Social innovation as a driver for rural innovation – highlights from the OECD conference

The 11th OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Rural Development Conference was held in Edinburgh on 9-12 April 2018. Prior to the main conference, a series of interactive sessions, led by the European Network for Rural Development, showcased projects and approaches already launched by rural communities to face 21st century challenges and opportunities.

Although the conference did not focus on social innovation, but rather on technological innovation and entrepreneurship, the concept was central to explaining community-led rural innovation emerged and how deficient rural policies can sometimes be locally supplemented by rural stakeholders. Indeed, it was surprising in how many sessions social innovation was referred to and the conference also showcased EU or national policy initiatives supporting and enhancing social innovation in rural areas such as the Smart Villages initiatives, the Inner Areas Strategy in Italy, or the network of Broadband Competence Offices.

One prominently used example of social innovation was the Isle of Eigg community. Eigg had a population of more than 500 during the early 1800s but, like other island communities, it steadily fell as landowners increasingly turned over crofts for sheep farming. However, this Scottish community is celebrating this year after the population surpassed 100 for the first time in at least half a century. Indeed, in 1997, the islanders took it upon themselves to develop their community and bought out their island for 1.5 million pounds, after creditors put Eigg up for auction, when their last laird[1] fell into bankruptcy. The Isle of Eigg is the first community-owned estate in Scotland’s history. The island since then has developed a renewable energy grid for the island, a microbrewery, a music label and festival, and various other ventures including tourism activities. For instance, Eigg Electric is a community owned, managed and maintained company which provides electricity for all island residents from the renewable sources of water, sun, and wind.  Since Eigg’s purchase by the community, many other Scottish estates have passed into community ownership Since 2003 legislation has supported this trend which has enabled 70% of the land area on the Western Isles Council area to pass into community ownership and many other estates to be transferred to their communities.

  👉Read the long story here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/sep/26/this-island-is-not-for-sale-how-eigg-fought-back (The Guardian, 26 September 2017)

bill_oecdBill Slee, a SIMRA partner, moderated a session on ‘Social Innovation and Community-Led Initiatives’ which give him the opportunity to introduce the SIMRA definition of social innovation.

  👉Read Bill’s introductory context paper here

Speakers at this session included Hanna Leena Pesonen, a Finnish LAG leader whose LAG covers twice the size of Belgium; Phil Barnes from a Canadian fisheries cooperative off the Eastern Canadian shores staring right at the Iceberg Highway; Alessandra de Renzis from the Tuscany regional government to explain how the Inner Areas Strategy is implemented in her region, and finally Jane Atterton, a researcher from Scotland’s Rural College. Although the backgrounds and professional horizons of all speakers were very different, they all mentioned how community empowerment through an enabling policy framework is crucial to support social innovation and not subvert it administratively even further when the lack of confidence, critical mass or skills match can already make social innovation in the community a major challenge.

While  many discussions during the conference circled back to the need for more flexible policies, a place-based approach and more partnerships among public, private, not-for-profit and education organisations, the Edinburgh policy statement issued at the end of the conference included a call for the promotion of “societal approaches based on social innovation with a proactive role for local communities contributing to climate change adaption and mitigation while ensuring sustainability in rural areas”, in order to build robust policies.

Now that the deluge of information and good practices which tumbled down on the participants of the OECD conference are being processed, some new questions rise up again for SIMRA partners to chew on: are we certain we all have a common definition of what social innovation is, or even broad agreement?  To what extent does the ability of civil society agency to make a positive impact through social innovation depend on the institutional architecture and the regulatory and governance structures? What are the contributory factors to wellbeing as a performance metric? How can we overcome the fact there is not a level playing field geographically of human and social capital skills to initiate social innovation? How can we take into account the complexities and realities of a highly variegated map of socio-economic performance and recognise the extent of market and public-sector retreat from deeply rural and remote areas, when the emphasis of bodies like the OECD is so much on productivity enhancement and export-led growth?


