Dr Jonni Koia (Waikato-Tainui) has been awarded a Health Research Council grant of more than $420,000 over four years to conduct biomedical research on rongoā rākau (Māori medicinal plants) with anti-diabetic potential.
“The name of my project is Te Reo Tipu, which recognises that the rongoā plants are living entities and have a distinct, unique ‘voice’,” Dr Koia says. “The name was given by a trustee member of Te Kāhui Rongoā Trust and it’s important to me that our kaumātua are given the opportunity to fulfil their role as kaitiaki, keepers of the knowledge and the physical ‘voice’ for rongoā.”
Dr Koia says this way the research is not just about the science, but has a strong engagement within the Māori community in terms of safeguarding mātauranga Māori of taonga rongoā rākau.
“It means the research has balance and I believe this will protect rongoā rākau throughout the research period. It is important to me that our kaumātua and other Māori communities are actively engaged and involved in any aspect of research involving our taonga species.”
Her project works alongside Te Kāhui Rongoā Trust and well known rongoā Māori practitioners, who she involved from the very beginning and at the conceptual phase of the research proposal. “As my rongoā Māori advisors and mentors, they are guiding and supporting me throughout the whole duration of the project. My work will also engage with local kaumātua Māori elders, who will play an active role as research participants throughout the duration of my work. So the whakapapa or history of my research is quite well established with those actively involved and engaged in rongoā Māori.
“I am all about advancing Māori, because at the end of the day it is about people. He aha te mea nui o te Āo. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”
Māori practitioners are already using rongoā rākau to help treat diabetes and stabilise blood sugar levels. Dr Koia says the work conducted by rongoā Māori practitioners in providing traditional health therapies, has too often been ignored due to the lack of scientific and clinical research to verify their practice. She says, as such, their work is thought to have no value in terms of meeting present day health needs, and therefore warrants no support to enable healers to bring rongoā rākau to those they are able to help. This in turn contributes to loss of mātauranga Māori, which is the basis of rongoā Māori, she says.
“The major objection raised by mainstream health providers is the lack of scientific and clinical research to support the use of rongoā rākau which therefore creates resistance towards the acceptance of rongoā rākau in the community. But I hope my research will to help support our Māori practitioners and lessen the many objections raised by mainstream health providers, in an effort to advance the work of our Māori practitioners in terms of meeting present day health needs.”
Dr Koia is a Waikato University alumna. She grew up in Huntly and was the first in her family to finish high school and go to university. After completing a Bachelor of Science (Technology) and a Master of Science at Waikato she went to the University of Queensland to do her PhD in plant molecular biology.
Now, with three young children, Dr Koia is glad to be home in the Waikato, surrounded by the support and awhi of her whānau and friends. She recently joined the University as a Research Fellow based in the School of Science.