Manu Caddie (Photo supplied)

Manu Caddie, now in his late 40s and settled in Ruatorea on the East Coast, tends not to back away from challenges. And he’s had a few of those, especially in the course of youth work — and then coping with the entrenched, white conservatism of the Gisborne District Council when he had a spell there 10 years ago.

But he and his family have moved up the Coast since then and he’s now a central part of a project establishing a medicinal cannabis industry. It’s well on its way, as he explains in the course of this chat with Dale.


Kia ora, Manu. I understand that, like a good many of us, you have various threads in your whakapapa. But let’s start with your mum.

Okay. That’s the uncomplicated bit. My birth mother, Raewyn, is a Pākehā from an Irish, Scottish and Spanish whānau — and she was a single young woman when I was born in 1972. She was from a staunch Anglican family and thought it’d be better if I had two parents to raise me via adoption. 

And those parents turned out to be Graham and Olive Caddie, a Pākehā couple who took me home when I was 12 days old. They’d checked out a couple of other babies before me but, apparently, I took the prize. 

I didn’t meet my birth mum again until I was 21, but we’d corresponded since I was 13 and we developed a good relationship. And she and my adoptive parents got on well and became close friends.

And what about your birth dad?

Well, that was a little embarrassing for my mother because she wasn’t sure whether it was the Ngāpuhi or the Tongan. I had this idea that he was Tongan. But then, nearly 20 years ago, she told me this other guy, from Ngāpuhi, could be my father. She didn’t know.

He’d known about me. In fact, he’d been on his way to Tauranga for my birth but stopped at a pub with some mates in Hamilton and didn’t make it to see me arrive. And when we caught up with each other many years later, we hung out a bit together. He was convinced I was his son, although he knew there was some ambiguity over my paternity.

However, that got sorted out because my adoptive mother, Olive, is into genealogy, and she arranged a DNA test for me and the Ngāpuhi guy. And that test ruled him out as my birth dad. He was quite sad about that.

Then, a couple of years ago, my DNA pointed to the Tongan link. Not just Tongan, though. There was Tainui whakapapa as well — Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Hauā and Ngāti Whare. And there was even some American German Jewish whakapapa through a guy who’d come to Tonga in the 1870s. 

Manu’s parents Graham and Olive on their wedding day in 1962. (Photo supplied)

What an interesting whakapapa. That’ll take some beating. 

Yeah. I guess I’ve had a fluid identity when I was growing up. But that’s no problem. I’ve always felt okay about it, even the ambiguity from time to time.

Dad (Graham) became a social worker, but he’d grown up around the country as the son of a railway worker and spent most of his childhood in communities on the side of railway lines with a lot of Māori whānau. He had an interest in Māori things and he gave Māori names to me and my younger sister, Naera. 

Were you raised on a farm? I’ve read that you’ve had a strong environmental interest over the years.

Yeah. Dad has grown a home garden since he was 14 and became a market gardener when he and Mum bought 20 acres on the edge of Tauranga in the early ‘80s. But I’m not sure that’s where my environmental bent came from.

And design has been another big interest of yours, hasn’t it?

I was quite good at art when I was growing up and decided that perhaps I could make a living from commercial design. Turns out that hasn’t been the case, but it’s nice to have a degree in something. 

Then there was youth work as well.

That’s how I met my wife, Tarsh Koia. We were both doing youth work in Wellington. Running homes for young people who couldn’t live at home, teenagers referred by CYFS and the police. Tarsh was in a girls’ home and I was in a boys’ home. It was a voluntary role as part of a wider, faith-based community called Urban Vision.

Then, when we got married, we headed for Gisborne to look after Tarsh’s elderly grandparents who’d raised her. That was in 1998. We lived with them in Kaiti, a suburb of Gisborne. Initially, I felt like an outsider, but it was a small, close-knit community and you could do stuff and make a difference.

We started a school for teen mums and a couple of early childhood education centres including Te Puna Reo o Puhi Kaiti, a couple of residents’ associations, and some youth programmes under Te Ora Hou. It was good. People rallied around. And most of that is still happening, which is awesome.

Manu and wife Natasha (Tarsh) Koia on their wedding day in 1998. (Photo supplied)

What is it about youth work that appeals to you?

