Q&A: Dr Ana Attlee of Seedball and Project Maya April 22, 2017 11:11

In the latest in our Q&A series with creative thinkers, we meet Dr Ana Attlee, co-founder of the multi-award winning Seedball brand and of Project Maya, an eco enterprise that's striving to build a global network of urban permaculture reserves.

Find out what the average day looks like for someone with a plan to save the world, plus multiple eco businesses to manage, not to mention small children, a dog, a cat and a rabbit to take care of…

How did Project Maya and Seedball come about?
Em (Dr Emily Lambert, the other half of Project Maya & Seedball) and I were researchers at Aberdeen University. Em was researching climate change impacts and I was researching how to improve community conservation. Really we just wanted to save the world! We realised that we weren't the only ones that felt like that, so we got together with a group of like-minded academics to start Project Maya.

Foxgloves in the wild, the ultimate aim of Project Maya is to create permaculture reserves

Dr Ana Attlee and Dr Emily Lambert got together with a group of like-minded academics to start Project Maya - they aim to create nature reserves and believe that business is an effective tool for large scale conservation

Ultimately the aim is to buy nature reserves, and there are interim aims to create impact from research. During the early stages of Project Maya, Em and I had the chance to go on a course designed to equip academics with business skills. With the help of that course (the Environmental Researchers Young Entrepreneurs Scheme) we came to the conclusion that business might be an effective tool for large scale conservation. We came up with the idea for Seedball as a result of our shared love of bees and our inability to grow wildflowers.

How do seed balls work and who is Masanobu Fukuoka?
Seed balls are an innovative technique for protecting seeds whilst they grow and for reducing the amount of effort needed to grow them. All you need to do is scatter, water and watch them grow! The clay in the ball stops birds from eating the seeds, the chilli puts off seed predators like ants (and even helps to deter slugs and snails whilst the shoots grow), and the compost gives the seeds a bit of a head start.

Scattering seedballs to grow beautiful wildflowers

Seed balls are an innovative technique for protecting seeds whilst they grow and for reducing the amount of effort needed to grow them

The idea for adapting a seed ball recipe for UK wildflowers came after reading Masanobu Fukuoka's 'One Straw Revolution' and learning about his work using seed balls to grow crops with very little effort and without damaging the soil or the environment.

Which is your favourite wildflower?
That’s such a difficult question! It’s amazing how beautiful our wildflowers are. My current favourites are poppies (as you can probably tell from our Instagram and Twitter accounts). Over the last few years we’ve had a real spate of pink poppies and unusual patterns/colours, which are stunning. As a scientist I'm fascinated by the potential cause for these quirky colours. Is it something in our poppy seed balls or in the way they function that causes this? I don’t know and I'm dying to find out!

What does your average day look like?
Absolutely crazy! I’ve always been pretty driven and full of energy and enthusiasm so I do tend to wake up excited about what that day will bring. I have a few businesses all with an eco edge, plus twin three-and-a-half year olds, and a dog, a cat and a rabbit! So it can be a challenge to squeeze everything in that needs to happen in a day.

Dr Ana Attlee peeps out from behind a box of Seedballs

Dr Ana Attlee (pictured) and Dr Emily Lambert came up with the idea for adapting a seed ball recipe for UK wildflowers after reading Masanobu Fukuoka's 'One Straw Revolution'

Most days I get up early (between 5am and 6am), set up social media for the day and get on top of emails, then head out for a jog with the dog, grab breakfast, drop the littles at nursery, get into Seedball HQ and pop the kettle on ready for everyone to arrive.

At lunchtime I tend to cook for the Seedball crew. Mornings and afternoons are a mix of working on different businesses – planning and setting goals, doing social media and looking at how to move the businesses forward, plus a LOT of time on the phone. Then it's time to pick the littles up from nursery and do the bedtime routine. Once they’re asleep it's back to work… and that’s whatever needs doing - whether that's mucking in on seed ball manufacturing (which is great as I listen to audio books/podcasts) or computer/admin work (which I hate!).

What (or who) is your greatest inspiration?
People who have changed the world, creative thinkers and risk takers … Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson, Vivienne Westwood, Wangari Maathai.

What advice would you give a would-be entrepreneur?
Start where you are, don’t think you need to know more or be more before you get going. If you really want it you’ll learn as you go. Take advice from people who know better than you and employ people cleverer than you when you’re building a team… and have fun on the ride!

Musk mallow growing from seed at Mimosa Street HQ

Rose pink musk mallow growing from Butterfly mix Seedballs at Mimosa Street HQ

What do you consider to be the biggest threat (or threats) to the environment? Oh, it is so sad. There are so many including habitat destruction and climate change. Perhaps one of the largest threats is the feeling we all have that this is a hopeless situation… it’s not!

Together we can save the world and it can be as simple as turning a tiny bit of space (even a hanging basket) over to wildflowers and helping nature. If we all took a look at our lives and the space in which we live - whether that be a house or a flat - and actually thought about what we could do to help nature just a little bit in our everyday lives, the impact would be huge.

If you were prime minister for the day what would you do?
Fill the UK with wildflowers! Road verges, railway sidings, public parks...

Aside from growing wildflowers, do you have any advice about other small steps we could all be taking to look after nature?  
Buy organic, shop local, reuse, upcycle and recycle, buy less stuff, work at home or locally, cook food from scratch, substitute your alcoholic beverages for bee-friendly cider, put in a pond (no matter how small), choose a hedge over a fence, if you have a fence pop in a hole for hedgehogs… the list is huge!

Apple orhard - bee-friendly cider

 There are a huge number of ways to help take care of nature, including swapping your favourite tipple for a bee-friendly cider

Any other exciting eco projects on the horizon?
Yes… but it's early days so I can't spill the beans quite yet!

After a busy day at Seedball HQ how do you unwind?
I like little spots of unwind time throughout the day; a morning jog, a steaming coffee with cream, a woodland walk with the dog, time cooking for the team, family or friends, sitting around the table chatting over a meal, and a book or a magazine in a lovely bubble bath.

Do you have a favourite quote or motto?
"If you think you’re too small to make a difference – try going to bed with a mosquito!"