[1] A laird is the owner of a large, long-established Scottish estate. In the Scottish order of precedence, a laird ranks below a baron and above a gentleman.


Bill Slee (The Rural Development Company Limited)
Bill Slee (The Rural Development Company Limited)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)

Smart Villages: For a Smarter Future of Rural areas

On 13th April 2018 in Bled, Slovenia, a joint conference between the European Commission and the European Parliament was organised on “European Action for Smart Villages: for a brighter future of rural areas in the EU” (for more information and to see the streaming of the plenary session, click here).

This high-level conference shows an appetite for Smart Villages to be developed in the future programming period and the wish to put the concept into practice, as shown in Slovenia. If an EU project is currently developing a proper definition for Smart Villages (our blog post here), several high-level speakers shared their views about this concept and how to develop it in the coming months.

EU Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, supports the idea of smart villages and considers that connections are important: they can be physical or digital, but they should help to connect people. She encouraged the concept of Smart Villages to be developed in a systematic way, integrating the mobility aspects.

For EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, Smart Villages are about people. This new concept is an invitation to create new alliances and new cooperations and to use digital solutions for developing smart eco-social villages with improved living conditions. Digital solutions and high-speed broadband are some tools to catch up with the current connectivity gap between urban and rural areas. They should be used for precision farming, but also to develop new local markets, e-health solutions or local energy production. In the new CAP legislative proposals that will be presented on the 1st June 2018, the Smart Villages will be a priority for the future rural development.

Smartening villages mean ensuring appropriate connectivity in rural areas, for EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel. Several actions are developed to encourage the broadband roll-out, including the recent launch of the Broadband Competence Offices all over Europe or the broadband platform developed with the Committee of the Regions. The Wifi4Eu initiative also helps supporting free wifi access in towns and villages. She thus encouraged rural areas to seize these opportunities.

MEP Franc Bogovic and Tibor Szanyi have prepared a “Bled Declaration for a Smarter Future of Rural areas in Europe” which was signed by the Slovenian Prime Minister during this conference. In this declaration, they recognised the importance of digital technologies and social innovation. They encouraged to introduce different initiatives such as precision farming, digital platforms for e-health, shared economy, renewable energy solution or rural tourism to facilitate a value-added transition for rural employment opportunities.

During a workshop on smart farming, it was detailed that new technologies varies between big and small farms and also cannot be applied in the same way. Specially for small farms collective use of the digital packages has to be available through cooperatives or advisory services and the corresponding education for farmers has to be introduced.

SIMRA and Euromontana stand during the Bled Conference.
SIMRA and Euromontana stand during the Bled Conference.

For Dejan Židan, Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, maintaining agriculture in areas with natural constraints, especially mountain areas, should be maintained. Thus, he explicitly asked for new digital technologies to answer to mountain farming’s specific needs.

This enthusiasm for Smart Villages is hopefully just the beginning. Even if the concept is not really new, the political attention to better take into account rural development and to try to develop digital technologies as enablers for more socio-economic development of the countryside is worth mentioning. The discussion on this Smart Villages concept will continue during the ENRD seminar on Smart Villages on 22nd May.


Marie Clotteau (Euromontana)
Marie Clotteau (Euromontana)

Smart Villages: Participate in the consultation on the definition and share your good practices

The concept of “Smart Villages” is gaining more and more attention at EU level and is likely to play a role in future policy. In light of this, a Pilot Project has been launched on smart eco-social villages or “Smart Villages” in short. The aim of the Pilot Project is to explore strategies to become a “Smart Village” and refine a definition to clarify what a “Smart Village” is or can be.

Within the EU Action for Smart Villages published by the European Commission together with the European Parliament, “Smart Villages” have been described as “rural areas and communities which build on their existing strengths and assets as well as on developing new opportunities”, where “traditional and new networks and services are enhanced by means of digital, telecommunication technologies, innovations and the better use of knowledge”.

If you wish to participate in the shaping of the Smart Villages definition, now is the right time. You just need to fill in this form before 27th April.

