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This article is contributed by Balu Iyer, International Co-operatives Alliance Asia and Pacific

This building is dedicated to Maryam Mirzakhani! Do you know who she was? The young girl leading me to the meeting hall, without waiting for my answer, burst out with pride, “She was a mathematics professor, she was from Iran, and she was a woman!” Maryam was the first woman to win the Fields Medal (2014), awarded to those below 40 making outstanding contributions in mathematics. Maryam died in 2017 at the young age of 40. This article is not about Maryam but the women of Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative Educational Complex (RCEC).  Yes, there is a connection to Maryam, RCEC and co-operatives! Ms. Pabarja, the Principal of RCEC and member of the cooperative, taught Maryam geometry and Maryam’s brother is a teacher at the school!

We were in Tehran for my organization, International Cooperative Alliance Asia-Pacific, biennial Regional Assembly, which was being held in Iran for the first time. As part of the many events held in conjunction with the Regional Assembly was one, where youth from across the region were to interact with youth in Iran. The campus of RCEC provided the ideal location to host the event.

Tehran, located at the foot of the Alborz range, is a sprawling city with a population of around 8.6 million and an additional 15 million in the metropolitan area of Greater Tehran. The city has all that ails cities across the world confounding freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, blanket smog (we were lucky as it had rained) and concrete edifices. With its history dating back to 1796, Tehran offers a rich cultural, historical, political, religious, and social kaleidoscope. A couple of things are striking in Iran (Tehran in particular and in general) – youth and women.

A third of Iran's population are aged between15 and 29 and the median age is 30.3 years. Half the population was born in 1987 or more recently. Iran has reduced illiteracy among youth and has significantly increased its capacity for higher education. The total number of students enrolled at universities in 2016 was 4.3 million. Women constituted 50% of students enrolled in programs that offered a bachelor’s degree or higher and 46% of student enrollments in all higher education programs. Female students are the majority in major fields of study, especially in medicine and the basic sciences, women account for upward of 65% of students enrolled. Of the 26.4 million people in the labor force in 2016, 3.4 million (13%) were unemployed and looking for a job. Nearly 2 million (60%) of the unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 29. While Iran has the potential to reap from the demographic dividend, the challenges it faces relates to rising unemployment, lack of meaningful opportunities and increasing sense of disillusionment.

Women in Iran are not only more educated but also have a more visible role in life than in many other Islamic countries. Iran, as a Persian nation provides more space (relative) for women – prohibits discrimination against women in the work place, many are self-sufficient and independent, drive cars and taxis, and hold public offices. That said, Iranian law still favors men. Women are not equal under Iran’s constitution, adopted in 1979 after the revolution and it mandates that the legal code adhere to Sharia law. Women are legally required to wear head coverings in public as mandated by an edict in 1979. There have been protests rights from the time it was introduced and still continues. These days the younger generation has been voicing their activism through social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, and messaging apps like Telegram.

We arrived at RCEC and were welcomed by the school management and students, mostly women and girls.  After a brief introduction, we were divided into three groups each led by students about to graduate – Parnia Badiei, Has Aliyari, and Parinaz Asare.

Rah-e-Roshd (the way of growth) is a cooperative. A cooperative in simple terms is formed when a group of people see a felt need, come together on their own, work jointly, contribute equally, and manage affairs democratically (for more on co-operatives, visit https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/what-is-a-cooperative). In 1985, at the height of the war between Iran and Iraq, seven women came together to provide space for their children to play and be on their own. The space then evolved into a kindergarten with each woman pooling their savings to run the place. The kindergarten was a success but there was still the need to have a different type of school that would provide quality education at affordable costs and to counter the privatization trends underway. According to Anahita Eslahpazir, a founding member and the Chief Executive Officer of RCEC, “It was in 1996, 11 years after the kindergarten was started that we decided to form a cooperative as it fit well with our core beliefs. A part of the teacher’s salaries was deducted to provide the start-up capital 40 million IRR and 1,400 shares. 34 years later, we have done much more than we imagined! Would you believe, a few of the original members are still here?!”

Rah-e-Roshd has grown in number and reach and educates students from kindergarten up to high school. There are 200 members in the cooperative (teachers and parents), 700 teachers, and 3,000 students (boys and girls). The complex was bustling with students of all ages and all with head cover. Parnia our guide and an aspiring physicist who has studied at the school from kindergarten, was excited to tell us about the school and its activities, “the school is like an extended family. I spend more time here than my home!” RCEC provides a holistic experience to its students; it focuses not just on the curriculum but also practical skills (range from crafts to IT to mechanics to foreign language), extra-curricular activities (clubs for science, music, yoga), and civic responsibilities (contributing to students, school, and society). The teaching methods go beyond lecture to hands on experiments, critical thinking, and inculcating values.  The government has recognized the efforts of Rah-e-Roshd. In 2017, Rah-e-Rsoh was enlisted as a Nationally selected cooperative in recognition of its two outstanding characteristics – educational field of activity – a rare cooperative field in Iran; and decent social responsibility endeavors in promoting cooperative values. In 2018, RCEC formally joined the ICA as a member.

