Dr Jonni Koia is a molecular biologist based at Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research AUT. She’s researching the anti-diabetic properties of rākau rongoā (Māori medicinal plants). (Photo: Screenshot of Kudos Science video)

Mātauranga Māori and science aren’t in conflict, believes Waikato molecular biologist Dr Jonni Koia, who is currently working on the potential of rongoā plant extracts for the treatment of diabetes. In terms of health, each knowledge system has something to offer that could improve health outcomes for everyone.


At this time of year, a native shrub common in the North Island bursts into bloom, producing large clusters of pale yellow flowers that have the curious effect of creating a soapy lather when crushed and mixed with water — a phenomenon which gave rise to the plant’s colonial name: “gumdigger’s soap”.

Māori know the plant as kūmarahou, and practitioners of rongoā have long used it to heal sores, wounds, rashes and skin irritations, as well as in the treatment of colds, bronchitis and asthma. But recent work by molecular biologist Dr Jonni Koia and others points to a potentially more significant role for the plant: preventing and treating Type 2 diabetes.

At least four bioactive compounds that have anti-diabetic properties have been identified in kūmarahou, and similar compounds have been found in two other native plants: the ubiquitous kawakawa and karamu, a type of coprosma.

Jonni, a senior lecturer and researcher based at Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research AUT, is working to understand how these anti-diabetic compounds operate at the molecular level. But she is not taking a narrow western scientific approach. 

Rather, she deploys her analytical molecular skills within a kaupapa Māori framework that aims to protect and preserve Indigenous mātauranga.

That framework, Te Reo Tipu, has been developed specifically for research on taonga species such as kūmarahou and other rākau rongoā (Māori medicinal plants). Her work seeks to deliberately exploit western science practice for the benefit of te ao Māori, in an attempt to reverse centuries of exploitation of mātauranga Māori for colonial gain.

“As a Māori researcher,” Jonni wrote in a recent opinion piece, “I am not only interested in understanding the potential of rākau rongoā used for diabetes at the molecular cell level, but also in safeguarding the mātauranga of our rongoā through kaitiakitanga (guardianship), mana motuhake (self-determination), and rangatiratanga (governance) protocols.”

Kūmarahou (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

Jonni, who is Waikato Tainui, Ngāti Whawhākia, on her mother’s side, and Ngāti Hine and Te Uri-o-Hau on her father’s, was born and raised in Rāhui Pōkeka Huntly. As a child, she saw rongoā being practised by her aunties, nannies and koroua. 

“This is Kīngitanga country,” she told me. “It’s strong in te ao Māori. Using rongoā was a natural part of life for whānau in my community when I was growing up, and still is, especially among our old people.”

She traces her interest in molecular biology and plant research to an internship at the former Forest Research Institute in Rotorua while she was completing her Bachelor of Science (Tech) at the University of Waikato in the mid-1990s. It was there that she learned many of the techniques of plant molecular biology that she uses today.

One of her supervisors at FRI later transferred to the University of Queensland, and Jonni found she was able to do molecular lab research for her Master of Science in the sunshine state, on a plant synonymous with Queensland — the pineapple.

After completing her master’s degree, she stayed on at the University of Queensland to study for a PhD in plant molecular biology. She graduated in 2012 — one of the first Māori women to gain a doctorate in that field at University of Queensland. 

Her research focus was understanding pineapple fruit development at the molecular level. She quantified how genes for fruit ripening and other processes, such as antioxidant and vitamin C production, expressed themselves within plant cells.

Since returning to Aotearoa, her focus has shifted to Māori medicinal plants, rākau rongoā, specifically exploring the molecular modes of action of rākau rongoā used for Type 2 diabetes and cancer.

The interest in rongoā research came during what she describes as a “hibernation phase” after completing her PhD. 

“I took time off to have a family, and during my maternity leave, I gave a lot of thought to who I am, as a wāhine Māori, as a plant researcher, as a molecular biologist. The seed was planted about doing research on rongoā, but it took three more years to develop my ideas and think specifically about diabetes research.”

Type 2 diabetes, or mate huka (literally “sugar disease”), is a major health issue in New Zealand. Diagnosis of diabetes has doubled over the past 10 years, from 125,000 to 250,000 cases. Ninety per cent of new cases are the Type 2 form of the disease, and the estimated direct cost of Type 2 diabetes is approaching $2 billion per year.