In addition, if you wish to share good practices on social and digital innovation in rural areas on topics such as health, quality of life, connectivity, education and culture, energy, environment, mobility, you can share them by filling in this form.

For more information, do not hesitate to contact the coordinator of this project at Smart.Villages@ecorys.com


SIMRA’s newsletter just published!

SIMRA’s newsletter has just been published. The partnership has been busy over the past few months working hard on a policy brief for DG Agri, training the case study teams and publishing collections of examples of social innovation. So, stay tuned to learn more about interesting social innovation initiatives all over Europe and the Mediterranean area! You can read the newsletter here (also available in French and Spanish).

SIMRA (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas) is a four-year project (2016-2020) funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. It aims to advance understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, forestry and rural development, and how it can be boosted, in marginalised rural areas across Europe and around the Mediterranean, including non-EU countries.

What other opportunities are there to get involved in SIMRA?


People, places, cracks and light

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Introduction to social innovation by Leonard Cohen

There is a widely known song from Leonard Cohen, his “Anthem”, whose hook allegedly refers to a parable told by Jack Kornfield:

A young man who had lost his leg came to a Buddhist monastery, and he was extremely angry at life, always drawing pictures of cracked vases and damaged things, because he felt damaged. Over time, he found inner peace, and changed his outlook, but still drew broken vases. His master asked him one day: “Why do you still draw a crack in the vases you draw, are you not whole?” And he replied: “yes, and so are the vases. The crack is how the light gets in.”

And how does this song, how does this parable relate to social innovation? That was the challenge Robert Lukesch, SIMRA partner from ÖAR GmbH took up at the International Workshop on “Social Innovation in Public Policies” organised by the Secretariat of Social Coordination of the Brazilian Presidency (Brasilia, 7-9 March 2018).

luk_lauren1Cohen’s song is a wholesale abdication on definite solutions. It says nothing less than “You will not make it but you have to try it”: “You can add up the parts, but you won’t have the sum […] forget your perfect offering.” In a recent study regarding the planetary ecological boundaries and the overall quality of life, the University of Leeds/UK has come to the sobering conclusion that there is no single country on earth which meets the minimum requirements of human wellbeing without transgressing the planetary boundaries (ecological footprint) or, vice-versa, no single country which meets the requirements of sustainability without failing to meet the minimum requirements of social and economic well-being. There is simply no model in sight for humankind to escape that double bind.

Taking a territorial perspective in his presentation, Robert Lukesch explained that social innovation is usually described at a micro-scale, but it is the value compass at macro level which gives social innovation a meaning. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) provide useful pointers for instance. To illustrate the role of governance in fostering social innovation, he explained how Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) was implemented at the EU governance level. His take-away messages emphasized how social innovation is a key driver for local and regional development and prevents place-based approaches from self-indulgent identity discourse. He also highlighted the importance of diversity through multiple small actions with a (possibly loose) defined common purpose.

Social innovation in public policies – in Brazil and worldwide

The Secretariat of Government of the Presidency of the Republic organizing the event considers that although Brazil has evolved in recent years, the level of human development is still not satisfactory, and it faces substantial challenges, many of which aim at attending the demands of society, especially the poor groups. The Federal Government has in the past developed and coordinated a set of public policies with a design and management pattern based on a “supply model” and on a permanent expansion of expenditures which is now draining in face of the current conditions. On the other hand, the successive governments in Brazil persist in developing many of their initiatives without considering the participation of agents related to most territories and institutional arrangements in the design and management of their programs, considering the differences between these spaces and stimulating social participation. Social Innovation presents itself as a strategy that enables the qualitative and quantitative expansion of citizens well-being, promoting human development and transforming the social context considering the particular needs and potential of places and regions.

luk_lauren2Thus, the federal government has the responsibility of evaluating and rethinking both the financing pattern and the strategies for the design, development and management of public policies, aiming at greater efficiency and efficacy. In these difficult times in terms of economy and policy, the Secretariat of Social Coordination wanted to lay the foundations for a future programme fostering social innovation in Brazil. After a thorough analysis of the needs and the inventory of the existing programmes and schemes at the Federal, States and Municipal level aiming at improving social cohesion and well-being in Brazil, the Secretariat organized an international workshop on this topic in order to assess the state of the art in governance interventions on social innovation.

