“A social enterprise is like any other business. It works to deliver goods and services to make a profit. The difference is, it is driven by social and environmental purposes and any profit that is made is reinvested towards achieving those purposes.”
Recently I was invited by the Waterford One World Centre to talk about social enterprise opportunities in horticulture. Several of the ten examples I’m sharing below are related to our food system. Whilst horticulture covers many areas from landscaping to nurseries, golf courses and parks, it’s food and social community gardens that have been my passion for the past eight years, and more recently market gardening, a subject I’m now studying at Kildalton Agricultural & Horticulture College.
Social Enterprise in Ireland
The FORFÁS Social Enterprise Report for Ireland published in July 2013, mentioned that there were “1,420 social enterprises, employing over 25,000 people, with a total income of around €1.4 billion”. It was also suggested that there could be over 65,000 social enterprises if the sector reached the levels set out by the ‘Europe 2020’ Strategy, leaving massive room for growth.
The FORFÁS Report describes social enterprise as: “business models set up to tackle social, economic or environmental issues. While they are driven primarily by social and/or environmental motives, they engage in trading or commercial activities to pursue these objectives and produce social and community gain.”
A philanthropy study a few years ago found that social enterprises were more likely to be recession proof than other charity because they have a diverse mix of funding. They rely on commercial income but also public-sector grants and contracts as well as grant making trusts. They make significant use of volunteers.
Vegetable Farming in Ireland
According to figures published by Agriland in 2016 only 1% of Irish farms grow vegetables, which is the lowest percentage of all other Member States in the EU where the average is 12.4%. Less than 1% of Irish farms have orchards compared to an EU average of 14.6%.
Teagasc rightly argue that vegetable growing is a tough business in Ireland. They say it’s “mainly due to the pressure of supplying supermarkets and coping with the vagaries of the weather. This has resulted in a consolidation of the business with some growers leaving the industry and others scaling up to reduce costs.”
But where does that leave the consumer? In the opinion of many, with little choice. It’s a regular and common occurrence when I’m working with groups for adults to admit that they don’t recognise vegetables. They can’t believe the different flavours that arise from different varieties of the same vegetable that we’ve grown. They don’t know how to cook or prepare many of the vegetables because they’ve only been ‘fed’ the same old half-dozen. Industry is missing out.
According to Bord Bia studies, consumer demand for organic food is increasing globally. In Sweden during 2014, demand increased by more than 40%. In Ireland, sales of fruit and vegetables make up 34% of the organic market, 70% of which are imported. However, there is little encouragement from the government to get into this business. There are no degree courses available in organic farming or horticulture in Ireland, yet as figures suggest, it is one of the major growth areas in food production.
The Value for Money Review of the Organic Farming Scheme published in 2013 by the Department of Agriculture concluded that “there is significant market demand for the produce of organic farming”.
There will always be markets for cheap imports and export led businesses, but increasingly people want and are willing to pay for Irish, organic fruit and vegetables and they are not being catered for.
This is where social enterprises in horticulture have an opportunity to work in the industry.
I recently asked a friend who runs a vegetable box scheme, “what do you do with the waste vegetables that nobody wants, I think that would kind of put me off getting into market gardening.” She laughed: “There’s no waste she said, we can’t grow enough for the demand…”
10 Social Enterprises in Horticulture – UK and Ireland
While I was researching for this post, I came across many examples of social enterprise that have been created within the area of education. My own enterprise Greenside Up began on that basis, working to create transformative change by educating people about social food growing.
In Waterford, GIY Ireland are primarily about supporting, connecting and educating people about vegetable growing nationally and now even internationally. Ballybeg Greens began as an educational opportunity to tackle the unemployment issues that surrounded the area. The landscaping and salad and herb social enterprise that followed came from those beginnings.
The Garden School Growth Project near Marley Park offers free education to unemployed and disadvantaged people. They fund the initiative by revenue generated by fee paying customers.
Grow and Supply
In the UK, Edible Eastside in Birmingham is run by Urban Grain Social Enterprise Partnership. A former petrol station, they converted an acre of canal side land into a pop up ‘edible park’. They supply businesses and educational institutions with a space to master horticulture. They rent out raised beds, provide a cookery school and café and promote urban food production in the city. They also sell produce to restaurants in the city whose development chefs visits every week to pick flowers and herbs to garnish dishes.
Social and Therapeutic Horticulture
Growing Support in the UK tackles loneliness, social isolation, and inactivity. They deliver “social and therapeutic horticulture services” for older people. They run garden clubs, supported by trained volunteers, where older people are enabled to work together in the garden, to grow their own food and to connect with nature. Activities include sensory stimulation, exercise key muscle groups, increase social interaction and all this helps to promote a sense of purpose and achievement.
The Severn Project outside Bristol was founded in 2010 with the aim of creating a more effective and person-centered model of drug and alcohol recovery. Beginning as a pilot on 4 acres of waste ground, clients and volunteers cleared the land and have created a thriving horticultural social enterprise that produces a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Streetscape is an award-winning social enterprise in south London. They provide apprenticeships in landscape gardening to 18-25 year olds who are long-term unemployed, helping them to build skills, experience and attributes they need to fulfill their dreams and move into and retain work.
Carraig Dulra is a family owned social enterprise dedicated to providing education, experiences and connections related to sustainable living in Wicklow. Among other things staff and volunteers often work with and set up school and community gardens and they run an OOOOBY scheme (Out of Our Own Back Yard) which facilitates a local box scheme.
Lastly, back to a growing Irish social enterprise, OURGanic Gardens in Donegal started out as a network of community gardens and is now basing itself at home on a four-acre small holding. They’ve formed a community garden on site and when they are up and running, plan to sell through a Community Supported Agriculture scheme, with any profits made being ploughed back into that enterprise and further community projects.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
I’ve written about community supported food schemes before, often described as Social Cooperative Enterprises. CSA’s in particular can meet the needs of the community and the farmer or grower. Kevin Dudley, one of the Cloughjordan Community farm growers, mentioned that just four acres of land is all that’s needed to feed 70 families with fruit and vegetables year round. The community has a personal stake and understanding about the food that’s growing for them and the farmer can concentrate on doing the job he or she enjoys doing the most.
Growing Social Enterprise Support
Our Government is showing its commitment to social enterprise, offering supports and educational programmes to Local Area Partnerships and others. An Cosán Virtual Community College (another social enterprise) run an eight week QQI Level 6 course in Social Enterprise. There is also a new European Entrepreneurship in Food course being developed by Dr Lisa Ryan and Maria McDonagh of the GMIT Department of Natural Sciences, School of Science & Computing in Galway. The course will focus on rural communities, helping them to create and develop their own food businesses; hopefully a social enterprise element will be included within that.
The biggest reason most people mention to me for wanting to grow their own food is because they “want to know where their food comes from”. If we, as social entrepreneurs in horticulture, can find more ways to help them do that, or provide them with food that they can be assured is as cleanly and locally grown as they hope for, perhaps we can come up with new answers for addressing many of the social justice and environmental problems we are faced with today.
We can be influential in creating healthier and happier communities through social enterprise, reversing the trend towards an inward and individualistic society to one of a more connected and collaborative nature.
Now you know what they are, can you see a social enterprise opportunity in your community? Will you seize it?