For some 6000 years, mankind has been at war with Mother Nature herself. Instead of being the caretaker of this planet, we manoeuvred ourselves into the role of carefree owner. In the 1800s, industrialisation conveniently deflected attention away from all the harm that fossil fuels were doing to our air and water. Over the next few centuries, this pollution problem became worse as manufacturers tried to keep up supply with the demands of a growing population.
The world’s first man-made plastic was patented in 1870 and was created by combining several different materials using a heated mould. It became the raw material for mouth dentures and piano keys and was marketed as a humane alternative to ivory tusks and tortoiseshells. It was unlikely that anyone could have imagined the detrimental impact plastic would have on the planet over the proceeding 150 years.
Today, over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, half of which is for single-use items such as shopping bags, cups, straws and food wraps. In July 2021, an EU directive finally banned the sale and use of many single-use plastic items that cause plastic pollution e.g., plastic cutlery, straws, cups and certain types of food and drink containers.
Recently, I met with entrepreneur and full-time mum of two, Jennifer Doyle of Millbee (www.millbee.com) who has been running her own eco-friendly food wrap business since 2019 from her Ballycommon home.
Born an Entrepreneur
Unsurprisingly, Jennifer Doyle enjoys the freedom that having her own business has brought her. As a qualified designer, she is part of an industry where talented people choose not to be in-house employees. Instead, they will set up their own brands/agencies to showcase their creative design skills and imprint their tastes and preferences.
“I love the creative freedom that self-employment gives you, and never got used to the comfort of a regular paycheque. My parents weren’t business owners, so I learned how to run a company from scratch by tapping into all the different courses and training that was available to me. In design, we are taught how to solve a problem, and I was able to apply those skills when I decided to build a viable business around an idea for making a reusable beeswax wrap to protect food.”
Growing up as a child in Gurteen, Killeigh, Jennifer adored living rurally and felt that she was always in tune with nature. It has become a lifelong mission for her to preserve and protect the planet so that future generations of children can continue to enjoy the lush, green Irish countryside in the same way she did.
Blogging to Beeswax
Jennifer honed her expertise on all things country life by setting up a blog called Rustic Notes in 2016. The blog was the precursor to Millbee. “Rustic Notes probably led to where I am today. It was on country living and crafts and my blog posts were always heavily influenced by my maternal grandmother who herself was a brilliant craftswoman. I vividly remember accompanying her as a child when she would go and sell her handmade crafts at markets. Blogging was never intended to be a business, but it did give me a way to learn crochet, write or share recipes and talk about living out in the country. Then I discovered bees and beeswax!” A neighbour of hers had a hive of bees, and Jennifer was intrigued by the environmental properties of beeswax. So, she did a beginners’ beekeeping course and made a batch of 100 per cent natural beeswax candles.
Wraps and Covid
To help reduce the amount of single-use plastic, Jennifer decided to make and sell her beeswax wraps. “Initially, it was a very manual process. I licensed a beautiful botanical print which ties in with nature and had it printed onto some organic cotton fabric. I then had to cut the fabric to size and applied a beeswax layer to give it the ability to remain fresh. She then set up a stall at a local farmers market and sold them. “The market was great because I didn’t know at that point whether the wrap idea was going to work, but I sold out! I then made different sized beeswax wraps. During Christmas 2019, everybody in my family was helping me in my kitchen to fulfil all the orders. My family were amazing! I had a really good year in 2019, and did loads of events across the country and was busy on the road.”
When Covid-19 hit, all the major markets remained closed due to restrictions. Jennifer used the time to perfect a multi-purpose hand balm using surplus ingredients and equipment that she had around the house. She knew that continuous use of hand sanitiser will dry out the moisture from the skin. Her beeswax balm would provide a natural treatment. “Since I couldn’t venture out, I decided to focus on developing the online business further. My Local Enterprise Office was great, and they helped me to get an online trading voucher which allowed me to further develop my website.”
The challenges facing Irish entrepreneurs since the UK leaving the EU cannot be underestimated: “Brexit affected my business, but I didn’t realise it until afterwards. I’d launched my Millbee branded products into the UK market, and they were selling well. Delivery to the UK was efficient, with a local courier company handling things well. But Brexit messed that all up, and it’s been awful. I had developed a customer base in the UK who ordered products that were delayed due to customs problems from Ireland to the UK. So, now I’ve had to find a company in Northern Ireland to process, prepare and deliver a customer’s order. The downside is that I will have to pay for the assistance, but I don’t see any other way around it.” The UK is a really big market, where we have the same language and there is a huge amount of people who appreciate handmade goods from Europe.”
In the future, Jennifer wants to run workshops on candle making and wellness. Mental wellness is something that Jennifer feels is important. “I don’t think that craft should just be for artsy-craftsy people. It should be available to everyone to enjoy. The idea behind making something crafty is a bit like mindfulness – you’re working with your hands, and It just gives your head a break. I’d love to create an environment for workshops that when people come out, we do tea and coffee and have a homemade scone. Maybe even take a walk in the garden. I would love to get involved in that.”
Jennifer would also like to sell into the US market but feels it’s a bit scary given its size, but it is a market she wants to explore further and is on her list for 2022. Across Ireland, Jennifer has about 60 stockists for her products. They are a combination of food stores, cafes, lifestyle stores and garden centres. “I just can’t see myself doing anything else except running Millbee. But, if the business didn’t work out, I wouldn’t dwell on it. I’d apply the skills that I’ve learned along the way towards another venture. My dream is to grow a community of people around wellness and sustainability. I’m always trying to develop my range of beeswax products, and that keeps me as busy as a bee!”
This article was published in the Offaly Independent 03/09/21.