After the opening ceremony led by the Brazilian Secretary of Government, international contributors and national representatives (from public institutions, socio-professional groups, civil society and education organizations etc.) held presentations, with vivid participation from the floor. International, national and local aspects of social innovations were raised. Specific emphasis was laid on three policy fields: social policies, education and local/regional development.

Apart from the general uncertainties due to the economic and political crisis (the country is already bracing for Presidential, Congress and State Governor elections in fall), one of the most important deficiencies is the fragmentation of policies which are designed and delivered from top down in “stovepipes”. Coordination is lacking at all levels.

On March 9th,2018 a smaller workshop was held with a reduced number of international and national participants in order to gather additional ideas on a capacity building programme for social innovation agents which is in the design phase at present.

For more information

  • The presentation given by Robert Lukesch, click here.
  • His written paper for the conference reader, click here.
  • The conceptual note of the conference laying out the aims and purposes of the event, click here.


Robert Lukesch (ÖAR)
Robert Lukesch (ÖAR)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)
Presentation on nested markets by the keynote speaker van der Ploeg, March 2nd, 2018

Social Innovation and “nested” markets: finding the linkages.

On the 2nd and 3rd of March, SIMRA’s team from the University of Padova participated in the 12th edition of the conference “Fragile rural areas”, held in Rovigo, Italy. This years’ theme was “Abnormal Exchanges. The nested markets for rural fragile areas”.

Presentation on nested markets by the keynote speaker van der Ploeg, March 2nd, 2018
Presentation on nested markets by the keynote speaker van der Ploeg, March 2nd, 2018

“Nested” markets are, according to Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s definition, markets that have less to do with globalised systems of exchange, and more with exchanges in real meeting places. Van der Ploeg has long studied the phenomenon, coining the concept of “nested” markets, and was invited to give the opening speech at the conference. He emphasised the multi-level nature of such exchanges, pointing out that “nested” markets are markets animated by ethical and social values, related to the quality of products, human relationships, the development of the territory and environmental protection. In his view, nested markets are a segment of a larger market that emerges from economic as well as social and political motives, and presents peculiarities such as unique infrastructure, with an aim to transform the global system. The way in which he characterises “nested” markets closely relates to the topics at the core of SIMRA.

During the two-day conference, researchers and practitioners from different parts of Italy presented and discussed more than 50 case studies related to the theme of “nested” markets as ‘abnormal’ forms of exchange. The cases ranged from the north to the south of Italy, dealing with rural as well as urban areas. Specific sub-calls were open for food and migrants. The panels covered topics ranging from trade (international markets and complementary currencies), to social exchanges in the agri-food sector (alternative food networks for cities, networks in mountain areas, community-based co-operatives and community-based social farming). Parallel sessions also dealt with cases on mobility, resistances and civil society involvement, migrants and refugees, international cases of corporate social responsibility and nested tourism. The rich variety of interventions overcame unexpected inconveniences. Due to adverse weather conditions, a few of the submitted papers were not presented as several people were prevented from attending the conference. Despite this, the overall attendance was remarkable, with the presence of more than 100 people from the most diverse worlds – activists, practitioners, researchers, etc.

Participating in such events does not only give the possibility to share experiences and raise awareness on specific topics, but further gives the opportunity to get to know people that are active on the territory, and build networks with actors that are able to build important “nested” relations and forms of exchange in Italy and at higher levels.

It was a great opportunity to get an understanding of what is taking place on the ground at a national scale and to connect with projects that are particularly significant for SIMRA and can be included in the database of social innovation examples. Finally, a big hope is for opportunities like this to help prevent these realities from remaining small and niche experiences, and to instead support their reproduction in other places, depending on local specificities.