Rah-e-Roshd has taken the idea of co-operatives beyond just the school. The workers at the school canteen have been formed into the Hamyaran Atye Rah-e-Roshd cooperative; the financial needs of teachers are met through a thrift and credit society; to promote IT based services, the Asre Ertebatat co-operative has been setup; and the Manzoomeye Barge-e-Noo cooperative to promote research, training and education. The cooperatives have been formed to address need, to experiment, and to test. For example, Barge-e-Noo was formed to address the need for research (which is lacking), experiment with ideas (do collectives work in different contexts and in emerging sectors?), and to test (models). Semiramis Shahesmaili, a member of the research cooperative who is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology is looking at restoring power to Iranian women through co-operatives. According to her, “women in spite of having high educational qualification are driven into the informal sector. The policy emphasis is on formalization. Historically, women in Iran have been successful in collective work in two ways: through traditional cooperation systems such as "vareh" and the second through the modern form of cooperatives in the 60s after the land reform programs. If this be the case, why not we promote co-operatives in all sectors where women work?”

It was very refreshing for me to visit RCEC, mingle with the students and management, and see the work being done by them. I had read about their work, but seeing it in person was a totally different experience. RCEC is not resting on its laurels but seeing how it can address the needs of their two core groups - youth and women. The results of their work can have a bearing on Iran as these two groups are the pillars of the country. We left with words of Anahita ringing in our ears, “Cooperation is our Strength, it inspired our members to turn crisis into opportunity.” Amen to that!

The views expressed here are in an individual capacity and do not reflect that of ICA or ICA-AP.

 


 

References:

  1. Discussions with Anahita, Semiramis, Farshad, Babak, Alireza to name a few
  2. Report of the Development Meeting and Joint Workshop on Youth and Co-operatives in Educational Institutions on the theme, Building Resilience & Sustainability through the Fifth Co-operative Principle on Education, Information & Training.
  3. Rah-e-Roshd: The first cooperative school working to advance inclusive and quality education in Iran
  4. Iran’s Women Are Not for Turning
  5. Co-operative education in the heart of Tehran
  6. Iran’s Population Dynamics and Demographic Window of Opportunity

visit Gyeonggido Job Foundation resized

Mutual sharing of best practices is the way to grow co-operatively, as the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF) welcomed the five delegates from the Gyeonggido Job Foundation, South Korea to Singapore on 13 March 2019. The Gyeonggido Job Foundation provides quality training courses and consultancy service on managing new business model in Gyeonggido area. This is the first time that they visited SNCF.

The delegates led by Senior Advisor, Mr Andy Kim hope to learn more about SNCF’s role, programmes and initiatives that help foster and strengthen the co-operative movement in Singapore. Following the briefing, the delegates had a lively discussion with SNCF CEO Dolly Goh and SNCF Senior Manager (Non-Credit) Cindy Wong. The opportunity to draw upon the expertise of the Gyeonggido Job Foundation was insightful and speaks volume of the kindred ties that SNCF has with members of the international co-operative movement.

In November 2018, SNCF CEO Dolly Goh, attending as a speaker for the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) Summit, was given the opportunity to visit The Community Co-operative Store, Australia. What hit home about the visit were:

  1. Very proud to be identified and known as a co-op in all touchpoints
  2. Embracing members, listening and reinventing itself to serve the needs of its members and the society (i.e. the local suppliers, consumers, offering employment, developing the young) at competitive pricing
  3. Making reasonable profits to deliver its social cause, serving its members and community with quality and competitively priced products and services
  4. A co-operative that its members (every member/owner has an equal voice) and the society that they serve are very proud of as they see themselves as owners and beneficiaries of the co-operative


The Co-operator is glad to have the opportunity to interview Mr Neil Retallick, Chief Executive, The Community Co-operative Store by email for this issue.

 

In the co-operative model, the relationship between the owners and management is much closer, and every owner has an equal voice. More democratic, more purpose-driven and more transparent – a winning combination that ensures positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

- Mr Neil Retallick, Chief Executive, The Community Co-operative Store (Nuriootpa) Limited in South Australia


One neighbourhood store. A thwarted succession plan. A group of decisive businessmen. All converged to precipitate the genesis of the Nuriootpa Co-operative ("The Co-op") 75 years ago.

Today, The Co-op is a thriving retail enterprise serving the community in Barossa region, South Australia. Its network comprises a large supermarket (4,855 square metres) and nine specialty stores, all located in Nuriootpa, a small town whose name means “meeting place” in the aboriginal language.

Neil Retallick Nuriootpa South Australia"As of the last financial year, our combined turnover is in excess of AUD60 million. Growth in sales revenue over the years is a result of The Co-op offering to our members the products and services they want. The credit must go to all those who have worked at The Co-op over the last 75 years, building up the network of stores to what it is today," said CEO Neil Retallick.

