Almost 50 years ago, 20-something hippie surfer Alan Bougen teamed up with 60-something beekeeper Claude Stratford to set up a health food company, based mostly around bee products. They called it Comvita. In the fourth in a series, Newsroom talks to Bougen about a small business which turned into our largest mānuka honey producer | Content Partnership
It all started with a mutual goal to improve people’s health, while leaving the environment better than they found it – and in that the Comvita founders were ahead of their time as sustainable thinkers. Stratford and Bougen were also leaders in the drive to validate mānuka honey’s unique health-giving properties and then share its magic with the world.
Claude Stratford died in 2013 at the age of 102; his longevity a testament to the founders’ shared Hippocratic belief that food is medicine and medicine is food. Now aged 71, and about to walk the Heaphy Track, Alan Bougen has new insights on old lessons learned over half a century in the business.
“The natural food and products industry in 1970-1971 was where I dropped into the lifestyle of health and wellness, the ‘health food revolution’ as it was known,” Bougen says. He’s at home in Mt Maunganui, reminiscing about his early days in San Diego in true bohemian style.
“The pioneers of this movement were people such as Dr Bernard Jensen and Paul Bragg with their approaches to longevity and health. Dr Jensen was a poster child for the movement around foods that heal. It was a developing revelation at the time.”
As the story goes, they made health products in the morning and went beekeeping together in the afternoon, hydrating on comfrey tea.
That revelation is what influenced Bougen to move home to New Zealand, at first living remotely on Great Barrier Island. That’s where he first took up beekeeping. After witnessing the successful treatment of a badly infected wound on a horse’s leg using raw mānuka honey, Bougen was fascinated and sought to find the source of the honey product.
He tracked down Claude Stratford and his wife in the small Bay of Plenty town of Paengaroa and there began their labour of love. As the story goes, they made health products in the morning and went beekeeping together in the afternoon, hydrating on comfrey tea.
From 1974 the business expanded, with New Zealand’s nuclear-free declaration and the Chernobyl disaster in the mid 1980s raising the country’s profile as a safe place to produce healthy food. But midway through that period, Bougen realised something was badly wrong in the burgeoning health food industry.
The Wild West
“I must have attended at least 20 international industry trade shows and I became increasingly uncomfortable with the messaging that was going on and the lack of evidence of efficacy. Wild claims were being made over supplements that seemed to have no scientific basis at all. Customers were constantly moving from one product to another as a result or stopping using these treatments altogether.
“We were trying to forge a different path for Comvita and scientific research needed to play a central role in our product future.
Alan Bougen, Comvita
“I became convinced that unless we could substantiate our claims through good science, our customers would move on and miss out on the benefits of our amazing products. We were trying to forge a different path for Comvita and scientific research needed to play a central role in our product future.”
Bougen remembers that the health food sector in New Zealand was in its fledgling state, with a handful of independent stores nationwide.
“Back then most of the honey being produced in New Zealand was pasture varieties such as clover. It commanded the highest price in the market. Native honey like mānuka was worth very little and there was limited technology to efficiently extract it from combs. New Zealand honey was being sent to Europe in bulk drums and blended, losing any reference to its source. At one point, it was being mixed with German product and called ‘Black Forest’ honey. The New Zealand origin story was lost, and likewise the opportunity.”
Bougen says everything changed with the discovery of mānuka’s unique antibacterial properties in the 1980s by Hamilton biochemist, the late Dr Peter Molan. His work shifted the paradigm, adding unique value to the New Zealand honey story and Comvita was at the forefront of this development.
Several other New Zealand companies joined Comvita to support Molan’s work and he went on to create the Unique Mānuka Factor (UMF) test method and rating which was trademarked in 1998.
The UMF value represents the unique signature compounds characteristic of mānuka honey which ensure purity and quality. These include the key markers of leptosperin, DHA and methylglyoxal.
Anti-establishment – really?
But the need for evidence-based criteria didn’t end there. Bougen talks about “disrupters” who entered the market in the 2000s with their own internally-created quality measures, which over time confused consumers worldwide.
“We were justifiably frustrated as our UK market had turned into a mess, with inferior product being sold. It was leaving consumers dissatisfied. Shoppers were unclear about what constituted genuine mono floral UMF mānuka honey, containing the unique antibacterial properties discovered by Dr Molan. The whole market was being jeopardised by fictitious standards.
“If we hadn’t engaged with the Government to stop the cheating, we may well have seen the mānuka opportunity lost to New Zealand forever.”
