As we look towards a post-Covid economy the appetite for changing how we do business has definitely altered course.
A growing sector is becoming noticeably evident as this demand for increased resilience, fairness and ethically led alternatives gathers pace.
According to the recent Co-op Economy Report 2021, released on June 28 by Co-operatives UK, co-op businesses are more resilient to the economic devastation caused by Covid-19.
Co-op Alternatives has been open for business in Belfast in since 2013 – or more accurately, open for business to help create new co-operatives set up in business.
As the only body in Northern Ireland entirely devoted to developing successful co-operatives and community benefit societies, Co-operative Alternatives offer a high quality range of advice on legal, financial, business and democratic governance.
Backed with the timely provision of tailored training and business support for all groups that want to do business in a co-operative way, Co-op Alternatives is a one-stop shop for that much needed different approach.
At the helm is Tiziana O’Hara, a native of Milan who has adopted Belfast as her home and is on a mission to steer new-starts along co-operative guidelines.
“Through our existence we demonstrated that co-operatives are not relegated to the past,” she said.
“Innovation can be done by applying an old concept in new creative way and this is what the emerging co-operative sector have done in Northern Ireland.
“Co-operatives have sprung up in industry like energy, sport and food and drinks and brought benefits beyond profit to their members and the wider community.
“Co-operative Alternatives have brought passion and with it, possibilities. We had been involved with over 50 projects exploring the co-operative way and set up 28 new co-operatives.
“Even during the difficult 2020 lockdown period we engaged with over 130 people online through recent webinars and online training.”
has helped launch the likes of Lacada Brewery, Jubilee Community Fa-
rm, Venture Folk, Bo-undary Brewery, NI Community Energy (NICE), Good to Grow, and Bel-fast Food Co-op, to name a few.
Co-op Alternatives has introduced ‘community shares’ to Northern Ireland.
Community shares are an innovative and accessible investment model that benefits co-ops and communities.
By popularising this method, Co-operative Alternatives has raised over £994,000 in share capital to help numerous local enterprises make a start or take their business to the next level by, for instance, purchasing land or solar panels.
“Community shares,” added Tiziana O’Hara, “have many benefits: it is patient capital that successful businesses can rely on and community shares have democratised investments so that anyone can literally put some money into a local business that would eventually create jobs and wealth in their towns.
“It also shifts the thinking and brought back communities to the ‘self-help’ attitude: ‘If we do not do it, who will?’”
And it’s not just about new starts; Co-operative Alternatives is involved in promoting workers ownership and workers co-operatives.
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance to create socially just employment and focus our attention on climate change.
Co-operatives responded to the new opportunities in the green economy and recovery plans with jobs that put workers at the heart of it.
Tiziana explains: “When we started, we were motivated by the fact that we could offer alternatives in economic and community development in NI.
“Our member-owned and purpose driven approach allowed us to see that economy and community were inseparable.
“We thought that member-owned co-ops would help move forward communities over-reliant on grants and an economy over-reliant on the public sector.
“Co-operatives are now more recognised than almost 10 years ago. But more needs to be done to support this fledgling sector and co-operative development bodies like Co-operative Alternatives.
“The co-operative sector deserves high quality and consistent support.
“In NI, the policy makers talk about their commitment to diversify the economy and make community more resilient – where are the investment in organisations like Co-operative Alternatives that can make this happens?
“Within these boundaries Co-operative Alternatives clients can still avail of co-operative support if they are thinking about setting up or grow their co-operatives.
“Co-operative Alternatives offer advice and training through their community shares and co-operative practitioners. Information is available on the website www.coopalternatives.coop”
There are more than 214 independent co-operatives in Northern Ireland; credit unions account for 145 of these while the remaining 69 comprise of well-established and emerging co-operatives.
In the current economic environment, forming a co-operative can empower communities
to provide much needed products and services.
Fundamentally, they exist to serve their members, whether they are the customers, the employees or the local community.
In past years Co-operative Alternatives has made great strides in energising local groups and individuals to come together and create new co-operatives in new sectors such as renewable energy, leisure and sports, community building and housing, creative industries and craft and artisan food and drink.