How entrepreneurs in rural Ireland from little acorns grow

Development initiative centred on round-table sessions supports early-stage businesses

When Gráinne Mullins won The Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year in 2019, the world was her oyster. Winning the prestigious award opened up opportunities for Mullins which included a job in a high-end restaurant in Indonesia. Along with plans to travel the world, she was firmly planting her feet in the culinary industry.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, like many others, Gráinne's plans were stopped, and she found herself back in rural Ireland.

Kilchreest, Co Galway, was once again home to the pastry chef who embraced the turn of events and seized the opportunity to create a new business venture.

“As a pastry chef,” she says, “the pandemic changed my entire outlook on my career. As the very first lockdown began I quickly discovered that I needed to stay busy. I spent every day baking for my family and neighbours just to give me some purpose and structure to my day.”


Mullins designed and created individual Easter eggs for family and friends, hand-painting abstract designs which turned out to be a hit on Instagram. It wasn't long before people started asking where they could buy them. "I spent the following three months researching and creating a business plan, finally launching Grá Chocolates with an amazing response," she says.

While working on creating and designing quality chocolates, Mullins enrolled in online business courses and later became a participant of the Acorns programme, a development initiative to support early-stage female entrepreneurs in rural Ireland supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Based on a belief that entrepreneurs learn best from each other, Acorns is centred on interactive round-table sessions facilitated by successful female entrepreneurs who have started and grown businesses in rural Ireland.

Operating from her certified kitchen in the family home, Mullins, who now has five employees and has plans to move her chocolate factory into a larger production unit, credits Acorns with helping her define her business plans. The programme runs over six months with 50 participants selected as lead entrepreneurs give their time free of charge to encourage and support these new business owners.

The risk involved in substantially pivoting a business has never seemed more necessary than in the last year as businesses struggle to continue and are compelled to diversify.

Online cookery school

Caitríona Callaghan is another entrepreneur who took the opportunity to spin her business. For 10 years, Callaghan had been baking and decorating occasion cakes for parties, birthdays, and weddings. While home-schooling her three boys on the family farm in Kells, Co Meath, Callaghan encouraged her kids to bake with her and shared these experiences on social media. Even though events were cancelled, appetites for cake were evidently still alive and soon people were contacting Callaghan requesting demos for the recipes she shared.

Having always wanted to share her knowledge and skills in baking and cooking she was perfectly placed to set up her own online cookery school. She had, however, always worked alone, so joining Acorns was an invaluable experience as it gave her a team she could bounce ideas off and get constructive criticism from.

"Bringing my business online," says Callaghan, "has meant my target market has changed from people in my locality to customers from all over the world which has led to so many opportunities and massive growth of my business." Callaghan launched The Bunnery, an online cooking school, delivering baking and cooking demos from her kitchen and offering a variety of classes including summer camps for kids and weekly cook-alongs. "I am launching my first ebook in September," says Callaghan, "and hope that it will be the first of many. I am confident that by continuing to work hard and grow my business that the Bunnery Online has a very bright future."

Hand sanitisers

Entrepreneurs are asked to be creative and daring when forced to pivot their business. The current climate can take precedence over our own dreams and desires for our business. Niamh O'Connell embraced the change by tackling the necessary twist head on using her natural skills and expertise and stepping in line with the crisis of the pandemic. Having worked in the pharma industry for a number of years in sales, she took a career break in 2015 to retrain as a natural perfumer. This led to a further period of learning, trialling, and developing products ahead of starting to trade with Esmerelda Botanicals, her new business, in October 2020.

The business is based at O'Connell's home in Sherlockstown, Co Kildare, which she shares with her husband and two small children. She was motivated to start the business because she was looking for a greener connection with where they live and to do something closer to nature with her skill set. As she was getting ready to bring a fragrance to market, the pandemic struck. This motivated her to think differently, and she developed and launched Ireland's first 100 percent certified organic hand sanitiser.

“Like many others, Covid caused a real pivot for my business,” she says. “My plan was to begin releasing scents. When Covid hit and hand sanitisers became essential, I knew I could create an organic product that would not just protect people, but could also be beautifully scented, and give people that luxurious feel when sanitising their hands.”

The company currently has two part-time employees, a small manufacturing wing, and a separate studio on site. The building of a bespoke premises is also due to be completed. When this new premises comes on stream, Esmerelda Botanicals will launch a range of new products, including an organic shampoo, body wash, body lotion and cologne.

O’Connell says Acorns was a huge benefit to her, as well as for her business. She says that being in a community of women in enterprise supporting each other was a life-changing experience. The process of peer-mentoring, learning and sharing has encouraged her to be brave, and has given her new insights into operations and management.

“Both me and my husband have worked hard over the last two years to build our very own production hub where we create the scents and products,” says O’Connell. “Our two little ones, John and Kitty, love to see and smell the beautiful, organic essential oils and botanics that go into our products and are with us every step of the way.” As well as growing the business, O’Connell is planning to launch a therapy-based service called the Institute of Smell Therapy, as scent is a great learning tool.

Any woman with a new business based in rural Ireland – or a well-developed idea for a new venture they want to get off the ground – can get more information and register to receive an application form at The deadline for applications is midnight on September 10th.