Before Esther Molenwijk was the founder of Dutch Harvest, a hemp-based tea company, she was working as a sustainability consultant. Residing in the Netherlands, Esther was passionate about finding sustainable and local alternatives. Much to her surprise, she discovered that the answer she was looking for already existed. That answer was hemp. Captivated by the potential of industrial hemp, Esther was dedicated to learning as much as possible. In fact, she spent half a year reading, attending conferences, and collaborating with others about hemp. Esther would then go on to co-found The Hemp Collective in the summer of 2015. Shortly after, Esther decided it was time to put her knowledge into action. While she enjoyed teaching others about hemp, she wanted to create a tangible product. Esther wanted to show people that not only was hemp sustainable it was also versatile, and in this case, delicious! Today, Esther distributes her hemp tea to more than 70 shops across the Netherlands.
In the beginning, what inspired you to get involved with hemp?
I’ve always had an interest in sustainability. I actually had actually been working as a sustainability consultant for over 8 years. I did research for my clients for more sustainable operations and sourcing. During that time, I started to come across hemp. I noticed that hemp was a better alternative than many other products that were being used. I particularly became aware of this when I had a group of clients who were in the funeral business, as strange it sounds. For funeral coffins, cotton is often used. Cotton is not very sustainable. When I started doing more research, I found that hemp was a far superior alternative. That’s really when things started rolling. I also had clients in the building business. That is when I discovered hemp is an incredible building material. At the same time, I was also interested in healthy nutrition. I started to come across hemp oil and other healthy hemp products. It took me about 4-5 months from the point that I had come to find out about hemp to realizing I needed to do something with this knowledge.
What was it like building Dutch Harvest?
Actually, I didn’t start with building Dutch Harvest. It all started with sustainability. I would organize monthly meetups where people could talk about hemp and share their experiences as well as questions. That kind of grew quite big. During that time I was also part of founding The Hemp Collective. Which is a group of people promoting hemp in the Netherlands.
Over time I realized that even though we were really successful in spreading the hemp message, we were not going to reach as many people without a product. For me, I never really envisioned myself having a hemp business or creating a brand. I did it because I thought it would be the best way to promote hemp. I also wanted to show that hemp could be a business. Hemp does not have to be limited to NGOs. When people are able to see and experience a product, it really brings it all home.
We see that you co-founded The Hemp Collective, how was that experience?
About a year and a half ago, I initiated The Hemp Collective. It started because the hemp plant amazed us. This was not a business venture but something we all wanted to explore. We wanted to see what the real possibilities of hemp could be. Today I am so amazed by how well we have been perceived. We did not have a budget or a lot of resources. It was just a small group of us who wanted to explore the real possibilities of hemp. The Hemp Collective started off with organized meetups. Then, the large Dutch hemp grow and processor Dun Agro was able to work with us and build a hemp pavilion.
This pavilion is now located next to two universities. Inside there is an exhibition of all the possibilities of hemp. Students are coming in every day and getting assignments to create hemp products and investigate hemp. While I am no longer involved in the daily operations, I am so proud of how much attention we’ve been able to raise through the pavilion. For me, while I know that I am focusing on tea, I wouldn’t be doing this if there were not a bigger story behind it. It’s not just about running a business. It’s about creating awareness and ultimately a better environment. With hemp, there is room for both of these elements to coexist.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Actually, I never thought so, but what I most enjoy is the production process. I thought that I would be into the branding but I really like spending time in the hemp fields. Working with the farmers to figure out how we are going to dry it, when the taste is best, and how we are going to filter it is a lot of fun to me. Working with hemp is such a hands-on process – I really like it. With Dutch Harvest, I’m there from the moment they sow the seed until we serve the tea. So I most enjoy really knowing and being able to work with a tangible product.
How would you describe the cultural climate towards hemp in the Netherlands?
It is growing. There are actually two groups. There is a group who is just seeking local, sustainable alternatives. Dutch-grown hemp fits well into this. And then there is a group specifically seeking hemp-based products. This group seems to be growing quite fast. Of course, there are still people in the Netherlands who even hear the word hemp and believe it contains THC. They still think it is a drug and therefore want nothing to do with it. But the group who is aware that hemp has a lot of benefits is growing. It is an incredible thing to witness. This year alone I’ve seen so many changes. People’s awareness, particularly of CBD, in the Netherlands, is growing.
