Wai Mānuka co-founder Joe Harawira is fizzing as he and ‘brothers’ Lance Paora and Wayne Atkins gear up to export their taonga to the world for the first time.
This content was created in paid partnership with NZTE.
For close mates – they call each other brothers – Joe Harawira, Wayne Atkins and Lance Paora, this is way bigger than business. As the trio prepares to launch their product into the international market with culture, connection and community as their lodestars, these three Māori boys from Whakatāne are modern-day navigators, sharing a taonga of Aotearoa – their premium non-alcoholic beverage, Wai Mānuka. Like their ancestors, they’re charting a course through unfamiliar waters.
The ingredients tell the story of Te Ika-a-Māui’s east coast: the mānuka honey is sourced from “one of the bros” on the East Cape, the lemon juice is from Hawke’s Bay and the water comes from carbonating Tauranga’s water supply. When combined, Wai Mānuka is a drink to celebrate special occasions, a beverage to enjoy from a stemmed glass, an elegant alternative to champagne. It’s an east coast sunrise in a recycled glass bottle.
When I speak to Harawira (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Rangi), one-third of Wai Mānuka’s Whakatāne founders, he is fizzing with excitement having just returned from an overseas trip in preparation of Wai Mānuka’s first push into the export market. He’s full of new insights from a three-week trip to the US and Middle East. It’s another milestone for a nascent company simply named “3 Māori Boys”.
Launched just 18 months ago, Wai Mānuka’s origins can be traced back to a New Year’s Eve barbecue in 2019. Harawira was drinking pineapple kombucha, and as the night wore on he suggested to the boys there had to be a better, more authentically local non-alcoholic beverage to celebrate occasions like this. Their epiphany was based on the delicious simplicity of lemon juice, mānuka honey and sparkling water. But when they first tried mixing the ingredients in a SodaStream, the experiment literally exploded.
Despite the initial accident, they were convinced they were onto something special, and spent the next few months doing research and development for the drink. With a perfected recipe, precise measurements of local ingredients and the right-sized glass bottles, their first sales were to White Island Café in Whakatāne.
In late 2020, less than a year after the New Year’s barbecue, Wai Mānuka got its first big break when it was selected as one of two official non-alcoholic drink suppliers of the 36th America’s Cup, alongside global beverage giant Coca-Cola. They now supply Government House, SkyCity, premium Auckland grocery chain Farro Fresh and a raft of restaurants, cafes and bars nationwide.
But the trio aspire to even greater success – they want to run a multimillion-dollar global company.
“If we’re going to win, we have to export because New Zealand is just too small of a market,” says Harawira.
That’s what sent him on a global trip in the middle of a pandemic. The prize they’re chasing is worth big money: the global non-alcoholic drinks market – including soft drinks and bottled teas, coffees and water – was valued at an estimated $1.25tn in 2021. That’s projected to rise to $1.58tn by 2025.
New Zealand’s location and reputation play into the trio’s strategy of carving out a “hyper-niche” space, capitalising on the country’s clean, green image, mānuka honey’s prized reputation as a superfood, and the power of indigenous support.
The overseas trip affirmed for Harawira that they’re onto something special. Starting in the “very hard, very fast” market of New York City, Harawira met with staff from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), the government agency which has a global network of expertise and contacts. They offered advice about how the Wai Mānuka product and positioning needed to evolve to meet the demands of the US market.
During his week-long stay, he saw first-hand how immensely popular alcohol-free cocktails, wine proxies and “dry stores” are in NYC. It’s a sophisticated new space, and the term “mocktail” has been rejected by bars around the city, Harawira says. This is where he learned that any launch of their standalone sparkling beverage would need a library of cocktail recipes behind it.
Next stop: Dubai, which had been a target from the boys’ first visions for export because their research showed mānuka honey is especially popular in the Middle East. The trio also learned there’s increasing demand for healthier beverage options, as the region is affected by high rates of type-2 diabetes.
