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What does it take to rejuvenate a declining rural community?


6 October 2021 at 5:10 pm
Matt Pfahlert
To thrive into the future, Australia’s rural communities need to simultaneously build economic, social, cultural and creative capital, writes Matt Pfahlert, CEO of the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship, who explains why social enterprise and community-led rejuvenation are key. 


Matt Pfahlert | 6 October 2021 at 5:10 pm


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What does it take to rejuvenate a declining rural community?
6 October 2021 at 5:10 pm

To thrive into the future, Australia’s rural communities need to simultaneously build economic, social, cultural and creative capital, writes Matt Pfahlert, CEO of the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship, who explains why social enterprise and community-led rejuvenation are key. 

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

Over the last 50 years, more than 70 per cent of rural communities in inland Australia have experienced significant decline. (SEGRA 2020). 

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

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

In truth, it’s a story of two worlds.

If you live in metro Australia or a large regional centre, you probably have access to health services, reliable internet, a range of education, arts and culture and work opportunities. But, if you happen to live in a small rural community that’s more than an hour from a major regional centre, it’s like falling off a cliff. 

So, what’s going on?

Despite significant investment, 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 into the future, Australia’s rural communities need to simultaneously build economic, social, cultural and creative capital. By taking a “whole-of-community” approach to developing an entrepreneurship 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 lucky to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study youth entrepreneurship programs and social enterprise models in rural communities in the UK, Canada, and the US. People from more than 100 rural communities generously shared what moved their community from being “on their knees” to thriving again. 

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

  1. Entrepreneurship to drive social change.
  2. Experiential learning, starting young and leveraging the world’s best social enterprise content.
  3. Building a community culture and ecosystem that are self-sustaining.
  4. Utilising local ownership and development of community assets to galvanise action.
  5. Cross-sector collaboration to drive place-based change.

The challenge for rural Australia

There’s an explosion of social enterprise activity across Australia – the sector was recently valued at $5.2 billion in Victoria alone. Yet, lots of people simply do not understand the business model behind it. 

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

In Victoria’s Upper Murray community of Corryong, the local Neighbourhood House runs the bakery, selling an essential product to locals and tourists, whilst offering training and jobs for youth. Indigo Power is building a renewable battery bank to power the community in the event of future climate related events. In the west of Victoria, the small community of Nandaly mobilised to buy back the Nandaly Hotel which had closed. It’s now a hub for a whole range of community activities and valued local services – not just a beer!

Despite these success stories, there’s a lack of understanding about the diversity, dynamism and dreams of rural communities.

It’s time to move 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 the key. 

By building entrepreneurial capability and capacity we can release new opportunities to rejuvenate rural communities. The power of place is here to stay as rural communities demand long-term solutions to the complex issues they face.

 

Like to know more?

Join Matt in a Pro Bono Australia masterclass on 13 October. Matt will shine a spotlight on ways that real-life rural changemakers are using the business model of social enterprise to devise and build out enterprises that simultaneously create new economic opportunities and deliver social impact for communities.

Matt will also unpack the model of community-led rejuvenation and share tips for ways of effectively working with rural communities who are looking for a new future.


Matt Pfahlert  |  @ProBonoNews

Matt Pfahlert is the CEO and co-founder of ACRE (Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship).

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