of Manuka honey and eventually founded what became the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) organisation.

Mr Caskey sold his deer interests in 1995 and the following year he and his wife Sharan set up Bee and Herbal to market Manuka honey products. In 2002 they formed Api-Med Medical Honey, a joint venture with WaikatoLink, the university's commercial arm. Api-Med's medical grade honey products were trialled at Waikato Hospital, and then in hospitals and clinics in the UK.

This was the first recognition of honey as a practical and effective medical device, in the form of a Manuka honey-based wound dressing incorporating advanced gel technology.

However, in 2003, Mr Caskey became seriously ill and by the end of the year Api-Med was sold to Paengaroa-based Comvita, which also acquired all of Bee and Herbal NZ's assets.

In 2011, he returned to the Manuka honey business at the invitation of local East Cape Maori trust landowners who asked for his help to develop a fair returns programme for the landowners.

The new company started working with the local community and established a tripartite arrangement between apiarists, the company and the landowners, with 35 per cent of the revenue going back to the landowners, he said.

In doing so, Mr Caskey was drawing on the ethos of his original pathway into medical honey.

"We had to develop longterm relationships with the landowners to develop protocols for honey to be harvested, not just as a food but as a medical device to ensure a stable and consistent supply of medical grade honey to fast-developing clinical and health product markets," he said.

New Zealand Manuka developed a relationship with an Australian medical device company to produce honey-based medical products, and also acquired Coast Biologicals, which produced Manuka oils and processed seaweed into laboratory grade agar. It is now New Zealand's largest Manuka oil and agar seaweed processing company. It has extended its operation from the Bay of Plenty to include a collection, sorting and drying facility in Masterton and is exporting agar products to world markets.

NZ Manuka won the Page Macrae Engineering Innovation in Export Award at last week's export awards.

NZ Manuka is 75 per cent owned by its Australian partners, with the balance held by Mr Caskey and his wife. "We have a fantastic team and supply network supported by the resource owners in the community," he said.

"It's fantastic that a tree that was once regarded as a scrub plant on the East Cape is now providing real opportunities to struggling communities while curing children with third degree burns in hospitals on the other side of the world."

Award for visionary exporter

Phil Caskey beat Chris Chaplin of Trimax Mowing Systems, and Peter Edmondson and Peter McCormick of Shot! Darts (Puma Darts), to win the Beca Export Achievement category at last week's BOP export awards.

The award provides an opportunity to recognise the contribution to export success of a particular individual within a company.

The judges described Mr Caskey as the "visionary founder and driving entrepreneurial spirit" behind NZ Manuka Group, who had recognised the wider potential of Manuka-based products beyond honey.

He had driven research into new products, new production facilities and cultivation and harvesting of Manuka plantations for extraction of oil, and the incorporation of that oil and its derived triketones into an ever-expanding product range, they said.

In particular, the judges cited Mr Caskey for placing community at the centre of his vision by developing collaborative relationships and paying back to the communities of land owners, beekeepers, harvesters and employees.

"We were impressed with the infectious enthusiasm and dedication that Phil applies in all aspects of his work.

He is an inspirational leader to his team and truly cares about his impact in the wider community."

Phil Caskey:

* Role: Founder/chairman, New Zealand Manuka Group

* Born: Taranaki, New Zealand

* Age: 60

* First job: Farmer

* Winner: Beca Export Achievement Award, ExportNZ BOP Awards