Māori are three times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than other New Zealanders, and the age of onset is significantly earlier. Prevalence of the disease — generally thought of as adult-onset diabetes — is increasing among Māori children under the age of 15.

Before European settlement, the prevalence of diabetes among Māori was low. It’s thought that adaptation to European foods and lifestyles contributed to the development of diabetes in Māori — and, to some extent, the disease can be managed by reverting to traditional foods and increasing physical activity.

However, many diabetics need drugs to keep their blood sugar levels down. Traditionally, diabetics take insulin, since the insulin their bodies produce is either insufficient or doesn’t function correctly to reduce glucose in the blood. Several anti-diabetic drugs also exist to assist diabetes patients, but most have unwanted side effects or induce obesity. 

Although her current work involves testing pure rongoā extracts on aspects of diabetes such as glucose uptake, Jonni is also interested in understanding the effects of single anti-diabetics found in rongoā used to treat the disease. She believes that these agents might be especially effective in treating diabetes within the Māori and Pasifika populations. 

In a recent review article on the potential of anti-diabetic rākau rongoā in the scientific journal Frontiers in Pharmacology — co-authored with Peter Shepherd, a cell biology professor at the University of Auckland — Jonni notes that there is growing evidence of genetic factors unique to Māori and Pasifika that could inform treatment strategies. 

One gene variant that is associated with increased body mass index (BMI), and is linked to Type 2 diabetes protection, is present in 25–30 percent of Māori and Pasifika in New Zealand, but absent in other populations in the world.

“Given that Māori have been using rongoā for hundreds of years with good effect, it is possible there are gene variants or clusters of gene families common among Māori and Pasifika to enable them to process natural rākau rongoā more effectively, as opposed to synthetic drugs,” Jonni writes.

She adds that because much of the New Zealand flora is found nowhere else on Earth, it’s highly likely that new anti-diabetic treatments will be discovered from these local sources. 

“The plant vegetation foods, seeds, roots, nuts, and fruits that formed the basis of traditional Māori diet and rongoā would seem worthwhile targets in a systematic search for anti-diabetic agents,” she writes. 

Jonni adds the important observation that, for Māori, the beneficial effects of rākau rongoā are not due to the plant alone, but to other influences such as faith in atua, connection with Papatūānuku, and a sense of whakapapa and purpose.

Jonni: “Mātauranga isn’t something that sits in a silo — or a test tube, for that matter. It’s a whole-of-life knowledge that belongs within te ao Māori.”

For this reason, Jonni’s work is not just molecular. The Te Reo Tipu kaupapa also includes research on how to restore and conserve taonga flora to benefit Māori communities, particularly tamariki and rangatahi Māori. 

She’s working with kura kaupapa and Te Wharekura, rongoā practitioners, landscape ecologists, and scientists in a project that aims to establish rongoā māra at kura and Te Wharekura around north Waikato. 

“But it’s not just a matter of restoring the plants. The mātauranga has to be restored as well,” Jonni says.

“Even though many of our rangatahi know who they are as Māori, are fluent speakers, have a strong understanding of their whakapapa, their waka, their maunga, their awa, and have strong whānau and community connections, when they walk through the bush, the plants all look the same. 

“Most of these rangatahi — and this goes for adults as well — will only be able to identify rongoā like kawakawa, because it’s common and universal. They need to be taught the names of plants and how to identify them, and then what their properties are and how they can be used. 

“But, most importantly, they need to be guided and reminded of their ability to connect with our rongoā and native rākau at the wairua level. To be able to put a face to the name of rongoā and native rākau that our rangatahi recite in whakataukī, in karakia, in waiata, I think is important — especially in restoring that mātauranga at a personal level, but also confirming their role as kaitiaki within te taiao. 

“It’s about renewing our mātauranga, renewing our confidence in that knowledge system.”

Mostly, she thinks, it’s about getting hands into the ground. That’s the beginning of restoring the connection with lost mātauranga. 

“Our hope is that these restoration projects will help support our tamariki and rangatahi Māori, and their mental health and hauora.

“I grew up picking riwai in the gardens, picking puha, fruit, vegetables, all on our whānau property. I absolutely loved it. I learned from my dad, who has green fingers and knows how to grow riwai and kumara.

“My research interests are based on the whakatauki: ‘Ka ora te whenua, ka ora te tangata.’ If the land is healthy, the people will be healthy. I view health and wellbeing as an intrinsic and intimate connection between the land and the people of the land.”