It’s a complicated market, however. Their NZTE customer manager Rhea Cowell (Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Porou) helped them understand the unique regulatory market and played “squeaky wheel” to the boys’ natural enthusiasm.
“You don’t need to do it alone,” says Cowell. “Businesses don’t need to know everything – they can’t know everything – NZTE is here to help identify and fill those gaps. It’s my job to prepare the boys for the unique nature of overseas markets using NZTE’s experience.”
The United Arab Emirates definitely represents an opportunity for a business whose beverage has zero added sugars and relies on a natural sweetener with scientifically proven health benefits. But Wai Mānuka could also be hit with taxes up to 100% of the cost, because it is a carbonated, sugary drink.
Cowell helped the boys understand how some of these barriers could actually represent possibilities – those tariffs could pose opportunities for the Wai Mānuka brand to innovate and develop its product. To avoid incurring a 50% sugar tax, it’s possible that Wai Mānuka could be classed as a health beverage, and a still version of its original sparkling drink could help bypass the other 50% tariff on carbonated drinks. But, Harawira notes with a chuckle, that’s another $80,000 of investment the business doesn’t have – yet.
Finding ways to fund Wai Mānuka’s growth ambitions has been an ongoing hustle for the three founders, who are still running the business on top of their day jobs. A new short documentary on the Wai Mānuka journey captures the personal pressure of financing their ambitions, without existing proof of profitability. That’s where Rangi Ririnui (Ngāi te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Arawa), the investment director in NZTE’s Māori investment team, stepped in to support the boys.
“I get involved when a company is expanding and it needs cash to keep the momentum up. I help companies get investment-ready and then connect them with investors locally and internationally,” he says.
To help fund their short-term growth, Ririnui advised the group to seek bank financing instead of investor money. It’s never easy for businesses to get money when they’re not making it. “Raising capital for an early-stage business is probably one of the hardest things to do,” he says. “There’s a big difference between having a vision and getting other people to buy into your vision.”
Ririnui also acts as a translator, deciphering the financial jargon it’s not unusual to encounter in business. “People just call me, that’s what I’m there for. There might be something in an email from a bank where Joe doesn’t know what the word means and I’ll be like ‘that fella is trying to be too flash. It’s not that complicated, bro. It means this’.”
Exporting triples the risks, investment and pressure that businesses face domestically. That’s why having the right “eyes-on-the-ground” representation in Dubai or New York City is essential to Wai Mānuka’s potential success overseas, says Harawira. New Zealand businesses are selling into an ever-connected world, and global companies are all exploring the same markets with products they believe fit well with local consumers. Rather than being “everything to everyone”, the Wai Mānuka boys want to sell one product into one market and “keep it tight”. The plan is to make a decision on what that market will be by the middle of the year, with a trial run in spring.
Harawira believes the trio wouldn’t have gone as far as they have without the help that Cowell, Ririnui and the rest of NZTE have offered. It helps that they’ve been good at following the advice they received. Harawira says the group were told they were easy to work with because they actually listened. He jokes that it is such a key part of their approach because they used to “get the jandal back in the day” if they didn’t listen.
His laugh is gleeful and contagious. It’s a reminder that three gregarious and humble Māori boys from Whakatāne are building a business on not just a great local product, but an approach informed by their unique culture. Starting Wai Mānuka was originally a way for the three friends to stay connected. But that purpose has evolved into something much larger. In sharing a part of Aotearoa with the world, Atkins (Ngāti Porou), Paora (Te Whanau-a-Apanui) and Harawira feel a responsibility to remain true to the values their ancestors have passed down – hauoratanga, whanaungatanga, kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga.
Beyond the success of their own organisation they see their role as inspiring their community, says Harawira.
“All one kid needs to hear is one message that could make a difference in their life and the decisions they make. Rather than pressure, I feel it’s a sense of service and duty.”
They are navigating the world with a precious gift of Aotearoa – just like their ancestors before them.