Diversity, drive and community: co-op ethos shines through on NI study tour

The sun blazed down on a glorious spring day at the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative as a large group of people peered into the River Bann and heard about how thousands of eels would soon be arriving with the fishing season due to start in May.

This was just one stop on a study tour of co-ops organised by Co-operative Alternatives in partnership with Social Enterprise NI to highlight the amazing diversity, drive and sense of community among these unique organisations.

Thirty interested people from a range of backgrounds – students, academics, media, existing co-ops and social enterprises as well as individuals considering setting up a co-op, joined the tour.

Charlotte Burnod, a student from University of Texas who is living in Glasgow on a year out, came on the tour as she is interested in setting up a student co-op in Scotland after being involved in a student housing co-operative in Texas.

The geography student said: “The tour was really great in that we got to see and hear from co-ops from so many sectors and in different stages of development.”

One of the clear advantages of the tour was that it offered the opportunity to network among co-operatives and explore potential trading links among emerging local enterprises.

John Junk, who is in the process of setting up social enterprise York Road Farmer’s Market, explained that he is interested in the co-operative model. “It was really good to meet such a lot of people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk. I’m hoping some of the food suppliers will consider selling their products at the market when it opens in the summer.”

Journalist Raymond Hughes, who is setting up his own website and community newspaper, attended the tour to learn more about co-ops. “I’m a member of a credit union but I’d never really thought about what that means and the real ethos behind it. The whole tour was absolutely fascinating and I really liked the energy, enthusiasm and community spirit shown by each organisation. They also had such an excellent business knowledge and ideas on how to maximise the potential of their organisations which have really inspired me and given my ideas for my own new business.”

The tour started with an amazing hand crafted breakfast at Loveworks in Duncairn Gardens in North Belfast. This co-op has multiple aspects – it’s a bakery, repairs bikes and provides gardening services. This worker’s co-operative hopes to inspire and help restore passion and pride in local artisan production and the sense of being part of a wider family. The team from Loveworks explained to the study tour group that they chose to become a co-op because they liked the democratic approach where every member has an equal say.

Next stop was Breezemount Farm in Connor where the group saw a wind turbine operated by Drumlin Co-operative Wind Energy. The group heard how Drumlin generates clean, green electricity and aims to help reduce carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuel sources.

The bus travelled on to nearby Ballymena where they visited Slemish n tha Braid Credit Union and the Raglan Community Development and Renovation Society – these co-ops are literally transforming a building which was derelict into a community hub in Harryville. During the visit, the participants were given information on why it is important to become a member of your local credit union and the benefit to have a community co-operative at the heart of regeneration.

After a gourmet lunch of smoked eels served on local potato and wheaten bread at Lough Neagh, Lacada Brewery Co-operative served the award winning craft beer sold across Northern Ireland.  With three samples on hand, this was a gourmet treat to accompany the eels!

The final stop was in Toome to see the NICE solar panels on the roof of TIDAL, the local community development association. NICE (NI Community Energy) placed similar panels on roofs of 18 charities and social enterprises across the region and by using solar energy, they reduced their electricity costs in the buildings. 

At Co-operative Alternatives, we are always happy to talk to people about the co-operative model, to help guide those interested in setting up a new co-op and to connect those making a difference in their communities. For more information, contact Tiziana O’Hara – on 07858317634 or email tiziana@coopalternatives.coop.