Golden opportunities

Categories: Behind the stalls, Features

As well as producing beautiful honey, The Golden Company creates important opportunities for young Londoners whose entrepreneurial spirit might otherwise go untapped. Market Life visits a secret garden in Hackney to watch some young Bee Guardians begin their apprenticeships

Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Joseph Fox

I have an idea that could save everyone an awful lot of time and licence payers’ money. If Lord Sugar really wants a business partner with spirit, commitment and bright ideas he should forget about The Apprentice. Instead, he should take a trip back to his East End roots. Plants and shrubs are not the only things growing in St Mary’s Secret Garden in Hackney; entrepreneurs are being cultivated here too.

The Golden Company, which uses the garden as a base, is a social enterprise which works with young people in the inner city to nurture their entrepreneurial skills through first-hand experience of running a business. These Bee Guardians receive training in urban beekeeping, cosmetics making and enterprise. They also produce remarkably fine honey, which is sold on the company’s stall at Borough Market.

Thanks to its own fundraising efforts and an award from the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, The Golden Company has been able to recruit young people for a scheme known as the Golden Entrepreneurship Programme. When I visit their challenge, after being split into three competing teams, is to design, promote and sell a new honey-based lip balm in just eight weeks.

Panel of experts
“Effectively, we are encouraging the young people to become entrepreneurs,” explains Anjum Quayyum, one of The Golden Company’s directors. “We’re asking them to pitch their ideas to a panel of experts and the best product will become part of The Golden Company range. It’s a fantastic incentive for them.”

The programme involves each of the teams spending the day at Borough Market, testing the commercial potential of their lip balms. “We’re getting them to go and see how many they can sell to Borough Market customers,” says Anjum. “They’ll get the full market experience.”

I join these young Bee Guardians on a Saturday afternoon in St Mary’s Secret Garden—a peaceful oasis of woodland, vegetable beds and herb gardens amid the hustle and bustle of east London. The garden hosts four of the company’s hives in a quiet, secluded corner, where the bees get to gorge themselves on the delicious nectar of a wide variety of plants, including borage, lime trees, dandelions and clover.          

Before they begin designing a lip balm, our nascent entrepreneurs are learning all they need to know about their fellow workers on this project—the bees. The three groups have each been handed a different list of bee facts learnt during the previous session. Aided by a mentor, one member of each team shares these facts with the others, the idea being to foster teamwork and build communication skills.


A waggle dance
Listening in, I learn that up to 60,000 bees live in a colony, and apart from a few male drones needed for reproduction, the vast majority are female. The colony communicates through scents and the medium of dance. By performing a waggle dance, scout bees can pass on information to forager bees about new patches of flowers.

Following on, bee expert Gustavo Montes de Oca leads a session on how bees produce honey. It begins, he explains, with the scout bees—approximately two per cent of the colony—who head out from the hive looking for new sources of nectar. A successful scout returns to inform forager bees of the nectar’s exact location. The forager bees then head out to collect it. After returning it to the hive, they pass the nectar to house bees, who regurgitate it a number of times. This allows the water in the nectar, starting at 85 per cent, to evaporate down to 15 per cent, leaving wonderfully sticky honey.

Having a wide knowledge of the mechanics of honey production will help these budding beekeepers when they come to sell the company’s products at Borough Market, Gustavo tells me. “The customers really want to know about bees, so the more these young people know about where honey comes from, and the story around the different flowers and pollination, the more they can engage with people at the Market.”

Honeys and natural cosmetics
The relationship with Borough Market has played an important part in this social enterprise’s success. Since 2010, the Market has played host to The Golden Company’s stall on the last Saturday of every month during the honey season, selling the company’s honeys and natural cosmetics, and its young people have also been given the opportunity to help man Borough Market’s own merchandise stall.

“Borough Market provides a great opportunity for our young people to get hands-on experience of running a stall, which helps them develop confidence,” says Zoe Palmer, who founded the organisation with Aisha Forbes in 2009. “Also, having that sustained income from selling our products has enabled us to grow as a company.”

