“Struggling with innovation”: Lessons from the research secondment in Central Greece

With the secondments of IFI and IRS researchers in Central Greece, the empirical phase of the RurInno project is drawing to a close. Intensive weeks full of observations, inspiring meetings and interviews lay behind the three researchers. Among the enduring experiences is the audience at the archbishop of the Phthiotis region, which gave a vivid impression of the religious practice in Greece. Apart from this, we observe a revealing process of struggling with innovation when it comes to cover the whole value chain in the production process of Stevia Hellas.

Traditionally, farmers produce little more than the raw products for the food business industry. This leaves farmers dependent on the industry and enables only limited income opportunities. Since its foundation in 2012, the social cooperative Stevia Hellas follows another way. Unlike most other cooperatives in the agriculture sector, it strives to cover the whole value chain from the cultivation of the crops to the sale of the final product under their own label. Beside the pioneering cultivation of the alternative sugar plant stevia, this business model is a further innovation of the Stevia Hellas approach. It ensures the sustainability of small family farms and preserves jobs in a region with high unemployment rates due to the deep economic crises.

However, while the farmers on the one hand welcome the idea of gaining the profits from the total value chain by forward integration, on the other hand many of them avoid risks when it comes to take loans to reach this goal. As a consequence, important investments have not been made and previous investments cannot be fully leveraged. For example, the desired machinery for the automated harvesting of the stevia leaves was not purchased and keeps the cultivation a process of intensive manual labour. It seems to be a long way from the economical to the social innovation, from the development of a new business model to its adoption towards a new mindset and action. Recent achievements might provide good arguments for a more entrepreneurial attitude among the members of the cooperative. Lately, Stevia Hellas has won a big costumer and it expects to reach the break-even point soon this year. Being awarded as the Greek start-up of the year 2017, might give a further impulse for strengthening the confidence.