WHILE sitting in a female dormitory in Sri Lanka, Fiona Parfrey was giving out to the women there about how uncomfortable her backpack was.
The women had the same complaint. Their backpacks “really annoyed them.”
Fiona, 28, from Blackrock, decided to “try to resolve the issue”. When she returned to Cork earlier this year, she designed a backpack tailored for the female form but suitable for anyone as the straps are adjustable.
Fiona, a UCC commerce graduate, always wanted to travel. After college, she decamped to Dublin and worked at online marketing for Paddy Power for a few years.
“I saved a bit of money and went travelling. Myself and three friends ventured off in 2015. We travelled through India and South East Asia taking in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos and after five months, we landed in Australia.
“I ended up living there for just under three years. After a year or two, my friends left.”
Fiona lived in Melbourne, “an amazing city”, where she worked for an online start-up.
“I was the senior marketing manager looking after the digital marketing campaign for a beauty product. I loved it. However, I wanted to come home to be close to my family and friends. So I eventually left the job, packed up my backpack and went off on a four month solo trip.
“I travelled through the Philippines and Sri Lanka (where Fiona had her Eureka moment). I did some volunteering in Nepal. I climbed to Everest base camp. Then I went to Kenya and did more volunteering there with an amazing Irish charity called Development Pamoja. It’s run by Cork man, James Hennessy. It works with rural communities in Kenya, helping to make them become sustainable. Then I returned home.”
Fiona says everyone should try and travel alone at least once in their lifetime. She wasn’t scared but had to be “smart about everything. You try to meet people and travel in groups.”
Having worked for a start-up company, she was keen to start her own business. “From my experience, I felt quite frustrated at the lack of range of backpacks on the market. I wondered too why they were all so dull, boring and masculine.
“They are really targeted at hard core mountaineering rather than travel enthusiasts.”
Temporarily living with her accommodating parents in Blackrock, where she has a room full of backpacks, Fiona says the business was very much DIY at the beginning.
“I drew up all the designs myself and contacted different manufacturers to try and find suppliers. I worked with freelance graphic designers to do up the designs that I had in my head.”
The backpacks, mostly green, also have a panel on them. One of them has a yellow panel with little cactus plants on it. The other option is a green backpack with a pink panel, decorated with palm trees.
“I did rounds and rounds of sampling and prototypes until I had one I felt happy with. The manufacturer I ended up working with is based in China. We worked together online, honing the design on Skype.
“The backpacks (which cost €170) are lightweight at 1.2kg. The front straps can be moved up and down vertically. The backpack can hold 55 litres which is the perfect size, whether for a three week trip or a three month trip. The one I had travelling was 65 litres which was too big. So, the backpack (branded as Sundrift) is lightweight and durable with lots of different compartments such as secret pockets with zips.”
Fiona’s backpacks are sustainable as they’re made out of recycled plastic.
“Anyone who, like me, is into the outdoors and travelling, cares about the environment. For me, it was a no-brainer to have a sustainable product. I want my (future) children to be able to travel and see the world the way I saw it. It’s very important to me to shop and live sustainably.
“The package the backpack comes in is also made out of recyclable material. The technology available to make these recycled products is incredible. It’s a step forward to a cleaner, greener planet. You can buy the backpack and have it for life.”
Fiona wanted a manufacturer based closer to home to save on carbon emissions, but she couldn’t find anything suitable.
“I tried to source a manufacturer in Europe,” she says.
Her China-based manufacturer is “responsible and easy to work with. We offset our carbon emissions as a company once a month. We calculate the emissions from shipping the product and offset it by buying trees. We’re not just a company that says we’re sustainable. It’s important to me to actually do something.”
Fiona, who has invested her savings in the business and has a small loan from Micro Finance Ireland, would like to eventually have more products for sale. But for the moment, she is focused on her sustainable, comfortable backpacks which can be bought online.