Making it Work

Hand-harvested seaweed key to growth for Galway firm Hygeia

Cold-pressed seaweed hand-picked on the Conamara coast without chemical extraction ‘critical’ for biodiversity, according to Hygeia CEO John Byrne

John Byrne, CEO of Hygeia, a Galway-based company that manufactures veterinary, gardening and agriculture products. Picture: Andrew Downes, Xposure

Hygeia, the Galway-based manufacturer of garden care and agricultural products, has doubled its revenues since 2018, thanks in no small part to its organic garden care brand Nature Safe.

Founded in 1939 by Donny Coyle, and now owned by his son John Coyle, the firm appointed John Byrne, formerly of Aurivo and Kerry Group, as its chief executive officer in 2017.

With the first four Nature Safe products launched in 2019, the brand now comprises sixteen offerings – from lawn and plant feeds, to slug and snail barriers – with hand-picked seaweed from the Connemara coastline as a key ingredient.

Nature Safe products have seen €1.2 million in sales in Ireland and the UK in that time.

While Byrne said that he is delighted with the growth over the past five years, his motivations are far from solely financial, he said.

“The key driver that brought us into those products was the impact that climate change was having, but also a need to allow consumers to buy into a range of Irish-made organic products that didn't exist in any substantial way in the marketplace,” he explained.

Fact File

Founded by: Donny Coyle in 1939

Turnover: €1.2 million from NatureSafe brand since 2019

Headcount: 45 (from 39 in 2022)

One of Byrne’s main goals was to make products that didn’t worsen the biodiversity damage in Ireland.

“If we take our slug and snail barrier product, that’s to prevent slug and snail attack on your vegetables or bedding plants – but it actually doesn't kill or eliminate snails in the garden. It just stops them actually accessing those food points for them.

“But what that does then is keep the hedgehog population and the wild birds in your garden as well. It's a good example of not disrupting an ecosystem,” he said.

Cold-pressed seaweed

Avoiding damage to biodiversity through the use of organic products is one thing. Even more vital to Byrne’s business vision was applying the same principle to their production.

While the use of seaweed – as a product in its own right, as well as a central ingredient in other Nature Safe products – was a key driver in the company’s expansion, the natural production process could potentially be regarded as a barrier to growth.

The manual harvesting process results in a “significantly lower” seaweed yield than what would be achievable through mechanical extraction. Byrne, however, emphasised that the benefits for biodiversity are as pressing as pure profit.

“Because it's hand-harvested and cold-pressed, there's no heat or chemical extraction involved. It's all through a natural water pressure process,” Byrne said.

“The seaweed plant then regrows into the seabed or under the rock shore within three years of being harvested, which is critical in comparison to machine harvesting, which takes up to seven years for the plant to grow.

“And because we use cold-pressed seaweed, extracting the maximum amount of natural growth and anti-stress hormones and nutrients from the seaweed plant, which is different to others who would use heat and chemical extraction to extract the hormones from the plant.

According to Byrne, this process is as beneficial to the planet as it is to the plant and the product.

“One meter of square of ocean will capture five times more carbon in comparison to one meter square of forest,” he explained.

“When you use seaweed, and when we use oyster shells for our snail barriers, you're actually locking carbon into the plant and down into the soil. You're not releasing carbon into the atmosphere you're – becoming a net carbon contributor,” he said.

A wider appreciation of the medicinal properties of seaweed, as well as its growing use in chemical products, could present investment opportunities in the coming years.

Operating in such a market, however, comes with a certain level of responsibility, according to Byrne.

“The worst thing we could do in the west coast is to have a surge in use of seaweed at the detriment of the ecosystem that exists there,” he said.