Case Studies

Social entrepreneurs behind the enterprises: Evie Strange, Ullapool Unpacked

Ullapool Unpacked is a zero-waste social enterprise based in Ullapool. The enterprise aims to provide rural communities with the opportunity to shop in a more environmentally friendly way.

In this series we focus our attention on the social entrepreneurs behind the enterprise. Each year we work with hundreds of inspirational individuals to turn their ideas into amazing social enterprises. This blog series celebrates their determination and drive to make a difference in their communities.  

Evie Strange, founder of Ullapool Unpacked, has a truly inspiring journey to setting up her social enterprise. It is a story of passion, determination and as Evie would put it, sheer stubbornness. We spoke to Evie at a challenging time for the enterprise, where things had been put on pause due to factors out with Evie’s control. We left the interview, however, with no doubt that this enterprise will be a roaring success, even if it takes a little longer than planned to get up and running.  

Image of Evie in the Ullapool Unpacked van
Evie in the Ullapool Unpacked van

How it started:  

Evie did not approach her social enterprise from a business background. Having left school at 14 to self-study, Evie’s leadership skills and drive comes from life experience.  

I worked in hotels and gift shops and then I worked in Made in Ullapool that is a social enterprise in Ullapool that makes candles with vulnerable adults in a work environment. And I worked there, which I really enjoyed. But I don’t have a business background, I don’t have any qualifications, I am just really quite stubborn and determined, which is the key to how I got here. 

Evie’s idea for her enterprise sparked when she fell pregnant with her daughter four years ago. Evie found herself overwhelmed by the amount of waste that having a baby would produce and began to research greener ways of raising a child.  

In her research, Evie found the Nappy Network, a voluntary organisation run by parents which promotes reusable nappies and supports parents looking at greener options for their children. Deciding to go down the route of reusable nappies, Evie found her interest in zero-waste products grow, and quickly  became absorbed in reading as much as she could about greener ways of living.  

I spent a lot of time sitting on the sofa breastfeeding and researching and watching videos on zero waste shops and just taking all this information in… I had gone down the rabbit hole of cloth nappies [and] it then led me onto the zero waste shops… I had never seen a zero-waste shop, it makes total sense, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was a thing. I was like, this is what we need, this will solve all the problems… It just made me look on a wider scale at my own life and then my community’s lifestyle… and that I needed to do something about it. Because I’d just had a child and what was she going to grow up into? 

Image of no waste products at Ullapool Unpacked
No waste products at Ullapool Unpacked

Community Buy-in: 

Evie’s first instinct was to see if others in the community were as interested in zero-waste as she was, and very quickly she found that they were!  

I put a post on Facebook just saying does anyone else think this is a good idea? Just on the community page and there were  hundreds of people saying yes, yes we want this. But nobody was saying they were going to do it. And I had a newborn baby at this point, and I was just like uh I can’t do this, this is ridiculous. But it didn’t really leave my head, because when I get something in my head, I have to do it. So, I put out a survey locally getting more in-depth ideas and support for it. 

With the community clearly onboard, Evie decided to reach out to the Just Enterprise’ start-up service (managed by Firstport) to see what support she could get.  

So [I] spoke to Anna and discussed what kind of business I wanted to set up because I’m completely new to the business side of things and decided that social enterprise was the right form of company for me. I’ve worked with various social enterprises before and it’s something in my community that seems to work well.   

Pulling together a board, the group applied for funding to test their ideas even further. Securing £1,500 from the local Community Trust, Ullapool unpacked ran its first round of pop-ups over a 6-month period to test how popular their idea may be.  

We bought scoop bins and some stock and scoops, and we had like eight products and that was it. So rice, lentils, dates and not much else. We just did weekly pop ups in random places that would have us for free, whenever we had childcare and it had really positive results and everybody was really pleased with it.  

Keeping the community at the centre of the enterprise, Evie then ran a consultation day to see what direction the local community wanted the enterprise to go in. Taking in people’s feedback on the day and through a survey, it was clear that their pop-ups had been a success, and that the community wanted Ullapool Unpacked to grow in the local area. The next big question was whether they needed a fixed shop in Ullapool, or a van that could travel around the surrounding rural areas as well.  