The presentation of Università di Padova’s about SIMRA is available here.

For further information on the conference visit http://www.areefragili.it/


Kamini Vicentini (Università di Padova)
Kamini Vicentini (Università di Padova)
Catie Burlando (ETIFOR)
Catie Burlando (ETIFOR)

Welcome spring! Welcome forests!

The 21st of March is the official first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The day of the equinox, in which plants start to blossom and sprout as warm air begins to invade our latitudes. Not only this, this day is also celebrated throughout the world as the International Day of Forests, established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, to raise awareness of the importance of all types of forests and trees for biodiversity and the livelihood of human communities around the globe.

Trees and forested areas cover one third of the Earth’s land, playing a key role in enhancing plant and animal diversity and in regulating carbon fluxes, mitigating the impact of anthropogenic climate changes. Additionally, forests are crucial resources for sustaining communities around the world. Water, flood prevention, fruits, leaves, branches, and wood are only a few of the key ecosystem services that they entail. Lastly, forests are of increasing importance for urban areas, providing a cooling green infrastructure in which citizens benefit from recreational activities and healthy lifestyles.

In rural areas, forests are a prominent feature of the landscape, especially when demographic changes increase spontaneous afforestation in former farmlands. For these reasons, forests are often the source of innovative projects aiming to alleviate social, environmental, and economic burdens of rural communities.

SIMRA database collected several examples of forest-based social innovations, spanning agroforestry schemes in Guadalupe, community woodlands in the UK or central Europe, to fire prevention groups in Spain and Portugal. Here is a selection of these forest initiatives:

Promoting fire prevention in Mediterranean landscapes


Wildfire risk has grown in the Mediterranean basin, both in terms of burnt area and fire occurrence. One of the major causes of wildfire virulence is land abandonment, which leads to increasing fuel accumulation. Fire prevention is then a key activity to reduce wildfire risk. This can include awareness activities with local communities, as well as ad-hoc forest management (e.g. thinning to reduce fuel accumulation, prescribed fires). Several social innovation initiatives have also been developed to tackle the issue of wildfires. Since 1986 in Catalonia region (Spain), forest owners, in collaboration with municipalities, have been organising themselves voluntarily to protect their land against wildfires. Since then, 300 Forest Defence Groups (FDGs) have been established in the region. Today these groups perform several activities, including support for fire prevention, preparedness, fire suppression and post-fire reforestation within their municipal area, as well as lending a helping hand to their neighbours when needed. Analogous groups have also been created in the Valecian community (ACIF). Another interesting example from the SIMRA database is EconoMountain, a Portuguese initiative that attempts to lower wildfire risks by developing participatory partnerships with shepherds to implement controlled grazing by goats, so reducing forest fuel accumulation. Similarly, the Mosaico project in Extremadura, Spain, intends to stimulate and consolidate multi-actors participatory initiatives to restore and improve the landscape resilience to wildfire risk.

Community woodlands and carbon forestry

©Vicky Stonebridge
©Vicky Stonebridge

Community woodlands are woodlands supported and controlled by community groups. These groups often use their wood resources to revitalise the community (often a small and isolated settlement), ensuring its long term economic, social, and cultural sustainability. An example from SIMRA database is the Lochcarron Community Development Company, set in a small village of Scotland, UK. This company aims to establish a multipurpose forest management scheme for the community woodland, improving the sustainable production of fuel wood whilst also setting up recreational and educational services.

Another example of community forests are Central European forest commons (in SIMRA we have examples from Slovenia, and Slovakia), historical regimes for managing woodland resources in mountainous rural areas.  These commons are now re-established to respond to new community needs such as carbon-smart forestry for mitigating climate change effects, increasing forests’ resilience to future natural disturbances and to establish a more cost-effective forest management.


fOREST_VAL_agro-2690048_960_720Agroforestry, as the combination of agricultural and forest production schemes, is recognised as a powerful way of producing diverse, profitable and sustainable land-use systems. This makes it a possible source of social innovations as it is happening in Guadeloupe (France) where the SYAPROVAG (Union of Guadeloupian agricultural vanilla producers) is promoting a project aiming to improve forest owners’ livelihoods via the multifuctionality enhancement of the forests, combined with vanilla production.

