13 November 2016, Justine Tyerman, The Gisborne Herald
Esther Woon talks to Justine Tyerman about the phenomenal success of the products she makes at home from kawakawa leaves.
Esther Woon is having trouble sleeping at night — not because her eight-week-old baby wakes her up but because her head is spinning with visions of kawakawa leaves.
Wanted a natural approach to health
It all began about a year ago when she was at the end of her tether. Her five-year-old son Riley was in constant pain from an abscess on his ear that was not responding to repeated courses of antibiotics.
“My fiancé Hori Katipa and I wanted to find a more natural approach to help Riley’s immune system fight the abscess, which would regularly become inflamed and grow to the size of a marble,” says Esther.
Hori, drawing on his extensive knowledge of the bush and plants as a biodiversity ranger with Nga Whenua Rahui, suggested they try kawakawa leaves as a way to fight the infection.
“I was fed-up with antibiotics and their side-effects on Riley so was ready to try anything,” she says. “We warmed up a kawakawa leaf and applied it to the abscess with a bandage to keep it in place. We also put kawakawa leaves in the bath with him. We were amazed at the results. Within a week, we noticed the inflammation and swelling had subsided,” says Esther.
Whanau claim miracle cure for all sorts
Rather than sending Riley to school with a leaf bandaged to his ear, Esther began exploring ways to process the kawakawa leaves into a form that could be rubbed on to the skin.
“I’ve always loved making things, so I came up with a kawakawa balm in an olive oil and beeswax base. We used the balm on Riley and also gave it to family members to try, and we were amazed at the results. The whanau were claiming it as a miracle cure for eczema, nappy rash, dribble rash, skin infections, dermatitis, boils, bruises and even chicken pox.
“Hori’s family were keen for me to develop the product further but I sat on the idea for a while. I was pregnant with Peneti by that stage and wanted something to do. My father-in-law, who has a good business eye, suggested I make and package a few kawakawa balms to test the market.
“So I made three types of balm and put them on Facebook thinking that no one would want to buy them. When I checked the next morning, I had 80 replies.”
That was back in June. Esther has since diversified into 10 or so different products and is now experimenting with sunscreens and insect repellents.
Trial and error involved in family affair
There’s lots of trial and error involved.
“The lip balm is very difficult to make and package into tubes. I use kawakawa-infused olive oil with beeswax to make it set. Too much beeswax and it’s too hard, not enough and it’s too runny.”
Esther and family pick the kawakawa leaves from Hori’s whanau land at Te Araroa but she is also looking for a supply closer to Gisborne.
“It’s very much a family affair — even Riley has a job. He’s in charge of labelling.”
The demand has gone through the roof, with products now being sent to Australia and even Bali. The phenomenal pace of success over the past year has been a bit scary, and with Christmas coming up it’s only going to get busier, she says.
With a baby and a six-year-old to care for, Esther does not have much time to devote to her burgeoning enterprise — but she has a strong entrepreneurial streak and is full of ideas.
"I'm often up late at night making mixtures in the kitchen and marketing my products. Then I can't sleep because my head is spinning with all the things I could be doing if I had the time, space, funding and a good business mentor."
Originally from Auckland, Esther studied business at EIT and then worked at EIT in marketing, adult community education and secondary territory alignment resources before becoming pregnant with Peneti.
She applied for an AMP scholarship and, while unsuccessful, she was placed in the top five for Gisborne. Esther is receiving support from Activate Tairawhiti and is looking for a business mentor and bigger premises to make her products.