I suppose it was when I was a kid around 15 or 16 and I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in life, and some volunteer youth workers took the time and effort to hang out with me. I appreciated that. I looked up to them and they guided me. So the opportunity to do that for others appealed to me, although I haven’t done so much of it in the last few years since having teenagers of our own.

State houses, high Māori population, high unemployment. That’s the formula for suburbs like Kaiti getting a bad reputation. But I’m sure you would’ve found some magic there, too.

We did an oral history project in the community — collecting the stories and the memories of the people. They were recalling the 1960s and ‘70s and even into the ‘80s when the freezing works was pumping. Families would have mum working at Watties and dad at the freezing works. Everybody knew everybody and there was that strong tradition of sharing houses, fridges, kai.

Since then, some of that has broken down, but the values of people who grew up in that time are still evident. There’s still the sharing and the manaaki. It’s a feature of Kaiti that I’ve always appreciated.

When we moved up from Wellington, real estate agents pointed us to Kaiti because we were brown. But others were told to avoid that area because it was a “dangerous, criminal neighbourhood”. So there’s been a fair bit of stigma and discrimination about the community. 

But we never felt unsafe there, even though we were burgled about 10 times. It was always just kids we knew who’d taken the stuff and, mostly, we were able to track them down and have a kōrero. Whenever something went missing, it was pretty easy to find out who was responsible and see that they made amends.

In 2009, Manu and Natasha remortgaged their home to fund the establishment of Te Puna Reo o Puhi Kaiti, an immersion reo Māori early childhood education centre run by Natasha. (Photo supplied)

Let’s talk now about your experience on the Gisborne District Council. Like other local governments throughout New Zealand, it hasn’t had a history of heartwarming concern about the welfare of Māori. What persuaded you to make that move?

That came through the community advocacy work I was doing — when I was often butting heads with the council and trying to get it to spend a little more on the Kaiti community. 

Just the other day, I was driving past the playground at Waikirikiri Reserve in Kaiti and looking at the beautiful equipment there now. And that set me thinking about how that would never have happened back when I got on the council in 2010. 

Kaiti always got the hand-me-downs. When a piece of equipment wore out at the adventure playground, which is the destination playground in Gisborne, they’d look around to see what neighbourhood it might be sent to. Kaiti never got new stuff. And that would really annoy me.

There were other issues, especially around housing, and that got me into thinking about the council as well. I felt that people from Kaiti should be the ones who stood. Eventually, some of my friends and supporters encouraged me to get on to the council, partly with a view to making it easier for others like me to do so. 

It had been a very Pākehā, very prejudiced and powerful institution in that region for more than 100 years. And, when I did some research on its history, I could see how it had planted itself over the top of existing hapū structures. It was the bastion of Pākehā control in the region even though there’d been Māori councillors, like Richard Brooking, who was on council in the late ‘80s, and Atareta Poananga, who was there from 1998 to 2010.

When I was elected, it wasn’t any great surprise that my environmental values clashed with the values of some of the councillors. A few years before I made it on to the council, there was the issue of the “poo pipe”, through which Gisborne’s sewage was being pumped into the bay.

We organised protests and other support for Tūranga iwi who’d been fighting to get the council to allocate funds to stop raw sewage going into the moana. And that was one of the issues which galvanised my resolve to make it on to the council and present some of our values at the decision-making table.

I remember my first day as a councillor in 2010, sitting in one of those big, old leather chairs — and I couldn’t stop smiling, knowing that I could now bring a voice and perspective that had been under-represented for such a long time.

And that Māori representation has grown since then?

Yes, at the next election, we got more organised, and I found some Māori friends to stand with and we got them all elected. They shared similar values to mine. Two of them were younger Māori women. So that felt as if the council door was now ajar. More than ajar. It was flung open and others have been able to come in since then. 

I was talking recently to the deputy mayor and he commented on how the values and priorities of the council have shifted dramatically over the last 10 years. I played only a little part in that change but it’s been encouraging to see new councillors coming in with their values and backing themselves.

That’s exciting for the region. It’s a much, much more diverse council now than it was when I got in there 10 years ago. The great news is the current council just voted for Single Transferrable Vote (STV) at the next election and for Māori wards — these are things Atareta started campaigning for more than 20 years ago, so it’s very exciting to see things finally changing at a structural level around our democratic institutions. 