What are some of the benefits to drinking hemp tea?
For me, it is very important, as a sustainability consultant that what I create is a local product. Most tea that we drink comes from Asia. In many cases, there are a lot of chemicals and toxins within those teas. Not something most of us associate with an innocent cup of tea. I really like the local aspect of hemp plus the fact that it hasn't been sprayed with any chemicals and improves the soil.
When you drink hemp tea, not only is it good for you but also for the environment around you. The hemp teas I have developed are all pesticide free. Currently, there are 4 hemp tea varieties. One is only hemp, nothing added. The other 3 teas are blended and contain other herbs. I don’t add any flavorings, chemical substances, or fake sugars that you often find in teas. Everything in the tea is natural.
While there is no THC, of course, as it is derived from hemp, there is CBD. It’s difficult at this stage though to know how much is exactly in it. I can tell you though clients have told me countless positive stories. From rheumatoid arthritis relief to getting a better night of sleep but these are anecdotal cases. I wouldn’t want to claim these as absolute fact. Nevertheless, it is so exciting to me that people are finding relief. I’m looking forward to doing research in the future.
What was your biggest struggle developing Dutch Harvest?
It’s really hard to think of one specific challenge. In starting Dutch Harvest everything was new for me. I had never created packaging. I had never approached retailers. I had never even done a Crowdfunding campaign. None of it stopped me.
One of the things I would say I really underestimated though was the whole distribution process. Because there are now more than 70 shops selling the tea, I never really realized how much it takes to handle distribution. For example, you need a place for storage. You also have to consider the type of packaging. I never considered having to create outer box packaging. The whole retail market involves a lot. You have to consider pricing, distribution channels, and marketing.
I underestimated how much there is to do. I kind of just envisioned sending the packages out. Initially, I did not consider the nitty-gritty details of everything you have to take care of when dealing with a tangible product. I also did not factor in time. It takes a lot of time to set something like this up. The whole retail business and handling of it has been very new for me.
In the whole process, I can actually say I have done everything myself so far. Which I guess made things a bit slow in the beginning but has also given me a thorough understanding of what it takes to operate. Right now I am in the process of professionalizing everything. This year my challenge is to work with partners who can help take over. Honestly, my biggest challenge is letting go. To not be so perfectionist and to have things more structured like a business rather than out of my small Amsterdam apartment.
What does a day in the life of Esther consist of?
Well, it changes a lot! I just spent 6 weeks at the hemp factory with the farmer in production. During that time I made long, hands-on days, as there was always something to do. It is farm life. I would help with the harvesting, the drying, and filtering of the tea. Then I spent two weeks at the sheltered employment place, where the tea is packaged. It is a humbling experience to work with people with all kinds of disabilities and see how good-humored and positive they are.
Right now though I am back in Amsterdam. Some days consist of visiting retailers and helping them set up tea tastings. Many days consist of telling the story – for instance, I’ve made ‘Field Update’ video’s throughout the whole growing season. A great way to involve the audience and to tell people the hemp story. In the evenings I make packages for the stores.
Furthermore, I’m now working on my international translations for the tea packaging as well. And last but not least: administration is not sexy but it is a considerable chunk of my day. There was something cool though that happened the other day! I had a group of students with me who were studying industrial packaging and design. The students spent the morning with me and together we created a tea display for tea- and coffee shops.
Do you have any tips for women looking to enter the industry or get more involved?
For me, it really worked to focus on one product. With hemp, the possibilities are nearly endless. You can easily get lost or overwhelmed by it. Before you know it, one day you are talking to a clothing designer about hemp. The next day you’re talking to a project development company and then you’re with a pharmacist talking about CBD. It is super interesting and fascinating to learn about hemp. I spent about half of a year really discovering all of this.
I was going to hemp conferences, talking about it, and meeting people. So go for it, enjoy it, and do all of those things but don’t get weighed down by the possibilities. I really recommend sticking to one product or concept starting out. It is hard enough already. You do not want to make it even more difficult on yourself. This is something that helped me so much. Do not drown in a sea of possibilities of hemp. It really takes a lot of time, energy, and passion to develop something of quality.