Small people in small out-of-the-way places can change the world (pt.2)

Second part of the interview with Juanjo Manzano, co-founder of AlmaNatura, the first Spanish B Corp (2013), the third in Europe, and currently has a higher score than Patagonia (153.8 points). AlmaNatura was born in 1997 with a clear purpose: to enhance the quality of life and prospects in rural areas to combat ongoing depopulation by creating opportunities for locals and newcomers through employment, education, health and technology-based projects. The company operates from Arroyomolinos de León, a small town located in an idyllic natural park in Sierra de Huelva, Southern Spain. From there it maintains close relationships with public authorities, clients, brands, and individuals committed to addressing geographical inequalities. 

What would you say to a company that is considering certifying?

First of all, the company needs to reflect deeply on the reasons why they are seeking certification. Why does the company exist, what challenge have they set out to address? Secondly, I would advise the company to approach the movement from a place of purpose and not from a place of opportunity or a means to an end.

One recurrent question I get all the time is whether my turnover has increased after becoming a B Corp. In my opinion, this is missing the point. There are companies that hire a consultant to take them over the required 80 points but I don’t think they derive much value from the movement. You can join any club but unless you get involved you will not get much out of it.

And what would you say to a company which has never contemplated a change in their business model?

I would ask them: “what is your Plan B?” I don’t see a Plan B. The world has got finite resources and they are being depleted. In the short-term these companies might coast along but if you don’t include social and environmental considerations into your business model, you will not be around in the long term. Companies that cannot see beyond their financial returns will simply not exist in the long term.

One recurrent question I get all the time is whether my turnover has increased after becoming a B-Corp. In my opinion, this is missing the point.

What are the B-Corps that you admire the most?

Patagonia, of course. I met Yvon Chouinard and the founders of Ben & Jerry’s in Chile. I was struck by their radical management and sense of purpose. Ben & Jerry’s stopped serving two scoops of the same flavour for a while to support LGTBIQ+ community rights even if it hurt their bottom-line. Patagonia also campaigned against the re-designation of natural parks for oil drilling. They allocated all their sales revenue during that period to hiring lawyers to help a group of activist NGOs fight the Trump Administration proposals. These companies use the markets to address a public interest issue. I admire this kind of business activism which puts their money where their mouth is. We haven’t got that kind of activism in Europe or Spain yet.

Tell us about the legislation proposal you are campaigning for

We want to democratise the B Movement so that you don’t need to be a B Corp in order to be recognised as a company with purpose. There is a similar law already in the US, France and Italy but each has been adapted to the local context. In Spain it is called Law for Entreprises with Purpose and we are now in the process of opening conversations with political parties. We need a law which recognises a company with purpose so that consumers and employees are able to choose where they want to put their money or their talents. These companies won’t receive tax cuts as we don’t want to distort the real motivation and rationale behind becoming a purpose-driven company. We want to send the message out that you can use your business as a force for good, a regenerative energy to solve a societal problem. Companies, after families, are where humans interact the most and hence if companies change, the world can also change. 

At a European level, the Interdependence Coalition, founded by B Lab Europe, is also campaigning to change company law to uphold the values of stakeholder governance and help strengthen the case for business as a force for good. 

Companies, after families, is the space where humans interact the most and hence if companies change, the world can also change.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on the rural areas?

During the pandemic the rural areas have risen in popularity. There was such an influx of city dwellers that at some point there were accommodation shortages so the demand could not be met. We don’t know what will happen after the end of the pandemic but we are hopeful that many will stay after the “rural experience”. To support this process, we have launched a programme called HolaPueblo (HelloVillage) aimed at social entrepreneurs willing to move to our local areas. We have had two calls for proposals so far and we are very pleased to have received 500 applications in 2020 which rose to 2000 in 2021!

In fact, we need a change of mindsets in the way we look at the rural areas and the lifestyle that can be achieved there. Also, village advocates need to catch the “inspiration bug” and dream up a “cool village” brand to inspire new ways of living for city dwellers. A colleague bought me a book called City Quitters which captures well the spirit of creative post-urban lives in rural areas.

So the trend has been established, however, we in the countryside can be our worst enemy. Parents and teachers encourage their children to go to the city for opportunities as 7 out of 10 rural teachers don’t return to their rural schools for the next academic year. This fact sends a clear message to students that working in local areas is not desirable. So we need to change perceptions to retain locals and attract city-dwellers to the countryside.

Are you receiving digital nomads in the rural areas? Is it positive?

We have hosted some digital nomads in my village through collaboration with rural community developers Pandora Hub. Rural co-workings are springing up across the country which underpins the trend but for it to work there needs to be an organisation behind which acts as a host and facilitates interactions in a balanced way. I think this interaction can be positive and help in various ways. First, digital nomads from different countries coming to villages with lots of elderly people can be a source of mutual enrichment. Second, it sends a strong message to the locals that their heritage and what they have to offer is valuable. It creates a sense of pride for the “new ruralness”. In fact, villages have always tried to mirror the cities (you can now find chickpeas in bulk in the city but not in small towns) and end up in limbo with no distinct identity.

How do you envisage the AlmaNatura of the future?

I imagine closing the business because the depopulation trend has been reversed and does not need AlmaNatura anymore. There are plenty of problems in the world waiting to receive attention and resources. What drives me is not how I am going to make a living but rather what problem I can help solve more effectively.

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