New Zealand Manuka's ambitious growth plans for its manuka honey and manuka oil business are based on building up sustainable production with a network of Maori landowners and specialist beekeepers, says chief executive Phil Caskey.
The Whakatane-based company has now joined Rotorua's Scion in a breeding programme with 300,000 selected manuka plants, which will be used to help develop a 900ha plantation for manuka oil and honey production with the Maungaroa Station Trust on marginal land in Te Kaha, Ruatoria, on the East Cape.
NZ Manuka, a finalist in last month's Bay of Plenty ExportNZ awards, employs about 60 people in the Bay of Plenty/East Cape region.
"Getting in the finals is a definite achievement," said Mr Caskey, who is the major shareholder in the business with his wife Sharan.
"But it was an accumulation of the efforts of a lot of people. The credit lies with the communities - we are working hard to make a sustainable difference in the industry." The plantation approach was needed - especially for manuka oil extraction - in order to build up production and compete with Australian tea oil, and to ensure supply into the pharmaceutical and medical markets. "We're developing New Zealand's first mixed manuka forest farm at Te Kaha," he said. "We're developing it for the honey on the steeper country, and will harvest the oil on the flatter area by mechanical means.
"We've been doing a lot of research into the antibacterial properties of manuka oil, with very high levels of antimicrobial triketone compounds found in the East Cape area," he said.
"We believe the opportunity is significant, with an antibacterial strength in the oil that is many hundreds of times stronger than the manuka honey."
Mr Caskey and his wife were pioneers in the medical honey business.
The drive to widen NZ Manuka's grower base has provided opportunities for landowners to increase local employment, especially in more isolated rural areas, which has been a core element in the company's business philosophy.
NZ Manuka had its roots in 2011 when Mr Caskey got involved with iwi landowners in the Whangaparoa community at Cape Runaway. That has since built up into a beekeeping business with more than 5000 hives and is currently the company's major source of manuka honey.
Whangaparoa 2L Trust representative Karen Te Kani, who is also senior nursery hand at Scion and has championed the manuka plant research programme, said Mr Caffee was very "user friendly" with Maori and the iwi.
The work in developing Whangaparoa in turn had led to the plantation project at Te Kaha, with local iwi forming a coalition to work on the development.
"We are trying to make sure the landowners get the best value for their resource," said Ms Te Kani. "Phil wants to develop the community alongside the industry."
Manuka honey pioneers still reaping healthy rewards
New Zealand Manuka's major shareholders, Phil Caskey, and his wife, Sharan, first became involved in the development of the manuka honey industry in the early 1990s.
They were pioneers in developing manuka honey as a credible health product with their company Bee and Herbal New Zealand.
"My wife and I established the first manuka dedicated company in 1996, and worked with the University of Waikato through the late 1990s to develop a medical honey pathway," said Mr Caskey.
Working closely with Professor Peter Molan (founder of the unique manuka factor, UMF) they first developed manuka honey as a registered medical device.
In 2002, Bee and Herbal NZ formed Api-Med Medical Honey, a joint venture with WaikatoLink, the commercial arm of the University of Waikato.
At the time, Api-Med's medical grade honey products were being trialled in hospitals and clinics in the UK, where Mr Caskey had worked for six months to open up marketing opportunities. 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 ill and, by the end of the year, Api-Med was sold to Paengaroa-based Comvita, which in the process acquired all of Bee and Herbal NZ's assets. Comvita eventually partnered with Nasdaq-listed tissue regeneration company Derma Sciences to market wound care products under the Medihoney brand. Comvita and Derma have minority stakes in each other and the US company is a key Comvita honey customer and also a source of royalty payments as the global licensee of Medihoney.
New Zealand Manuka now has a stake in and partnership with Australian medical device company Melcare Biomedical, which produces honey-based products including eye, nose and throat treatments and wound care products.
"From a processing point of view, Melcare are really well set up," he said. "But we have kept our technologies here."