Social Forester entrepreneurs

Finally, it is worth mentioning forestry as a source of inspiration for developing social enterprises. In this respect we can look at SocialForest, a Spanish company dedicated to forest management, focusing on training and social integration of vulnerable groups (immigrants, unemployed youth) in the forest labour force. Another example is  Boschivivi, a non-profit Italian initiative aiming to support the use of burial woods for reducing the ecological footprint of cemetery practices, and investing in forest conservation activities.


Valentino Govigli (EFIMED)
Valentino Govigli (EFIMED)
Sarah Adams (EFIMED)
Sarah Adams (EFIMED)
Elena Górriz (EFIMED)
Elena Górriz (EFIMED)

Baba Residence, an initiative to attract young people in depopulated villages in Bulgaria

Baba Residence (baba – grandmother in Bulgarian) is an initiative bringing together urban youth and elderly people in low-density and remote villages in Bulgaria. Participants spend one month living and learning in a mountain village, with the purpose to create a meeting point between the entrepreneurial spirit of young people and traditional culture of elderly people from the Rhodopes mountains in Bulgaria.

What is Baba Residence and how does it work?

Every year, since 2015, a group of 20 young people (up to 35-years-old) has the opportunity to participate in the Baba Residence project. The group is composed of students or recently graduated (within the past two years) and still unemployed young people, that have previously applied to participate into the Baba Residence initiative.

Selected candidates go through two specific training programmes: Design Thinking and on-site ethnological research. Firstly, they undergo a training with Ideas Factory (a Bulgarian networking platform for entrepreneurs) during several months. Secondly, they spend 4 to 6 weeks in the households of elderly in remote and sparsely populated Bulgarian villages. Participants receive some private financial support, from Ideas Factory, for travel and living expenses.

During their participation, the residents live the daily life of their hosting community. Their goal is to develop an innovative idea for a product, service or event that will attract greater interest in the village. Together with developing their concept and skills in local crafts, the young people are supported by the household in which they live.

Why joining Baba Residence?

Baba_mujeresThe objective of Baba Residence is to connect the potential of unemployed young people with the knowledge of the elderly from almost deserted villages, in an innovative social business model.
People involved in this initiative have to be motivated to work for a positive social and economic change in society.

The mission of the initiative is to preserve invaluable traditions, crafts and stories from the villages and to use them as vibrant source for innovative solutions that can meet the need of the Bulgarian villages. Those solutions could be in the form of products, services, events or initiatives that draw cultural and economic potential to these beautiful rural nooks of Bulgaria.
The project aims at proving that it is possible for people to perceive the Bulgarian village as a hub for social innovations.

How does this initiative succeed in revitalising depopulated areas?

Ba-baThe interaction of the participants allows an improved quality of human relations between generations, documentation and creative utilisation of local folklore, and social entrepreneurial projects that help the villages to flourish.

Each participant in Baba Residence has an opportunity to realise their specific objective, together with the people from the village where they live. This concept is thought to have long-term benefits for rural areas and the potential to attract interest in the respective village and/or to contribute to their economic and social development.
Residences enable participants to start learning some of the crafts practiced in the village. Interaction with old people gives invaluable knowledge of Bulgarian history and traditions, which may soon be lost irrevocably. Participants also receive a different experience, as a “slower” village lifestyle that is impossible in large cities. Contact with traditions and nature enriches young people and encourages them to think about new ways to gain social empathy. At the same time, elderly or lonely people receive attention and feel useful and needed. They also receive real help with their everyday work in the house from their young friends.

