by Jake Karlyle
|Examples of small-scale cooperative enterpriseMaleny, situated 100 kilometres north of Brisbane on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, is surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, has stunning views of the Glass House Mountains, and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It has about 7,000 people. Maleny has a long history of cooperative enterprise, beginning on 3 May 1903, when settlers started the first dairy cooperative in the region.
By the 21st century, Maleny has around 17 cooperatives that work in all areas of community life including a consumer’s coop, a cooperative bank, a cooperative club, a worker’s coop, a cashless trading coop, a cooperative radio station, a cooperative film society, four environmental coops, and several community settlement coops.
What is a cooperative?
Cooperatives are formed when a group of like-minded individuals join together to accomplish something that each, acting alone, could not achieve. Successful coops cannot be imposed on a community; they have to grow from the energy and commitment of the local people.
Coops integrate economic and social objectives. Unlike the private sector, which tends to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few, coops spread wealth and power to each member equally. Unlike government, which tends to be remote and unresponsive to those it should serve, coops are driven by their members and reflect their needs.
Cooperatives have a competitive advantage over both private and public enterprises: the members own the coop, so they are more likely to buy the coop’s goods or use its services. They also decide how to spend the coop’s profits.
Maple Street Cooperative
Maple Street Cooperative opened its doors on January 14th 1980, nearly a year after a small group of people met to discuss how to satisfy their need for whole-foods. Today it operates an organic health food retail outlet in the main street of Maleny, is open 7 days a week, and has 450 active members. It is a consumers’ cooperative and sells to its members and to the public.
The coop’s policy is organic first, then local, then Australian. It does not stock products that contain genetically modified material, nor products from companies seen to exploit people or the environment. Any profits go back into the coop, to expand its services and develop its infrastructure, or into community activities.
At first labour in the coop was voluntary, but as the coop prospered, the number of paid workers increased. The coop employs around 11 part time staff and one full time manager.
During its 22 years, it has on occasion had no business plan, operated at a loss, made poor investment decisions, lacked experienced financial management, and had to spend a lot of time and energy resolving differences of opinion among the members.
However, it gradually evolved a formula for success. It now has a sound strategic and financial plan, regularly makes a profit, cultivates the support of both the members and the community at large, and ensures that the staff and management are honest, dedicated and competent.
Maleny Credit Union
The Maleny Credit Union started in 1984 when several local people had the idea of setting up an ethical financial institution to foster regional financial autonomy. Initially it was staffed by volunteers and worked from rented rooms. On the first day of operations, local people deposited more than Aus$50,000.
Today the Credit Union has more than 6000 members, 14 paid staff, and $15 million in assets, and owns its premises. It is one of only a handful of financial institutions in the country that operates on cooperative principles.
Over the years the Credit Union has given out many small loans to local people who would not be eligible for loans from major banks. In this and other ways, it contributes substantially to the local community and leads its development.
The Credit Union’s ethical activities include, among other things:
Since it was established, it has reinvested over $50 million back into the local community.
Like the Maple Street Coop, in its early years the Credit Union had periods of difficulty. However, improved planning and financial management overcame these problems. Today it is successful, largely because it developed the right balance of financial expertise and cooperative spirit.
The Up Front Club
Late in 1993, a group of Maleny residents formed a cooperative club where they could eat, drink, relax and socialize. Today it is a place where the food is wholesome and inexpensive, the coffee is great, and local musicians and entertainers can gain exposure.
Initially it was under-capitalized, so although it had over 1,000 members, each year it sustained a loss. In the year 2000, three directors took over the voluntary management of the Club, enabling it to remain in existence.
At about that time, the Club turned a corner when some 100 members attended a special general meeting, talked of what the Club meant to them, and committed to regular voluntary work so that it could stay open. Soon after that, for the first time the Club posted an operating profit.
Over the years the Club has showcased a wide range of local talent, hosting everything from classical evenings to CD nights for teenagers. For many, it is the cultural centre of the Maleny community.
Local Energy Transfer System
Maleny has one of Australia’s most successful LETS schemes. LETS began in Canada in 1982, and was launched in Maleny in 1987. There are now over 200 LETS schemes in Australia.
LETS functions as a cashless trading coop. Members trade their skills and provide services to each other without the use of money. In Maleny members trade their products and services in the local currency, the Bunya, named after the native pine nut, and people with little or no cash can participate in the economy.
Maleny has 3 environmental coops. They are:
Community settlement cooperatives
Other cooperatives in Maleny
Other cooperatives in Maleny include:
Building successful cooperatives
The experience of the Maleny cooperatives shows that building successful cooperative enterprises involves several steps.
The golden rules for beginning a community economic strategy are clear:
Cooperatives bring people together, encourage them to use their diverse skills and talents, and often provide them with the opportunity to develop new capabilities. They create a sense of belonging, build close relationships among different types of people, and empower them to make decisions to develop their community.
Working together, a community is able to accomplish much more than if the various individuals go their separate ways. This is because economically, cooperatives produce various types of goods locally, provide a range of local services, create employment, circulate money within the community, and make the community economically self-reliant.
In essence, successful cooperative enterprises transform a community by establishing economic democracy. Thus, cooperative enterprise is the socio-economic system of the future. In Maleny, that future is unfolding before us right now.
Published by Prout Community Settlement Cooperative, PO Box 177, Maleny, 4552, Australia.