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Thinking inside the box: Co-op in a Box

Young people use Co-op in a Box to set up an enterprise selling lemonade at CoCamp.

Around 40 new co-operatives were set up in August – each owned and run by a group of young people at the Woodcraft Folk’s International Camp of Co-operation, CoCamp.

Mini-enterprises selling refreshing lemonade, friendship bracelets, popcorn and recycled jewellery, or providing services such as hand and foot massage, face painting, temporary tattoos and mobile phone charging, sprung up around the 2,500-strong international camp thanks to a new initiative from the Co-operative College called ‘Co-op in a Box’.

Young people use Co-op in a Box to set up an enterprise selling lemonade at CoCamp.

The boxes were distributed to young people who expressed an interest in setting up and running a co-operative business and whilst these enterprises may have only lasted for 10 days, they provided a hands-on taste of the co-operative business model to around 250 young people.

Each box contained a series of activities for the group to undertake to get their co-operative up and running. First they learnt about the co-operative movement and its values, then they considered membership, rules, environmental and social impact and business planning. Completion of each of these activities was recorded on an attractive ‘beehive’ poster.

The boxes also included the materials, equipment and ingredients needed to get started with a particular enterprise. Wind-up mobile phone charges, fruit cocktails, chocolate crispy buns and hair braiding were among the popular kits. When these were used up several of the young co-operators decided to reinvest their surplus, buying more stock to continue and expand the business.

Lemonade production in action

At the end of the camp each group had to decide what to do with their profits. Some groups paid their worker-members a wage, others made donations to charity and several provided treats for fellow campers in their ‘village’.

One participant who set up a co-operative with Co-op in a Box said: “Working in a team I found out that you can’t have one person as the leader. Everyone has to be involved. Now we know how to run a co-op business and feel good that we didn't give up half way through. We take away a smile knowing we've made people happy and made money for charity.” Another added: “We loved the way the group were all really enthusiastic about the co-op and it was fun making people happy by making them presents. We liked learning how to be democratic and it wasn't like being at school. It was fun as everyone had a say. I might take home the co-op idea and do it with my friends.” A customer said they found the services and goods provided by the co-operatives at the camp "really useful".

Lemonade production in action

Julie Thorpe, Head of School and Youth Programmes at the Co-operative College, was really pleased with the success of the activity. She said: “It was great to see the young people developing their understanding of co-operative values and putting them into practice. They discovered the importance of self-responsibility to ensuring that everyone put in the required effort, and democratic decision making was a key feature. Equity and solidarity were very much in evidence in the sometimes heated debates about how to distribute the surplus at the end of project.

“The scheme showed how the values members learn about in the Woodcraft Folk can be applied in enterprise in a way which provides an ethical alternative to the exploitative consumer society young people are surrounded by every day. The ‘boxes’ proved a great success and we hope to be able to offer them to schools and other young groups in the future.”

Read a write-up of Co-op in a Box by a member of one of the co-operatives set up at CoCamp, which explains how the co-operative was set up, functioned and what members got out of the experience, on the Woodcraft Folk website at www.woodcraft.org.uk/news/elfins-and-pioneers-launch-co-operative-cocamp.