New crops under traditional conditions in the area of Lamia

Leonidas Zervas is President of Board of Stevia Hellas Cooperative. When he talks about his achievements and shows his work places and machines, he is proud of what he has achieved and what is still ahead of him.

For almost all his life, he has been involved in agriculture. He is passionate about how the work conditions in local farms have changed.

Leonidas lives in the central Greek region of Phthiotis (160,000 inhabitants) whose capital town Lamia has now over 70,000 inhabitants. The area is plagued by a very high unemployment rate and high out-migration rates, especially of young people. Many of them move to big Greek cities like Athens and Thessaloniki or even leave Greece to try their luck abroad.

Leonidas Zervas talks about what farmers in the Lamia region are famous for, namely combining tradition with modernity. For many years, the farmers have mainly concentrated on tobacco plantations. To date, many farmers still cultivate the crop while others already grow cotton or the main “hero of the Lamia story”: stevia.

Researcher’s Notebook: Georgios Chatzichristos
Political frameworks for social innovation

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Different political frameworks for social innovation and social economy

During my research into the regions of the Mühlviertel (Austria), Baixo Alentejo (Portugal) and Pthiothis (Greece), I realised that the political frameworks of social innovation and social economy differ substantially. A case in point are the difficulties I faced when developing a questionnaire for political experts from the three regions. Meanings and concepts need to be interpreted within different frameworks. This can only be done by active participation in the specific communities by helping our local partners.

The Mühlviertel region: autonomy and networking

By investigating the political framework of the Mühlviertel region, I witnessed a strong network of autonomous regional development agencies. It is accompanied by a highly decentralised structure which successfully manages to address mismatches and conflicts of interest between the different levels of political intervention. Nonetheless, there were strong indications of saturation and stagnation of a structure that seems strongly attached to the successful status quo. What might seem as a counterintuitive argument is that success does not necessarily mean social innovation.

The Baixo Alentejo region: the power of the distribution of land

During my three-months-long internship in Baixo Alentejo I realised that social and historical issues are quite crucial to social innovation and social economy. More specifically, the distribution of land in big ownerships in Baixo Alentejo continues to affect the way people think and the level of their activity. One of the region’s political experts was very instructive: “People in the region don’t have the instruments to create autonomy themselves. They are always dependent on others. This is a state of mind and it is critical to innovation”. Thus, although there are very active regional development agencies, local people do not seem ready for change.

The Pthiotis region: fragile rural identities

The aftermath of the economic crisis in Greek rural areas is still visible. What I found very interesting during a two-month internship in Pthiotis was the effects of the crisis on cultural life. Social innovation and social economy depend heavily on local identifications. The identity of the male rural farmer, who is at the same time a businessman, an employer and a ‘successful’ local figure, prevailed before the economic crisis in Greek rural areas. Nowadays this identity seems to be severely undermined. Before farmers’ and rural residents’ identities have been re-established, the political process of social innovation (but also more general of rural development) will raise controversy.

The reason why some farmers gave up growing tobacco was the unprofitability of the plantations resulting from the reduced tobacco subsidies.

The advantage of growing stevia is that the established practices of cultivating tobacco developed more than 50 years ago can be used to produce stevia. Even the agricultural equipment that the farmers purchased in the past decades can be directly used for stevia cultivation. Stevia is sold in the high-growth market of sweeteners and sugar substitutes.

Stevia Hellas Cooperative – a coordinator of the farmers’ work

Nevertheless, it has turned out that the changeover to stevia production is anything but an automatic process. Despite the remarkable continuity with regard to the agricultural techniques and practices, it is imperative to improve the techniques and devise new strategies for the new market. This is a context in which the Stevia Hellas Cooperative was founded.

The main objective of Stevia Hellas is to coordinate the work of individual farmers and to become established in the industry. Stevia Hellas is a community of farmers who jointly devise novel strategies in order to ensure a strong market position. For Christos Stamatis, CEO of Stevia Hellas, it is professionalism which is highly significant in the daily work of the Cooperative. To him, professionalism means two things.

Novel ways of improving agricultural work

On the one hand, professionalism is needed for constant improvement and development of new practices and techniques. This is achieved, for example, by mechanising and automating the stevia production process using machinery purchased by Stevia Hellas Cooperative.

Formerly, consistent improvement of practices and techniques were not among farmers’ goals – this is indeed a socially-innovative aspect of the Cooperative’s work. For example, Andreas Garlaounis and Iraklis Dimos have to cope with and manage the dust: a by-product of operating the machinery.

Professionalism also manifests itself in the process of developing stevia in an original way together with the packaging, profiling and promoting the final product when it returns to Lamia from processing factories in France.

Stevia products used as home-use food and beverage sweeteners , are packaged by Irene Stamelou in safe and healthy conditions. Precision is reflected in the movements and in the whole environment, far exceeding traditional farming tasks and routines. Stevia Hellas Cooperative attempts to develop a value-added process and to create new jobs in the region.

Exchange of experience as part of farmers’ work

On the other hand, to Christos and Stevia Hellas professionalism stands for maintaining the bottom-up attitudes of the farmers.

Farmers normally do not want their work to be strictly corporative. It is still important for them to stick to the farming traditions they have learned from their forefathers. Thus it is all the more surprising that Stevia Hellas Cooperative has been able to construct such a comprehensive business model.

Daily meetings of farmers play an important role. They make farmers feel that they act not only for themselves but also for the community. 

The meetings have almost become a ritual. They take place in a roadside café near a petrol station – somewhere in the middle of the roads leading to specific farms.

The meetings combine an intensive outlook on the day-to-day business and drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and eating together. Typically, the discussions are focused on activities and plans related to the stevia cultivation and on how the technical equipment can be shared. Sometimes even joint investment plans are negotiated. Farmers exchange information about what happened in the past days and what can be expected in the future. Although it is not on an official agenda for the farmers, it becomes clear that there is still another agenda which seems to be equally important: being together and building trust.

Innovating by combining different types of knowledge and experiences

Stevia Hellas has become one of the most prominent growers of stevia in Europe. Its strength lies in the ability to benefit from a range of dozens of traditional family farms. At the same time it is able to further develop traditional knowledge and to create tools, working methods, and business strategies previously unknown in the region.

The market success of Stevia Hellas Cooperative can be explained as a combination of different ways of achieving operational professionalism and going beyond mere agricultural production processes. The Cooperative serves as an interface by “blending” different types of knowledge: bottom-up and traditional agricultural knowledge as well as professional market knowledge.