Female-led Nelson business one of first in NZ to get boost from SheEO

by Fiona Terry / 06 April, 2018

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Georgia Richards (left) and Dot Kettle in their peony fields at harvest time. Photo/Tim Cuff.

Nelson skincare company Dove River Peonies is one of the first five New Zealand businesses to receive a venture capital boost from SheEO, a global venture supporting female entrepreneurs.

SheEO was started by Canadian Vicki Saunders in 2015 and provides interest-free loans to women-led business ventures that are revenue generating, have export potential, and create a better world through their business model, product or service. This year is the first time that the process has been undertaken in New Zealand.

Dove River Peonies' owners Dot Kettle and Georgia Richards will receive a share of $500,000 interest-free loan.

Back in 2016, North & South spoke to the couple.

Coming up roses

Nelson peony growers Dot Kettle and Georgia Richards have found a novel way to get to the root of the problem.

The lush paddock alongside Dot Kettle and Georgia Richards’ home was, until a few years ago, a barren dust bowl. Now it’s dense with foliage, humming with bees and vibrant with splashes of corals and crimsons – a nurtured space that has proved perfect for propagating peonies.

With more than 18,000 of the prized plants now covering three hectares of their land, and a keen demand for the organically grown buds they produce, the former city slickers have had to dig deep to hone their horticultural skills. What’s more, they’ve discovered that beneath the ground is something of potentially greater value than the flowers.

The couple relocated to Nelson after Kettle was offered a job as chief executive of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. They bought a 40ha block in the Dovedale Valley, near Motueka, complete with its giant oak trees, rustic villa, bush-clad hill and flat paddocks, which were previously used to house pigs. Having traded in their soft-top Saab for a Land Rover Discovery, they hatched a plan to establish an income-generating crop to enable Richards to step back from her government-based IT analyst career.

After investigating potential options, they decided to grow peonies. “Apparently our land in the valley is perfect for them, getting extremely hot in summer and very cold in winter,” says Kettle, who previously worked as a speechwriter and adviser to Helen Clark when she was prime minister.

It was a steep learning curve, but the more they researched the plant, the more their attention was drawn to its unexpected healing properties. “In Chinese and European herbal medicine, peony root has been used for centuries because its active ingredient, paeoniflorin, is anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and is used to treat hormonal imbalances,” says Richards. “We realised there could be a huge opportunity here to make a difference.”

Kettle and Richards’ three sons (Baxter, 11, Otto, nine, and Bruno, seven) suffer from eczema and the pair had spent thousands of dollars trying to find ways of managing it. Looking for an alternative to steroids, they decided to give peony root a go, using excess pieces from the autumnal practice of dividing tubers to generate more plants. With a number duly hand-scrubbed (a laborious process for which Richards has subsequently helped to design a machine), they worked with a local business to develop soap incorporating the nutty-smelling root.

The end result was tested successfully on their sons; then family and friends suffering from eczema were given samples, and also reported improvements. In 2013, the couple started selling the soaps at Nelson’s Saturday market, alongside their fresh flowers.

The response was so positive that in 2014, they launched a range of skin creams. “They’re fantastic for people with sensitive skin and psoriasis,” says Richards. Peony-based teas have since been added to the Dove River Peonies collection – dubbed “PM Tea” due to their hormonal balancing properties – and a selection of shampoos will soon follow.

“When I look at this paddock, it’s not just the beauty and overwhelming sense of abundance I see but the healing powers it possesses,” says Kettle. “It’s quite extraordinary. We still export flowers and also dry petals for weddings, but it’s the root that’s now the gold for us.” 

This was published in the January 2016 issue of North & South.

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