…we went on the van route because of COVID and decided that that would be easier in getting to people who didn’t like leaving their houses, but it was also an outside thing, so it’d be less of an issue for some people. [We] got… about £40,000 worth of funding… so we’ve done really well. Now we’re just at the stage where… we’ve got all the money, but we can’t spend it because of all the hoo-ha of COVID, and Brexit, and rules, and different funders guidelines and… just the state of the world, we can’t get hold of the van. So, we’re in a bit of a limbo at the moment in terms of what to do.  

Image of Evie with a customer at Ullapool Unpacked
Evie with a happy customer

Ideas testing and pop-ups

Through all their work and trials, Evie has developed Ullapool Unpacked with the community at its heart. Considering their feedback and input at every stage and collected as much data about their sales as she could. Despite the enterprise having to press pause, the Ullapool community are still on board with the plans and are eager to know when Ullapool Unpacked will be back in action.  

I’m stopped all the time still, even though we haven’t been operating for almost a year now because of COVID, you know, oh how’s it going?  Is it going to start up? We built quite a good following, and… there’s a lot of people who are more into the sustainable wholefoods diet, vegan, vegetarian, who would go through to Highland Wholefoods in Inverness, or would go order online, or would want to buy in bulk but don’t have the storage capacity for it. So, yeah, there’s the right clientele, there’s just a gap in the market that needs filled. People are really rooting for it, we’re just desperately trying to make it happen now. 

It is perhaps the slow development of this enterprise that will make it even more impactful. At each stage Evie has been able to collect data, assess feedback, consult the community, and develop her own skills to ensure the enterprise has the best footing to get started.  

I’ve done quite a lot of training off the back of it. I went to the Eden project and did the community camp there, so I applied to do that when my daughter Thea was one and a bit, so she was still breastfeeding, so I actually said I can’t come unless I can bring her and my mum, because I’ll need my mum to have her and they were amazing, they paid for us all to go and were totally happy for her to be there, she sat in on some sessions.  

I did some training with Hey Girls CIC on how to teach periods with confidence and specifically about reusable products…  I now have  an educational pack of things to take round to schools to take to community groups, and I haven’t done it yet due to COVID, but I have all of it ready. 

Through all the things we’ve done, I’ve kept all the information of exactly how much people have bought. So, I have data, and lots of spreadsheets because I love a spreadsheet and so looking at all of that I can see what different people were buying and what were the most popular items. So, I think I have quite a good idea of what it should be going forward having done these 3 years of readying. 

Whilst COVID and being unable to purchase a new van is holding Ullapool Unpacked back from getting set up formally, Evie has taken the time to reflect and re-think what the best next step for the social enterprise is. With all her research over the past 3 years, Evie is now re-considering the idea of a hub in the centre of Ullapool.

The idea of having a space where people can actually come to and engage in as a community might be more valuable to spend this money on than it would be to spend this money on a van. Because we would then have an actual shop and we’d still have enough money for a small van to do deliveries, so we’d still have that accessibility and get out to the rural communities, and people who needed deliveries. 

Image of Ullapool showing sea and boats

The future

Despite all the setbacks Evie has big ambitions for her enterprise and it’s clear that Ullapool and the community mean a lot to Evie. It’s this passion for her local area that drives her to get Ullapool Unpacked back in action. 

I love living in Ullapool… It’s a lovely little community, well it’s not as little as you’d think, people think it’s tiny, and it probably is in comparison to a lot of other things, but there’s a lot of people in Ullapool who I have no idea who they are, and they probably don’t know who I am either. But the people you do know, you always go outside, and you see someone you know, and you wave at them, I like doing that. And yeah, just having lots of different connections with lots of different groups, and lots of people doing lots of different things, lots of very creative people and all the different wildlife. 

I think it’ll be the perfect place to have a community shop and I think it will be really utilized. Ullapool is very good as a community that if they like something, they’ll rally behind it and sort of come together. They’ve done that for various things, and COVID showed that especially I think. 

Image of Evie and her Ullapool Unpacked van
Evie and the Ullapool Unpacked van

Are you starting a social enterprise in a rural area? Just like Evie, take the first step and register for Start-up support.