Zoe believes that the camaraderie of the Market community has a really positive impact on the young people. “I think they feel very supported by the other traders and are made to feel welcome—people ask them how they are, encourage them, give them tips and advice, and celebrate their successes.”

Several of The Golden Company’s alumni have gone on to find long term, part-time employment with Borough traders, and this has provided them with a giant stepping stone into the world of work. Take the case of Lakshmi Greco, one of the previous intake of Bee Guardians, who is now working on the cheese counter at Whole Foods in South Kensington.


A beautiful springbroad
“Lakshmi is really excited,” says Ilka Weissbrod, another of The Golden Company’s directors. “She worked at Borough Market with Philip Crouch of The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand. So without her being on the honey stall, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get to know Philip, to learn about cheese and then to go and do an interview with Whole Foods. That’s why Borough Market is such a beautiful springboard.”

Back in Hackney, the Bee Guardians are hard at work learning the craft of beekeeping. Abdi Risak is a 19-year-old from Stoke Newington, who was lucky enough to meet Olivier Severs, The Golden Company’s youth co-ordinator. “Olivier told me about the project and I decided to come along because it will help me to improve my CV and learn new experiences,” says Abdi. “They teach you about business enterprise, how to make, market and sell the products, and at the end you get an accreditation for enterprise.”

Abdi sounds like he knows where he’s going—which is where, exactly? “I would like to go to university and then become a biomedical scientist,” he insists. Though I have no idea what a biomedical scientist actually does, I wish him well in any case.

Saf Islamj, 18, knows exactly what attracted him to the Golden Entrepreneurship Programme. “It is enterprise based,” he says. “You use your creativity to come up with new product designs and ideas. You develop them, do market research, then evaluate and make changes. You learn how businesses work.” So does Saf see his future more in beekeeping or in product design? “I could see myself doing both. But, you know what?” he grins, “mainly product design, because that’s where the money is.”

Bee Guardians
Bee Guardians come from all walks of life, and have included young carers, referrals from the Hackney Youth Offending Team and those not in education, employment or training. The Golden Company offers these young people the chance to turn their lives around. This has certainly been the case for the mentors—young people who have been through the programme in previous years and are now passing on their knowledge to the latest intake.

Devente, who actually turns 18 today, joined The Golden Company when he was 15. “I was one of the first six,” he reveals. “I had nothing to do at the time and was one of those lazy kids, to tell you the truth. The lady who runs the gardens told me there was a project coming up that I could get involved with if I was bored all the time. A few days later I met Zoe and Aisha, had an interview and it took off from there.”  

Someone else who has come a long way since joining The Golden Company is 19-year-old Janaki Greco from Hoxton. “I dropped out of school when I was about 15 or 16 and got referred to a youth support worker in Hackney,” she says. “They were finding loads of activities for me to do, which all seemed—not to sound rude—but a bit dumbed down. And then I saw this, which was just everything rolled into one: cosmetic design, beekeeping, enterprise, all that kind of thing.”

Thanks to The Golden Company, Janaki discovered the joys of working outdoors with nature and has since won a place on the Royal Parks Apprenticeship Programme. “I thought, why not do an apprenticeship in gardening? And what better place than Regent’s Park, near where I grew up? I started working there in August.”

Golden Company apprentices

Time and knowledge
Janaki is delighted to be giving her time and knowledge back as a mentor. “I still want to be part of The Golden Company, because I really support everything they are—the way they help young people. They really helped me.”

We are interrupted by the strains of “Happy Birthday”. The Golden Company are in full voice and Janaki suggests we go and join them. My saunter becomes a sprint when I discover there may be cake involved. Devente is not the only person here celebrating an 18th birthday. One of the Bee Guardians is also beaming from ear to ear. And a double celebration must equal two cakes.

I take a moment to stand back and take in the scene. The Golden Company helps young people to develop business enterprise and a host of other important life skills. But there’s something else. The Golden Company produces a commodity even more precious than honey—friendship. And you won’t find much of that in Lord Sugar’s Apprentice boardroom.