Childhood obesity is a grave problem in Britain. Ministers, doctors, lobbyists and even chefs are striving to find a solution to the escalating concerns over the health of today’s youth and are constantly on the hunt for anyone with a bright idea. Cue Richard Smith and his pioneering business, Dig IT Projects, that helps to teach young people about the origins of their food by providing schools with their very own growing area. Although only two years old, the business has been a huge hit with local councils and was named Innovative Business of the Year at the 2010 Startups Awards.
A landscape and property maintenance pundit by trade, Richard’s decision to start building allotments for schools and community centres came about somewhat by accident. “Just five months after I set up the original property maintenance business in Cleveland, I was approached by the local council to design and install an allotment for a college nearby. This was how the idea for Dig IT Projects was born,” he recalls. With no-one else offering such a service in the UK, Richard soon realised the enormous potential that lay before him and adapted the company by winding down the landscaping side and focusing on providing schools and communities with growing areas. He had spotted a gap in the market for such a business that could help teach children about nutrition and perhaps in turn help fight the obesity crisis of today’s youth.
As well as using funds from his previous business, Richard managed to secure a £50,000 grant from Redcar and Cleveland council to launch the company; his plans to revolutionise nutritional education had clearly won their approval. Income is generated through providing the services to schools and community centres and the money raised from early projects was instantly reinvested back into the venture, allowing the company to grow steadily and organically, which Richard maintains was important to keeping control of the business. “Initial feedback from the first job was good and made me think it would really work. There was nothing much like it, and through our programme kids can learn how to grow fresh and healthy food.”
It’s this emphasis on healthy eating that’s key to Dig IT Projects’ success. The company is currently registered with a number of government initiatives, such as Change for Life, and Five a Day, which have undoubtedly helped boost its reputation. “Healthy eating is very current - it’s an issue that’s out there in the public domain. I think it’s important to get down to the grass roots and educate kids at primary level; we provide the whole package and take away all the hassle,” says Richard. And hassle free it certainly is. Dig IT Projects not only designs and installs planters and sheds on school grounds, it also provides maintenance packages and educational workshops for children, which can be linked into the school curriculum and which are then used by teachers in science and cookery lessons. The company even provides maintenance throughout the summer holidays so the schools can rest assured that their gardens will not be neglected. Richard explains his determination to “put together a whole package” because of the obvious lack of such facilities in schools.
What’s also unique about the business is its interactive website, which provides a platform for each participating school to showcase their plots and share their ideas and recipes. With such a comprehensive service on offer, it hasn’t taken long for word to get out about the business. Aside from the website and a few advertisements in the Primary Times magazine, Richard hasn’t invested much in marketing, but the success of Dig IT Projects is built on its excellent reputation and recommendations from satisfied schools. “Direct contact with schools is essential to the business’ ethos,” he affirms.
Considering there’s no-one else in their space, you’d think Dig IT Projects would have a presence all over the UK. In fact, the business only operates around the Cleveland area, however Richard has recently unveiled a franchise model, which will give schools in other regions a taste of the action. “We get enquiries from all over the country, so franchising is a good idea because it takes a lot of the risk out of expansion.” Richard also hopes to move into other sectors, such as residential care homes, where he believes his allotments could create an active sense of ownership among the residents. If their degree of interest is anything like that from the schools and community centres, it’s sure to be a hit in this sector. International expansion is another potential plan on Richard’s radar, although where and when is yet to be considered. “I’d like to perhaps one day move the business abroad, who knows where it might lead.” Whatever exciting prospects the future holds for Dig IT Projects, one thing’s for sure, this business will soon be sprouting all over the country and perhaps even beyond.