Since the first edition of baba residence in 2015, the residents undertook tens initiatives in and for the villages together with the local people. Some of them include:
– A professional studio recording of a CD with folklore songs from the Rhodope mountains that are about to be extinct;
– The creation of a social enterprise for export of woven products created by the grandmothers of the villages;
– Many cleaned and newly marked mountain eco-trails;
– The renovation of an old village bakery, where the residents baked around 600 little breads for the local people to celebrate this renovation together.

For more information, please visit Idea’s Factory website  and SIMRA’s database


Florence Tornincasa (Euromontana)
rural women_tunisia

Social innovations focusing on women in marginalised rural areas across Europe and the Mediterranean

This article is available in Spanish here.//Este artículo está disponible en castellano aquí.

Being the 8th March the International Women’s Day, the SIMRA team would like to contribute to the global discussion on the significance of rural women and the challenges that they face.

According to the UN, “rural women play a key role in supporting their households and communities in achieving food and nutrition security, generating income, and improving rural livelihoods and overall well-being. They contribute to agriculture and rural enterprises and fuel local and global economies. As such, they are active players in achieving the Millennium Development Goals”. Rural women represent over a third of the total world population, but, in FAO’s words “they generally work as subsistence farmers, paid or unpaid workers on family farms or as entrepreneurs running on- or off-farm enterprises. In addition, women provide the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work in rural areas, thereby supporting current and future generations of rural workers within their households and communities”.

Women, as innovators, participants or beneficiaries, are playing a very relevant role in most of the social innovations collected by SIMRA. From the development of productive cooperatives in Egypt or Turkey to pooling and sharing their knowledge and expertise in the UK or Bulgaria, or setting up schemes to tackle societal issues like waste management in Lebanon or unemployment in Spain and Estonia, women are developing projects that enhance the well-being in their local communities.

Here there is a small selection of examples from our database in which women are protagonists of the social innovations developed in marginalised rural areas across Europe and the Mediterranean:

Women’s Branch of the Vakıflı Village Cooperative (Turkey)

In this example, the women joined their forces and knowledge in order to prevent Turkey’s only Armenian village from becoming extinct due to migration and ageing. Vakıflı Village in Hatay is the only remaining Armenian village in Turkey. With its 135 inhabitants who are all Armenian, the village loses its population day by day. Having realized that the future of the village was in danger, the women of the village came together in 2002 to establish the women’s branch of the church in the village. Their purpose was to sell their home-made organic products (jam, liquors, pomegranate syrup, olive oil etc.) to the tourists visiting the church and making a living out of this. Over time, their products are starting to be sold in a small shop in İstanbul.

Konnu Smart Work Centre (Estonia)
Motivated local people available in the community initiated a smart working centre to solve an unemployment problem in the area. Women share their knowledge, jobs and childcare duties with each other, develop their competences as a team and compete as a unit for work in the labour market. Women with more extensive educational background, work experience and social networks act as mentors bringing work to the centre and organising training courses and launching projects.

Baba Residence (Bulgaria)

baba-REC“Baba”, which means grandmother,  is an initiative bringing together urban youth and elderly women in depopulating villages in the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria. It lays the ground for a truthful exchange of knowledge and care between youth and elderly through design thinking and ethnological approaches. The result is a new quality of human relations between generations, documentation and creative utilisation of local folklore and social entrepreneurial projects that help the villages flourish again. Twenty unemployed young people go to live for 4 -6 weeks at a remote village living in elderly locals’ households. There they will learn crafts and work together with locals for the creation of a new innovative idea for a product, service or event that will attract stronger interest to the village.

Badaweya Women’s Handicraft Initiative (Egypt)

EGYPT_RURAL_WOMEN_POSTWe heard about this type of initiative in the SITT workshop held in Bratislava in 2016. In concrete, this project seeks to revive and empower Bedouin handicraft producers to start their own businesses, develop their products to meet modern economic needs and link them to markets within and beyond the Sinai region. It provides women with training in technical skills, design development and entrepreneurship in addition to providing information sessions on health topics, peer-to-peer literacy education and child care support. Women are trained in setting up and managing small cooperatives which helps to ensure fair trade, and are also linked to suppliers, fair retailers and a variety of different markets and networks in bigger Egyptian cities, abroad and via the Internet.