The origins of The Co-op could be traced back to the 1930s when Harold and Rose Sheard opened a general goods store in Nuriootpa. They had planned to hand over the store to their son. Unfortunately, he was killed in the War. The couple decided to sell the business. Anxious about the prospects of the store disappearing from the town, a group of local businessmen bought it over. In 1944, the business was converted to a co-operative and 7,500 shares were sold at a pound apiece. That first store was the seed from where the business took off.

butcher nuriootpa south australia

The benefits of The Co-op operations are far-reaching. The convenience it provides to members is unrivalled even by Internet shopping. From food to hardware and electrical goods, toys to sporting equipment and apparel, residents in Barossa can purchase almost everything they need from the constellation of 10 shops in Nuriootpa, all within a radius of 300 metres.

"Due to our geographical location, online shopping is not entirely convenient. What takes two days to arrive if ordered in Sydney can take three weeks to arrive in Nuriootpa," Neil said, dispelling the popular notion of speed offered by online shopping.

The incentives it provides to members are robust. In a competitive retail industry where customer loyalty programmes are all par for the course, The Co-op has managed to hold its own.

"There is a huge difference between a loyalty programme and what we do in the co-operative. In Australia, loyalty programmes provide an incentive that works out to be around a 3% discount in the long term. Usually, it is an accumulation model; the benefits are not immediate, and the wait can be long for the rewards to materialise. Retailers offer these programmes for two main reasons. First, to obtain an email address for follow-up engagement with the customer. Second, and more importantly, retailers want to track the shopping behaviour of the customer so that they can design personalised promotions that will appeal to her or him," Neil clarified.

"Membership of a co-operative ought to be more compelling than the 3% discount, while still being able to provide the same two benefits I mentioned. Granted, membership of The Co-op is not free. But the AUD2 membership fee can be recouped through the discounts on offer, in just one visit to the supermarket," he added.

Besides providing the tangible benefits, The Co-op satisfies the aspirations of those wishing to be associated with the Barossa identity, building and strengthening it. When shopping at The Co-op, members know that they are helping the community of which they are a part.

fruits nuriootpa south australia

"We reach out to the local community through three pillars - economically, culturally and health. The Co-op employs local residents, paying out more than AUD10 million in wages a year. We are the largest employer in the region of people under the age of 25. Through intentional procurement policy, we support local businesses, about 120 food suppliers and services providers. We set aside funds to support local cultural organisations; each year, we give out more than AUD100,000 to local cultural organisations. A new programme, slated to launch this year, seeks to help our members make better health choices when shopping at The Co-op," Neil elaborated.

An example of The Co-op 'going native' is the way the supermarket protects and promotes the local reputation for gourmet foods. Local producers are highlighted and a ‘Barossa Larder’ area has been specially built to emphasise the quality produce. In addition, the supermarket invests in a thermostatically-controlled Cheese Room, signifying its commitment to the many cheesemakers in the Barossa region.

delicatessen nuriootpa south australia

The growth momentum of the past 75 years is not about to slow down. If anything, it has been revved up to keep apace with the needs of a new generation of members. Over the last five years, The Co-op has invested substantially to rebuild its infrastructure, to create more retail space and to modernise the built structures. The hardware store underwent expansion. It is much larger now and is better equipped to serve local building and construction contractors, besides retail customers. The supermarket emerged to be stunning from a makeover - with one wall, made of glass, rising to seven metres high - while the redesigned shopping centre has been nominated for international design awards.


"These were courageous decisions made, aimed to position The Co-op to be the preferred destination for the local community for many years to come. Our challenge is to keep our focus on our customers - every day our offers are evolving as we listen to our customers. Every day is an opportunity to get better. This is an exciting journey we are on," Neil said. "There are around 38,000 people living in the Barossa region. Our membership stands at about 24,000 currently. There is a terrific opportunity for our co-op to increase its reach and expand membership."

There is another reason for being upbeat. With the co-operative model gaining popularity in Australia, the Government has resolved to provide more clarity and guidance to operators.

"A key issue was, and still is, the ability for co-operatives to raise funds from entities outside its membership base without prejudicing their co-operative status. Legislation will be introduced to the Federal Parliament this year to normalise the co-operative structure. This will provide co-operatives with an opportunity for growth not previously available," Neil said.

 


 

Neil on Running a Retail Co-operative

Tips on running a retail co-operative:

  • Focus on profit, not revenue. Profit takes into account costs and provides a better gauge for financial efficiency.
  • Engage more in competitive pricing, instead of cheap pricing. Ask how we can value-add to our 'brand' in terms of product quality and service. Be prepared to educate customers and change mindsets.
  • In pursuing business objectives, do not forget the co-operative's reason for existence. Take time to talk and listen to members for they keep us grounded.


Learning Tips:

  • The co-operative values of self and mutual help, as well as principles of democracy and equality are real and empowering values to help co-operatives to forge ahead
  • Co-operatives exist to benefit members and help to improve lives in communities
  • Sustainable in order to be a force of good

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