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Scaling community food businesses – blog #2

How can UK Community food businesses learn from counterparts in South America, many of which have scaled successfully, in terms of good practice, how they are organised and how they address inequality and improve social cohesion?

I’d like us to think about the last coffee you had or the last lettuce you bought. Maybe your coffee was certified fair trade how about that poor lettuce, who knows where that came from, who grew it and how much they got paid? In this age of sophisticated palates we still know so little about the origin and social impact of the food we eat.

Last summer I visited Sutton Community farm, where I could not only buy a lettuce knowing where it had been grown sustainably and ethically, but also knowing I was supporting a community businesses to improve community cohesion, bring people together, increase their skills and create jobs in the UK food sector.

In the UK there are many great businesses like Sutton Community Farm, but what we are seeing is that very few ever grow – with 84% of social enterprises in the UK turning over less than £1 million. That means that their impact is limited despite the high potential for good that they might have.

In South America there are examples of community businesses that have grown, with a high number of food cooperatives in sectors such as coffee and cocoa, but there are also other interesting models such as share distribution schemes for producers, which make South America an interesting place for exploration.

In the next few months I will be speaking to several UK community businesses to ensure that I understand the challenges that they face in some detail.

So far three challenges have surfaced – one is around leadership and entrepreneurship and how community business leaders are not often businesspeople; the second is around access to the right support – even though there is quite a lot of funding available in the UK for community businesses this is not necessarily what they are lacking; the third is scale – is it a contradiction for community businesses to scale and does it mean that they will then lose their community focus per se?

I will then talk to infrastructure and finance providers in South America such as Shared Interest and Oxfam, and research relevant businesses such as chocolate business Choba Choba explored in a previous blog, which is giving an increased number of shares to its producers as the business grows.

If you know community food businesses in the UK or South America who might be interested in this research please do let me know!

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