Kiwi Kai Founder Reni Gargiulo has Maori heritage from the Ngati Ruanui, Nga Rauru Kitahi, Te Atiawa on her father’s side and has incorporated her knowledge of traditional indigenous Maori plants into a new functional sparkling beverage line dubbed Atutahi.
There are currently three variants of the Atutahi line: Kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) with lemon and lime, kumarahou (Pomaderris kumeraho) with lemon and lime, and horopito (Pseudowintera colorata) with blackcurrant and boysenberry.
“We’re looking to export within four months, maybe six months maximum,” Gargiulo told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“Kiwi Kai uses sustainable Maori practices for harvesting, and we get a lot of produce, so quantity and upscaling production will definitely not be a problem.
“Key markets I’m looking at are Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Australia – at the moment though, we’re still in discussion with the New Zealand High Value Nutrition about getting funding to conduct more research into the plants and regulatory standards to export our drinks, because currently we are not allowed to make health claims with regard to the leaves despite their great benefits.”
Without the follow-up research, Gargiulo said that Atutahi would likely be categorised as a ‘novel’ item, meaning that it would be subject to more stringent and complicated regulation.
“Be that as it may, the research to find out more about the leaves’ nutritional value may cost up to tens of thousands of dollars, and there’s even talk about wanting us to share what we do with bigger beverage firms, which we are not willing to do as we keep everything we do strictly in line with Maori practices,” she said.
“With or without the research funding though, I will take this forward and move to exports within six months.
“We’re looking for export and import partners right now, and even if we can’t talk about the health benefits yet, they do exist as the Maori have known for generations; the drinks are very unique due to the ingredients being so indigenous; plus they taste great and refreshing, so I’m willing to move forward with them.”
The benefits touted for each native plant is different: Kawakawa is said to be anti-inflammatory with benefits for the liver, stomach and pain-relief e.g. helps toothaches when chewed. Kumarahou is believed to be beneficial for the lungs and removing excess mucus, so is traditionally used as a remedy for things like pneumonia, bronchitis and sinusitis.
“I believe that especially during times like these when illnesses such as pneumonia and flu are such huge concerns, kumarahou can help the lungs if nothing else,” said Gargiulo.
Horopito is traditionally used to treat stomach pains and has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial activity.
“The horopito drink has been a hit with bars here due to its bright red colour – many are buying it to make cocktails. The leaf also has a natural peppery taste, which makes it a good booster when it hits the palate though we don’t make it too hot,” she added.
The Maori story
The name Atutahi has dual meaning for Gargiulo – it is both her grandfather’s name as well as the name of the ‘first star to be seen in the evening sky in New Zealand’ as part of the Matariki (Pleiades) star cluster marking the start of the Maori planting season.
“We are blessed to be able to use this name, and thus must make sure that we do this well,” she said.
Kiwi Kai also receives funding and support from Maori organisation Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu.
As it is, within just three months and even with COVID-19, Atutahi has grown strongly within the country, selling some 6,000 cans till date via both e-commerce and physical sales.
“Atutahi was actually officially launched on March 23rd this year, where we had a Maori TV station come to film it and blessings by Maori ministers and everything – but then on March 25th, New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown kicked in and we had to slow down a bit,” she told us.
“Right now, apart from selling online, we are trialling in 12 smaller retail shops across the country and we’ve seen some wineries and cafes express interest too.
“Mainstream retailers are on our list, of course and we’re talking to the likes of Foodstuffs and Raeward Fresh. Retailers are understandably a bit nervous about such a whole new type of drink, so we’re happy to accommodate by selling perhaps eight-packs of the three flavours, instead of huge 24-packs of just one flavour.”
Each 330ml can of Atutahi retails between NZ$4.00 and NZ$5.50 depending on retail location.
Upcoming new developments
In addition to expanding overseas, Gargiulo also has her eye on more new flavours for the range.
“I’d very much like to do a blueberry one, perhaps with kawakawa, because of the colour. We’ve got a red drink, so a blue would be nicely complementary,” she said.
“We’ve already taken steps to make our drinks as low-sugar as possible – the Kawakawa has 4.6g sugar per 100ml, Horopito has 4.4 to 4.6g, and Kumarahou has 5.6g, which had to be higher because the leaf has a super strong taste – but this is less sugar than in regular soft drinks.
“But I know other natural sweetener options exist out there, so it’s definitely something in the pipeline.”