Eventually the Active Mānuka Honey Association asked the government to intervene, setting levels of quality required before claims could be made on active mānuka honey and the use of the UMF rating, Bougen says.
“If we hadn’t engaged with the government to stop the cheating, we may well have seen the mānuka opportunity lost to New Zealand forever.”
Looking from the outside in
There’s no doubt in Bougen’s mind that mānuka is a taonga and a plant with which Māori have a special affinity. But the company’s relationship with iwi hasn’t always been close, he says.
“I always felt a bit frustrated by our local story. I knew of the famous Te Arawa waka arriving in Maketū, but I didn’t have the whole picture of what life was like across Maketū, Rotorua, Tauranga and Te Puke. It’s been David Banfield, arriving as our new CEO from the UK, who’s helping us discover some of the deeper local relationships.”
Comvita received early investment by Te Arawa’s Māori Investments Limited. It had also formed a joint venture with Tuwharetoa to produce high quality UMF honey from the Ureweras a decade ago, but when Banfield joined the company in 2019, Bougen says he brought fresh impetus to Comvita’s partnership with Māori. It was time to understand more.
Comvita has since worked with Dr Alistair Reese, an adjunct fellow at Otago University with expertise in colonial history and reconciliation, to connect with its own whakapapa and confirm who the company should be talking to in te ao Māori.
“It’s a complex grouping of iwi and multiple hapu, but ultimately we have been welcomed by the Tapuika iwi of Te Puke and begun an amazing relationship,” Bougen says. “We’ve discovered that our Paengaroa campus is sited on an ancient kumara garden which once supplied Rotorua and the local region and was referred to as Paengaroa, ngā māra kumera o Marukukere. It has been the beginning of fresh understandings, knowledge of our place and where we stand.”
Working in harmony with the planet
The relationship with iwi is part of Comvita’s wider sustainability journey, captured in a strategy called the Harmony Plan. There are three principles to the plan: treading lightly, embracing the science of nature, and strengthening what Comvita calls our “global hive” by working as a team for a better world. It’s to that end the company is helping Māori and indigenous communities globally through beekeeping social enterprises.
Comvita aims to be registered carbon neutral in just three years and has already planted more than 10 million mānuka and other native plant species in a massive reforestation project, some completed under the Provincial Growth Fund.
“It’s ironic that back in the ‘60s Claude was ridiculed by industry groups for suggesting we approach the government to plant more trees for greater honey production,” Bougen says.
“If he was alive today, Claude would applaud how far Comvita has come towards reducing its overall carbon footprint and restoring the environment for future generations. The scope three emissions [indirect emissions in an organisation’s value chain] are always the biggest challenge.
“There’s no better time to be doing this. I don’t care what it takes, we will get there.”
Bougen says sustainability is no easy path in business and talking openly about it doesn’t always garner favour.
“It’s been a somewhat torturous journey at times and quite frustrating for me. However I believe the ship has adjusted course, and we’re becoming way more focused on our overall sustainability journey globally.”
A hive is not just for Christmas
Comvita’s co-founder is enthusiastic about the growing movement towards beekeeping in New Zealand, especially given the role honey bees play in pollinating food crops. He says the country now has close to a million managed hives, more than Canada.
“There’s big demand for bees to pollinate kiwifruit and apple orchards, and to supply the growing production of New Zealand UMF mānuka honey. But we have to ensure that bee welfare is of the highest calibre. I’m delighted that Comvita wants to see bees protected under the Animal Welfare Act.”
Still, Bougen is worried about the downsides to the surge in hobbyist beekeepers, saying they need to be better educated about disease prevention and management. He is proud of Comvita’s efforts to assist new beekeepers to improve their techniques.
“In my experience it takes at least 10 years to become a good beekeeper, especially understanding seasonal variability. We have some hugely capable beekeepers in the Comvita team and we want to use our knowledge to help newer beekeepers and hobbyists and their hives thrive.”
Overall, Alan is an optimist and an inherent believer in the ability of people, like bees, to do awesome things.
“I’m very grateful to the people who’ve worked with us at Comvita over the past 45 years. Each person has given their enthusiasm and commitment to the company, playing an important role in helping our hive succeed. I’m humbled by the parts of their lives they’ve given to the company, and I acknowledge their loyalty and the community they have helped build.”
With the company’s sights set firmly on taking the story of Comvita, New Zealand innovation, and mānuka honey to the world, it’s a community that’s only set to grow.
This is the fourth story in a content series with Comvita