What does it take to rejuvenate a declining rural community?

To thrive in the future, rural Australian communities must simultaneously build economic, social, cultural and creative capital, writes Matt Pfahlert, CEO of the Australian Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, who explains why social enterprise and community rejuvenation are essential.

While many people dream of an idyllic life beyond the city lights, life is not all rosy in rural Australia.

Over the past 50 years, more than 70 percent of rural communities in Australia’s interior have experienced significant decline. (SEGRA 2020).

Many small, isolated communities face deep and entrenched disadvantages as key government, health and financial services withdraw or close, traditional industries decline, and extreme weather events occur more frequently. Today, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on social, cultural and economic well-being.

Economists often refer to these scenarios using terms such as “market failure” or “structural adjustment”.

In truth, it is a story of two worlds.

If you live in the Australian metropolis or a large regional center, you likely have access to health services, a reliable internet, a range of education, arts and culture, and work opportunities. But, if you live in a small rural community more than an hour from a large regional center, it’s like falling off a cliff.

So what is going on?

Despite significant investments, there remains a chronic lack of entrepreneurship education and support for young people in rural Australia and the communities in which they live. More government support is not the long term answer.

To thrive in the future, rural communities in Australia must simultaneously build economic, social, cultural and creative capital. By taking a ‘whole community’ approach to developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem, this can be achieved.

What does it take to rejuvenate a declining rural community?

We can learn a lot from the northern hemisphere.

In 2013, I was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill scholarship to study youth entrepreneurship programs and social enterprise models in rural communities in the UK, Canada and the US. People from over 100 rural communities generously shared what made their community “on its knees” to thrive again.

Their stories shared common threads. In summary, rural communities can become agile, resilient and enterprising while decreasing reliance on government when five key ingredients are available:

  1. Entrepreneurship to drive social change.
  2. Learning from experience, starting young and leveraging the best social enterprise content in the world.
  3. Build a self-sufficient community culture and ecosystem.
  4. Use local ownership and the development of community assets to galvanize action.
  5. Intersectoral collaboration to promote territorial change.

The challenge for rural Australia

There is an explosion in social enterprise activity across Australia – the sector was recently valued at $ 5.2 billion in Victoria alone. Yet a lot of people just don’t understand the business model behind it.

Rural communities are increasingly turning to social enterprise as a tool for self-reliance and to fill service gaps and create opportunities.

In the community of Corryong, Upper Murray, Victoria, the local neighborhood house manages the bakery, sell an essential product to locals and tourists, while providing training and jobs to young people. Indigo power builds a bank of renewable batteries to power the community in the event of future climate-related events. In western Victoria, the small community of Nandaly mobilized to buy back the Hotel Nandaly that had closed. It is now a hub for a whole range of community activities and valuable local services – not just a beer!

Despite these successes, there is a lack of understanding of the diversity, vibrancy and dreams of rural communities.

It’s time to get away from doing things To rural communities and instead find ways to work with and alongside rural communities to open doors of opportunity. Community led rejuvenation is key.

By building entrepreneurial capacities and capacities, we can unlock new opportunities to rejuvenate rural communities. The power of place is here to stay as rural communities demand long-term solutions to the complex problems they face.

Want to know more ?

Join Matt in a Pro Bono Australia masterclass on October 13th. Matt will highlight the ways real-life rural change actors use the social enterprise business model to design and grow businesses that simultaneously create new economic opportunities and have social impact for communities.

Matt will also unveil the community-led rejuvenation model and share tips on how to work effectively with rural communities in search of a new future.

About Keneth T. Graves

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