Here we are now with Aotearoa on the verge of a cannabis referendum — and the prospect of marijuana and cannabis reforms. That’s been a special interest of yours. But what sparked that interest?

I never used it as a young fulla. I’ve tried it a couple of times as an adult. But it didn’t do anything super exciting for me — so I don’t use it myself.

My wife and I agreed that, when our eldest got to high school, we’d move up the Coast. We’re now living about 10 kilometres from Ruatorea. We moved here in 2015. That was about giving our kids an experience of life on the Coast, living at the pā, the whole cultural immersion life that they weren’t going to get in the city.

Manu and his wife Natasha (Tarsh) with their children, Maioha and Miria.

Manu and Natasha with their children Maioha (left) and Miria, in 2016. (Photo supplied)

I’d moved up here not quite knowing what I was going to do, but I connected with an acquaintance, Panapa Ehau, who’d brought his young whānau back a couple of years earlier. 

Ngāti Porou hapū had been through the Treaty settlement process in 2012. Leading up to that, our whānau had been involved in marae committees and the hapū entities getting established prior to settlement and thinking about the post-settlement governance arrangements. The hapū were focused on cultural revitalisation, education, and some conservation projects.

But the elephant in the room was economic opportunities and local jobs. And while the iwi had a couple of hundred million dollars from the settlement, they wisely weren’t rushing out to spend it. There were very few sustainable investment opportunities for them on the Coast.

So, with the hapū, we looked at an economic development plan for the community. And out of that came a focus on native organisms, indigenous plants and kai moana. 

We were looking for high value products that weren’t pine trees or sheep and beef farming, which have been the main industry on the Coast for 100 years. We were looking at environmental impacts and options that were more sustainable. We wanted high value and low impact. 

We started with kānuka, taking oil from the leaf. We worked with some scientists on kānuka and kina. Then someone said: “Have you thought of growing hemp?” We hadn’t, even though, as everyone knows, there’s a lot of expertise in growing cannabis on the Coast. 

We quickly saw legal medical cannabis as a local option for a high-value industry. And, since then, we’ve focused on the medicinal properties of cannabis and on entering into that new industry. We could see the possibilities from proposed regulatory changes that have come to pass since — and we’ve been lucky to be part of helping to shape those regulations.

I’ve been impressed with the amount of support you were able to garner so quickly. Obviously, there’s a lot of New Zealanders who see a need for change to do with medicinal and also recreational cannabis. How have you gone about building the business?

Through the Hikurangi Enterprises and the Hikurangi Bioactive work, we created a model of community ownership. There’s also private ownership in there. It’s been a bit of a hybrid, but we’ve needed that kind of ownership to bring in the capital investment. 

We haven’t relied on government support in the structures we’ve set up — and they’re purposefully separate from the tribal hapū and marae. But hopefully it is all complementary.

One of the most satisfying things was the crowdfunding and the amount we were able to raise from the community. Their support for what we were trying to do was humbling and overwhelming, particularly the support from our older pakeke who could see what we were trying to do. 

There hasn’t been a manufacturing facility built on the Coast since 1925 when the butter factory in Ruatorea was built. So it’s been satisfying to see another manufacturing facility being built, this time for medicinal cannabis — and to know that it’s based on the investment from our community.

Another element in our story is our business strategy, because our business case has been robust enough to attract another $14 million from sophisticated private investors around the country. They understand that it’s still a risky proposition, but they like what we’ve done to date. They could see a path to revenue and profit and they’ve been willing to put their money in. 

These are not naive people just doing it for the warm fuzzies. And it’s not the government throwing money at something that may or may not succeed. These are shrewd business people who’ve studied our finances and business plans and can see an opportunity. 

Having their endorsement and backing feels pretty good. Things are progressing and we’re hitting our milestones — we’re moving in the right direction and, so far, everything has fallen into place. In many ways, we’ve already succeeded in terms of what we and the Coast community have learned.

Panapa (my co-founder) and I had never set up a proper business before, so we didn’t really know what we were doing. But we’ve always tried to get the best advice possible and we’ve been lucky to attract some smart investors who’ve been really helpful in ensuring that the business has the best chance of success. 