The Growing Club (United Kingdom)

THE GROWING CLUBThe Growing Club is an alternative model business growth club for women sole traders, female owners of microbusiness and female founders of not-for-profit organisations. There is clear evidence that businesses that use a business coach and have support structures in place have significantly higher growth success, but not everyone can afford a coach and not all coaches understand the various roles that women juggle. The entrepreneur behind this social enterprise, is a single mum and business owner who could not find a coach that really grasped what she wanted to achieve. She self-funded and run this initiative in Galgate (Village south Lancaster) aiming to help women struggling in rural areas, who are often overlooked by business support services, or dismissed as a lifestyle business as they run their business from home, working around their family. The women enrolled on the programme are targeted, recruited and selected from platforms such as domestic abuse organisations, sufferers from mental health and persons recently released from prison looking for a second chance to integrate back into society.

Integra Todos – Costurízate (Spain)

INTEGRA TODOSAnother strong entrepreneur woman is behind this initiative. Aiming for creating integration opportunities in the mountainous area of Sierra del Segura (Albacete), a local young woman founded a local association to promote local development and then a social enterprise dedicated to productive activities while training people at risk of social exclusion to develop general social and labour skills.  More than 50 women have participated to date in their first productive project – ‘Costurízate’- focused on textile sector skills training.

Economic Empowerment of Women in Rural Areas (Lebanon)

Women in the Bekaa region came together to establish a cooperative for the transformation of excess agriculture produce harvested in the region in products with increased shelf life and benefit. They were trained to make products for the market that meet the international standards of market. This has created the possibility of transforming old production recipes into standardized recipes using scientific production indicators. They have also honed their own skills to manage, produce and plan their production. The cooperative has reached a level of production to export to international markets and compete with other products.

Learning-growing-living with women farmers (Italy)

KINDERBETREUUNG2In South Tyrol, a group of women farmers provides childcare on farms, what diversifies the farm income while encouraging the children’ interaction with nature. Thus, the farm has been expanded to a place of learning, offering a complementary and alternative setting for environmental education. Moving away from the classical education about the environment and nature towards a direct integration of agricultural resources and the environment as teaching elements, the farm aims at stimulating the curiosity of children in learning, as well as developing their awareness for environmental, sustainable and rural resources. The childcare service includes individually adapted care accommodating up to six children, flexible care hours, integration into the family structure, and transmission of traditional and cultural values, environmental education, and summer care as well as care for children at different events.

Call of the Earth (community recycling scheme) (Lebanon)

LEBANON_WOMENWhen waste collection was neglected by authorities in the mid-1990s in Arabsalim, a woman -Zeinab Mokalled- set up a rubbish collection team by calling on the women of the village to help going door-to-door. The women set up a whole recycling scheme with their own resources (using for instance their own back gardens as the storage area for recyclable waste). In 1998, the women formalised their efforts by establishing an NGO: Nidaa Al Ard. The organisation is thriving, and schoolchildren, students and activists who come to learn from it frequently visit the project. Nearby villages, as Kaffaremen or Jaarjoua, are adopting now similar schemes.

These are only a few examples that highlight the role of women empowerment in the development of social innovations in marginalised rural areas, but if you scroll in the database you will find women involved in most of the examples. If you are aware of any interesting initiative led by rural women or dedicated to the empowerment of women anywhere in Europe or around the Mediterranean, that should be in the SIMRA database, tell us about it and our team will spread the voice!


Diana Valero (UHI-Perth)
Diana Valero (University of the Highlands and Islands)
Lucía López Marco (IAMZ-CIHEAM)
Lucía López Marco (Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Zaragoza – CIHEAM)