As with other East-European countries, many people in Czech Republic associate co-operatives with the former communist regime. Some still perceive co-ops as old-fashioned, state-owned, unproductive enterprises.
But in the small town of Kostelec nad Labem, in Central Bohemia, a coffee co-op is trying to show that co-operation works. The founders of Fair & Bio Coffee Roasters wanted to process Fairtrade coffee in the Czech Republic, rather than have it imported from somewhere else. In doing so, they are also reviving the co-operative business model.
The Czech co-operative movement dates back to 1847, when the first consumer co-op, the Prague Food and Savings Society, was established. Its purpose was similar to that of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society – to provide high-quality, affordable food to people in industrial areas. Shortly afterwards, credit, agricultural and housing co-ops were set up in Bohemia and Moravia.
The downfall of the co-operative sector in the region started with World War II. Staff members of co-ops were targeted and executed by the Nazi regime. And when the Communists came to power in 1948, co-ops lost their autonomy and independence, becoming state-owned. New co-ops were set up but they belonged to the state and lacked the entrepreneurial dimension of the former societies. After 1989, some co-ops did not manage to obtain ownership of their former assets and were disbanded.
“In 1989 the collective way of doing things was rejected. We are now trying to explain that the collective democratic form of doing business is not evil and that co-operation is necessary for a successful way of doing anything. Not many people know what the co-operative history is so rich,” says Marketa Vinkelhoferová, a member and director of the co-op.
“The image of co-ops was very much damaged. Until now, they have been disregarded. There was a misconception that co-operation doesn’t work and co-ops were rejected. It is getting better. Over the past five years, things have changed.
“People don’t laugh at us any more.”
A social enterprise, the co-operative is run as a multi-stakeholder co-op, with 25 members, some of them employees. It counts on 12 workers, nine of whom have disabilities.
“I like working in the roastery because of the beautiful smell of coffee”, says Filip, one of the employees with learning disabilities, who has been there since the start. His colleague, Lukáš, adds: “I love the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of the workplace.”
Marketa is the president of the board of directors of the co-op, which includes two other members. Regular members are also involved on a voluntary basis, helping out during the busy periods, particularly at Christmas. To join the co-op, members have to invest €200 in the business.
“We don’t recruit members. We work with people who want to become members and are highly motivated. We want committed members rather than a big membership pool. We expect support and involvement from them, as well as an understanding of our values.
“We are part of the wider movement and we aim to create international contacts. Not much is known about co-ops in Central and East-European countries. We would like to let the world know.”
The co-op is a member of the Union of Czech and Moravian Manufacturing Cooperatives, the Association of Social Responsibility, the Decent Company platform, and RIPESS, the intercontinental network for the promotion of social solidarity economy.
The NGO that co-established the co-op, Ecumenical Academy, was a partner organisation in the SUSY project, a European initiative to promote the social and solidarity economy. Ecumenical Academy supports alternative approaches to solving the current economic, social and environmental issues both in local communities and at global level.
Fair & Bio Roastery was one of the good practice examples included in the European Sustainable and Solidarity Economy project (SUSY). As part of the intitiative, the partner organisations launched a series of videos showcasing good practices in the social and solidarity economy around the world.
The co-op roasts around five tonnes of coffee per year. The coffee sold by Fair & Bio Roastery is 100% Arabica and comes from Latin America, Africa and Asia. They also offer a blend with Robusta. All coffee is Fairtrade-certified and a large part of it is organic.
Products include coffee roasted in the style of Italian espresso and third-wave coffee, which is roasted less and emphasises floral and fruity flavours. The products are sold online, as well as to local businesses and shops, including zero-waste shops. A significant percentage of customers are companies – who buy the coffee for gift sets or their employees’ consumption.
“There is a lot more acknowledgement of Fairtrade than 10 years ago,” says Marketa.
“People also respect the concept of organic agriculture. We don’t want to make ourselves cheaper to be more competitive because we would need to save money from somewhere and we don’t want to abandon some of our values.”
One of the main challenges faced when setting up was the lack of support available for co-ops, particularly in terms of access to capital. There is a lack of ethical finance in the Czech Republic, adds Marketa.
Acquiring the coffee-roasting machine and other equipment required investment. The co-op obtained a grant from the EU Social Fund, but that did not cover the whole cost of the equipment.
“Many people tend to say that grants are not good but how we understood it was like an initial investment. Social and solidarity economy enterprises, like us, have to be economically sustainable and cannot be running on grants,” says Marketa.
Looking ahead, the co-op plans to grow sustainably, roast more coffee and increase the number of employees.
“We would like to expand our offer one day to neighbouring countries like Poland, or Slovakia, but there are many more opportunities to take in our own country first. The environment is much friendlier now.
“More people are aware of environmental issues, especially after this hot summer. They are also supportive of local economies. We combine global sustainability through our Fairtrade sourcing and transparent supply chains with local sustainability by providing jobs for local people and those disadvantaged,” adds Marketa.