Māmaki Ola: Nature-Based Solutions in Education

This week we are sitting down with Dr. Koh Ming Wei, who was born in Malacca, Malaysia and is a longtime Hawaiʻi resident, residing in lower Puna in the Kehena Ahupuaʻa to learn more about STEM curriculum project, Māmaki Ola.

Launched in the summer of 2020 with teachers from Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Maui and Hawaiʻi Island, Shaka Tea is thrilled to be a partner, sponsor,  guest speaker and collaborator with Māmaki Ola.

In addition to founding Māmaki Ola, Dr. Koh Ming Wei is a leading sustainability educator in the Pacific and also serves as the Executive Director and Ecoliteracy Educator at the Center for Getting Things Started. She earned her PhD in Sustainability Education from Prescott College in 2012 and from 2014-2019 she served as the Ecoliteracy Senior Specialist for the Pacific Resources for Education and Learning, Honolulu.

Since 2014, she has worked with the Hawaiʻi Department of Education and created 13 approved and accredited continuing education courses for teacher development, serving over 300 teachers locally and has also developed and run similar programs for the Department of Education in Guam and the Marshall Islands.

She also is part of the small farmer hui (group) that Shaka Tea sources our māmaki  leaves from here on Hawaiʻi Island!


As one of our very first māmaki farmers, what is it that excites and interests you most about this plant?


Currently the ONLY endemic Hawaiian plant that is commercially viable. When Bella told me this when we first met in May 2018, I tried to dispute her, but she is right. The symbiotic relationships with other Hawaiian endemic creatures - pulelehua (Hawaiian butterfly) and native birds which thrive on the fruit. 

How did the idea to launch Māmaki Ola come to life?


A few weeks before the 6.9 earthquake rocked Lower Puna Hawaiʻi in 2018, opening up the Lower East Rift Zone to molten flowing lava, I cleared my lot in preparation to build a manini (tiny) house. 

Back then, there was only a lone, lovely, mama māmaki shrub on the lot. The lava eruptions throughout pyroclasts, which blew downwind to us, forcing us to move into Hilo as we could not breathe.

When in exile, I met Bella Hughes, the dynamic, tenacious co-founder of Shaka Beverages, which specializes in ready-to-drink māmaki. Māmaki (Pipturus albidus), is a member of the nettle family, endemic to and currently only growing in the Hawaiian islands. Māmaki has an established reputation throughout Hawaiian history. Traditionally used as a universal tonic, aspirin, and red clothing dye. Some of the primary uses of māmaki leaves for health are for cleansing, detox, and to combat symptoms of fatigue. 

My interest in māmaki when I met Bella then, was purely as a teaching and learning tool. I envisioned māmaki growing in school learning gardens all over the Hawaiian Islands, children raising the Kamehameha pulelehua on the plant, and learning about Hawaiian endemics and symbiotic relationships. I also intended that children would learn to make health- supporting māmaki tea mixes with the māmaki they grew in school, and happily drink those instead of sugar-laden, teeth-rotting sodas. Shaka Beverages operates with a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) model, and strives to create economic abundance for Hawaiian māmaki farmers. Bella, heartily supported my vision and offered help in any way she could including having school learning gardens as one of Shaka’s CSR projects.

When we came home, about 7 months later, there were three perfectly planted rows of māmaki. About 75 absolutely gorgeous plants, neatly spaced — a miracle! How? Who? What?

I called Bella, “Bella, Pele (Hawaiian Goddess of Fire and Lava) planted 75 māmaki plants in three straight rows on my land! What do I do next?” And so we began talking and collaborating, and now, here we are.

Can you share more about the Māmaki Ola project, what it is all about, the goals and outcomes from your first cohort?

Māmaki Ola curriculum development and implementation project, is a STEM educational project that uses māmaki as a nature-based solution to address two very important topics: 

  •     Hawaiian ecosystems as a model for sustainability and science; and 
  •     Healthy beverages - Rethink your Drink Hawaiʻi – a Healthy Hawaiʻi Initiative campaign, Hawaiʻi grown hydration.

The outcomes of the curriculum, Students will: 

  1. Practice deep observation – kilo of mamaki shrubs planted at school learning gardens; 
  2. Learn experientially how elements of the Hawaiian ecosystem are intertwined;
  3. Apply the learning from #2 to climate change solutions, specifically – caring for forests and planting more trees (like māmaki);
  4. Reach for drinks like water or māmaki tea instead of sugar based drinks; and 
  5. Be exposed to entrepreneurship models that elevate Hawaiʻi and have an abundance mind-set.   

I especially want to thank the Atherton Family Foundation, the Western SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), Kamehameha Schools, Shaka Tea, and CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources) for supporting the project financially, academically and culturally. 

As a completely new program that works with teachers across the islands, what has been some of the feedback from teachers who were part of your inaugural Māmaki Ola cohort?

These are a few of the highlights teachers have shared from the Māmaki Ola post survey:

“My main takeaway is the importance of creating socially aware entrepreneurs to change our world for the better and take care of/give back to the Earth.”

“I loved the guest speaker line up. It is important to hear from experts in the field and listening to passionate, invested people was moving. Utilizing mamaki as a vehicle for learning was excellent, engaging and elegant.”

“During the course, I absolutely enjoyed meeting with fellow educators here in Hawai'i who helped me gain knowledge and understanding of mamaki and other native plants. Through their excitement and narrated experience, I felt an authentic connection to learning about mamaki. My main take away from the course would have to be how valuable and nourishing mamaki is for a healthy diet.”

What are some of the student response highlights from Māmaki Ola?

“Pulelehua don’t start as a caterpillar? They start as eggs.” Jon, student on Kauaʻi

“There is a lot of juice in my refrigerator. I don’t drink a lot of water. I like mamaki tea.” Kalei, student on Maui

“The tea was good, I didn't have to add honey or anything." Kekauoha, student on Oʻahu

We are so proud to be a  partner with Māmaki Ola, where do you hope to see the program growing?

Māmaki Ola Curriculum Development and Implementation is an approved course by the Hawaiʻi Department of Education Professional Development office. 

I would like to put on this course a few more years, while building the capacity of several teachers who then can take over and become the lead instructors - teachers teaching teachers - no need Ming Wei anymore!

It costs to put courses on, so I’ll be grant writing again and appealing for funding for Summer 2021. 

Shaka Tea looks forward to being an ongoing partner and sponsor of Māmaki Ola in 2021

Written by Bella Hughes

Leave a comment