Practitioners of rākau rongoā have always known this, she says. Rākau rongoā is an integral part of te wao nui a Tāne. It’s not only about plant compounds having certain medicinal effects on the human physiology, but also about supporting and stimulating the body to heal itself — and for the individual to experience that healing at a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual level.

Beyond addressing biomedical applications of rākau rongoā and the conservation of taonga flora, Jonni is an advocate for rongoā mana motuhake — the self-determination of rongoā healing, and the protection and preservation of rongoā mātauranga Māori.

In her Frontiers in Pharmacology paper, she explains that mātauranga isn’t something that sits in a silo — or a test tube, for that matter. It’s a whole-of-life knowledge that belongs within te ao Māori. 

“Mātauranga Māori is much more than traditional information, knowledge, facts, figures, and data used in proposals and strategies, with little thought of what it means to Māori, the people who developed that knowledge in the first instance. It is the Māori way of knowing and keeping knowledge alive, which is passed on to the next generation. 

“Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge of the land from the people who belong to the land. It is the result of their interaction with the whenua over many generations. It is the knowledge they have accumulated by living on the land, working with the land, harvesting from the land, all the time listening, watching, and caring to ensure that they can continue to survive. 

“Mātauranga Māori is not an artefact, but is a living knowledge that is being constantly enriched and extended in people’s lives as the world continues to change. It is about survival and retaining those connections to the whenua by keeping alive the stories of the land.”

In regard to the mātauranga that lies within rākau rongoā, Jonni notes that the landmark Waitangi Tribunal Wai 262 report on Māori intellectual property found that this mātauranga was created by Māori and should not be exploited for commercial gain without proper acknowledgment of tikanga and the kaitiaki rights of the knowledge holders.

Any development of anti-diabetic drugs from rongoā for the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, Jonni believes, must occur under a kaupapa Māori framework, in the hands of kaupapa Māori researchers who recognise the importance of rongoā Māori mana motuhake.

As the Wai 262 report recommended, mātauranga Māori must emerge “from the domination of the Pākehā knowledge system, to flourish once again in Māori hands.”

For too long, she writes, colonial policies informed by the presumption of Pākehā superiority have enabled Pākehā to monopolise resources and maintain institutional control of the health system, to the exclusion of rākau rongoā. This domination likely constitutes a breach of Treaty of Waitangi obligations to provide equity of resource and opportunity between mainstream medicine and traditional rongoā Māori.

And the situation continues unabated. Jonni finds it disturbing that Pākehā researchers disparage the practices and practitioners of rongoā Māori while at the same time undertaking secretive molecular and biochemical studies on taonga rākau such as kawakawa, exploiting information from the public domain but with no Māori engagement. 

“This is wrong and needs to stop,” she says. “It should not hold any merit in the scientific community. Funding agencies, universities and scientific journals need to have policies in place that prevent researchers from exploiting our taiao and taonga species, especially when done secretively.

“If it’s good enough for me to ask my kaumātua about doing this sort of research, then it should be good enough for Pākehā to ask too. Pākehā researchers need to make the effort to find out who their local kaumātua are and approach them about their research to seek consent.”

Jonni: “This isn’t about fusing or blending the two systems together. Each knowledge system can stand on its own ground and merit.”

In relation to recent instances of Pākehā academics claiming that “mātauranga Māori isn’t science”, Jonni notes that there are an increasing number of Indigenous researchers who use the interface between science and Indigenous knowledge as a source of innovation. 

“Indigenous researchers have access to both knowledge systems, and use the insights and methods of one to enhance the other,” she says. “In this approach, the focus shifts from proving the superiority of one system over another, to identifying opportunities for combining both.”

Te Reo Tipu offers a framework that weaves mātauranga Māori with western science practice through the application of rākau rongoā with ethnopharmacology research. 

Jonni is also exploring the interface of mātauranga Māori and science through waiata Māori, a project she is currently developing. 

“Instead of Pākehā academics questioning the validity of mātauranga Māori, they ought to take note of how Indigenous researchers with a background in both science and mātauranga Māori conduct their research in a way that is innovative and entrepreneurial, not boring stone-age stuff.” 

“This isn’t about fusing or blending the two systems together,” she says. “Each knowledge system can stand on its own ground and merit. 

“In Aotearoa, we have the opportunity to weave mātauranga Māori with western science practice, where each knowledge system and worldview is considered equally valid, yet both can be woven together to create a unique and novel approach. 

“This approach is key in improving health outcomes for Māori, especially in current times.”

© E-Tangata, 2021

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