We’re not going to meet all the expectations of our community, and some people will be disappointed it’s not moving fast enough for them. But the regulations have only just allowed medicinal cannabis to be produced for commercial purposes. 

We’ve also had questions about why we’re no longer majority locally owned. But the reality is we’ve provided opportunities, a number of times, for local institutional investors to come in — and, to date, they haven’t been interested. 

Everyone is now waiting for the jobs to flow, and we’re hoping that’ll happen in due course. I feel like the foundation we’ve built is as solid as it can be. 

Covid has thrown another curve ball, but, fortunately, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, which is where we’re focused, are better off than some other sectors.

Inside Rua Bioscience, in Ruatorea, co founded by Manu. (Photo supplied)

Manu, we can’t predict the outcome of the referendum. But I’ve spoken with people who’ve found real relief from medicinal cannabis. Have you also been exposed to some genuine stories of success? Ultimately, the work you’re doing is to help people get relief from pain and other ailments. While the business model is important, I imagine it’s important to you to see people benefiting from what you’re doing?

It’s been humbling to receive so many requests from very sick people, or from the parents of sick children, desperate to get high-quality, consistent products that will help relieve the pain or epilepsy or MS.

But one of the hard things about the situation in New Zealand is that the regulations haven’t dealt with the issue of affordability. 

That’s really challenging for us as a producer. Because ours is a pharmaceutical product, we have to produce it under certain systems that require a lot of expertise and technology. That makes it expensive. It’s really hard to tell people that we don’t think it’s going to be affordable for many of those who are suffering. 

And it’s taking time to develop. I’d love to be providing product for people in my whānau right now. But we’re just having to wait until we’ve been through all the proper processes. Hopefully, in time, we’ll complete all the necessary clinical steps and prove to the regulators that our products are safe and effective. 

Then organisations like Pharmac can look at subsidising them. But where they’ll sit in the priority list for Pharmac funding no one really knows. Synthetics and opioids tend to be much cheaper than cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals.  

Our products will initially go to Germany where two-thirds of prescriptions are fully funded by health insurance — so most German patients don’t pay anything for their medicinal cannabis. It’s good that we can provide them with our product but I’d love to have a similar system back here for our patients where we’re actually making the stuff.

We have the referendum lined up now for September 19. What’s your understanding of the Māori attitudes towards the vote?

There’s certainly a range of views. A few Māori are saying they’ll support a NO vote for various reasons that I don’t agree with. But my experience is that most Māori seem to be supporting the YES vote, and that’s partly because of the damage that prohibition has done to whānau Māori, and partly because of the opportunities they’re counting on in a legalised environment.

It was really encouraging seeing the draft legislation that puts the focus on Māori participation in the industry. It was great to see the government acknowledge that Māori have been disproportionately affected and deserve to have a core role — and that Māori should be at the centre of the new industry.

All the whānau I’ve talked to on the Coast are very supportive of legislation. They’re tired of the wasted police resources that go into chasing cannabis cultivation in our community. They’re tired of looking over their shoulder and wondering if they’re going to be taken away for earning an income from something that actually helps people in many cases and has no record of killing anyone. 

It’s a legitimate source of supplementary income for many families. Some don’t rely on a benefit because they have cannabis to sell. Some may not be able to participate in the pharmaceutical industry because it requires huge capital, but we’ve been able to help some whānau get licensed so they’re ready if legalisation proceeds. 

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, successive governments are going to have to do something. It’s going to be close but, out of all of this, there’s strong evidence to support the legalisation of cannabis if we want to improve community wellbeing.

I hope that most Māori will support the legislation and that other voters will have had access to the evidence to support the legislation, because I believe it’ll avoid the harm that comes from prohibition. 

For me, and for the MPs who are supporting the legislation, it’s quite clear that, if people want to reduce harm, they should vote YES in the referendum.

Our company has its position. We will support a YES vote, but we have no plans to enter the recreational cannabis market. From an ethical perspective, we see the importance of the legalisation.

We don’t believe it’ll have a negative or positive impact on our business. The markets are different. New Zealand hasn’t been a key driver for our business plan. We want to supply New Zealand, but it’s a very small market among the global pharmaceutical opportunities, so legislation in Aotearoa is neither here nor there in terms of our business strategy.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


© E-Tangata, 2020

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