A passing comment from her father resulted in Auckland mother Michele Wilson’s life taking a dramatic turn. It enabled her to reconnect with her Maori roots and shun a high-flying career as a lawyer, as well as help her eldest daughter manage a debilitating skin condition.
Little Eva, now five, suffered from chronic eczema and no matter what Michele tried, her daughter’s condition would not improve. Her condition was so severe, Michele (33) would find blood on her little girl’s sheets each morning from the toddler scratching her skin.
With no food allergies and after countless appointments and tests with doctors, naturopaths and herbalists, the family were at their wits’ end. While Michele researched the problem, a hint from her father, who has knowledge of Maori herbal medicine, became a lightbulb moment.
“My dad told me that kawakawa had been used by Maori to help heal skin conditions. My parents have bushland in Mangawhai, north of Auckland, so we foraged for it, infused that into a balm and applied it. Within a week, all of the eczema patches had been healed,” she tells, still amazed.
Michele, who is also a mum to two-year-old Frankie, says she is proud of her Maori heritage and taught herself to embrace rongoa, the practice of Maori medicine.
“My nana, who has passed away, was full Maori. She was the one with the knowledge, but I really wanted to explore it.”
Michele says she takes the practice of rongoa seriously and learnt the respectful way to collect kawakawa.
“You ask permission from the bush to take the leaves and you must know what you’re taking the leaves for. You only take as much as needed from each plant,” she explains.
Throughout this discovery, Michele would think nothing of making her kawakawa balm at night while also stressing about how she was going to be a hands-on mother to her two daughters and have a career.
“I was on track to potentially make partner and was quite senior,” she remembers. “But I went back to work full-time with Eva and found that difficult.”
Ideas buzzed around her head as she tried to think of products she could import as a business while staying home with her girls, especially when Frankie was born.
“I was probably thinking about what I could import while making the balm, not realising what I was making could be my business!” Michele laughs.
It wasn’t until fellow kindy mums learned about her creation that she had her brainwave.
“I was putting sunscreen on Eva at kindy and another mum asked what it was. I explained that it was homemade sunscreen since she couldn’t use the normal stuff, then another mum asked me to make some for her son who also suffered eczema.
“Then their neighbours asked for it!” she tells.
As word got around, Michele realised she might have found the idea she had been searching for.
“I was asking for a donation at the time,” she laughs.
“I still thought I would probably have to go back to my job as a lawyer because that would provide a lot more money. But I said to my husband John, ‘I feel as though I need to take it somewhere, even put a little bit of money into branding.’”
Now, after making her first sale in January 2016, her “third baby”, Frankie Apothecary, is on its way to becoming everything Michele dreamed of, with orders for her skin balms coming from all over the world. There is even talk about exporting to China.
“The products I sell are what I’d been making for my children and family, but I never thought it would be a business,” she says.
“Starting this venture, and learning about rongoa, has made me feel closer to my nana and my heritage. I guess it’s the things you’re really passionate about that work. It feels special to me that it was something so close to my heart already.”
Michele smiles as she lifts up Frankie for a cuddle.
“It really is amazing what you can come up with when you have a child you don’t want to leave.”
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