Cirican and the Open University developed this webinar series to present ideas and innovation for levelling up in rural places. This blog post sums up ideas discussed in the first of these webinars: Building resilient rural communities. The next looks at health inequalities in rural locations and the final webinar looks at the Digital Futures: the roles of IT and connectivity. A big thank you to Action Hampshire, The Open University and our speakers: BEAMZ, Planet Aware, and Candover Valley Store for all your contributions to a successful first webinar.
What are some words that spring to mind when you think about a social enterprise? Innovative? Creative? Connected? Inclusive? Enterprising? All of the above? In rural communities, social enterprises need to have even more of these elements to address the additional challenges they face due to their location. Often social enterprises based in rural settings run on tight margins with low passing trade and with smaller numbers of local residents to engage with.
Taking the positives and leaving the negatives of Covid-19
Covid-19 presented additional obstacles for businesses around the country. In rural areas in particular, residents tend to be older and therefore in general more at risk of the virus and more likely to be in full lockdown shielding.
So how did these rural communities continue to thrive during the pandemic? Covid-19 can be seen as an accelerator in some instances, pushing communities to become more connected to their local areas and and involved in their local communities. National lockdown restrictions forced residents to focus more on their local areas and appreciate the nature surrounding them, if they were lucky enough to be able to do so. These consequences began to set the foundations for some of the social enterprises we heard from in our webinar, building on themes of community, place and the local environment to drive engagement and build success.
Cornerstone foundation of the community
Communities and the people involved in the social enterprises were fundamental throughout all of the speakers diverse experiences. This ranged in terms of engagement from the reliance on local communities rallying together to volunteers putting time into their vision, from knowledge and information sharing to collaborating with others. One of our speakers stressed the importance of developing a social enterprise, developed “by the community for the community”. This was particularly true in the instance of Candover Valley Store, which serves as a community hub for local residents. This was even more important during national lockdown restrictions, with the pub, schools and the village hall all closed. In this time, the store became an important feature in this rural village, decreasing feelings of isolation, promoting interconnectedness and allowing important information to be shared across the community.
The importance of Place
Each of the speakers also stressed the importance of place on their social enterprises, whether that was the woodlands in which BEAMZ source the wood for their bicycles, the clean-up of the coastal Isle of Wight beaches by Planet Aware, or the creation of a community hub in the rural valley village in which Candover Valley Store is set. The importance of place was a common thread which tied these social enterprises together, recognising the importance of building a social enterprise which responds to the environment around them and the subsequent needs which emerge. By focussing on locality, there is a sense the essence of many rural social enterprises pushes back on the current trend of globalisation by sourcing locally, employing local people and benefitting the local area. By doing so, these social enterprises also decrease their carbon footprints by reducing transportation needs.
Positive impacts on the environment
Being mindful of the environment was also an important element to these social enterprises. Overall, we took away the key messages to: Use less stuff, repair don’t replace, and buy materials which do not harm and create waste at the end of their lives. By thinking more roundedly about the full “circular economy of life” we can see how the development of rural social enterprises often link to themes of sustainability by ensuring any products consumed have longevity. BEAMZ bicycles are a shining example of this, with their eco-friendly repairable and reconditionable wooden “bikes for life”. By growing natural woods to build these innovative bicycles, the enterprise contributes to a healthy environment and thriving wildlife, while also removing 48 kilograms of CO2 from the air.
As our Cirican representative Ivan Annibal summed up from todays messages:
- Use less stuff
- Ride a wooden bike
- Use your local shop
Joking aside, the experiences of the speakers taught us a lot about the obstacles faced by rural social enterprises as well as the tools and attitude you need to overcome some of these. As the speakers identified, often you will get started with what you can do and then it will evolve and take shape organically, responding to the environment and the people around you. Getting it wrong and making mistakes is part of the process and all in all there will always be highs and lows. But perseverance is key! The best ways to overcome these challenging times is by communicating, collaborating and asking for help, whether that is from other social enterprises, your local community or your volunteers. It is about being adaptive and responding to change head on. Ultimately, if you have got an idea, a passion and a motivation, it is important to take action on those and develop a social enterprise in which you truly believe.
See below to view the full webinar: