Co-ops Transform Business as Usual

The Thai restaurant chain, Cabbages and Condoms, shocks most of its clientele at first. According to Community Food Enterprise, the posters on the walls at the twelve restaurants across Thailand display various prophylactics. Beneath the glass-topped dining tables are rows of multi-colored condoms. And condoms can be found in lamps and vases, appearing as ‘condom-mints,’ and in warnings, which state that the restaurant’s food ‘is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.’ Clearly, the restaurant supports access to birth control.

Cabbages and Condoms restaurant billboard; Photo via Flickr, by QSimple

Yet, Cabbages and Condoms is just one of Mechai Viravaidya’s initiatives. Viravaidya founded the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), the largest NGO in Thailand. Viravaidya believes that local people are the best suited to make positive and lasting change in their communities, therefore, PDA’s programs enforce that message. Through grassroots programs that include “extensive villager involvement,” PDA has helped to significantly lower Thailand’s growth rate from 3.2% to 1%.The future of sustainable prosperity lies largely in the hands of social enterprises like this one.

In fact, the United Nations (UN) has named 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives, placing them in the spotlight, as a leader for sustainable development. Cooperatives are critical business models that have prevented communities from falling into poverty in these difficult economic times. The designated Year of the Co-ops has three main objectives: increase awareness of co-ops, promote growth of co-operative communities for socio-economic empowerment, and establish policies that are conducive to co-op formation.

According to the International Co-operative Alliance, more than 1 billion people in 96 countries belong to a co-op. Co-ops are democratically governed by their members, who are also investors. Co-ops are especially powerful in developing countries because they allow members to use collective bargaining to improve the financial terms of trade for their goods and purchases. In turn, this allows co-op members to become more financially independent and self-sufficient. The success of co-ops has led to their growing number, in Uganda for example, between 1995 and 2008,  the number of co-ops increased by 13 times.

Tour of the Coffee Cooperative, Photo via Flickr: UN Women Gallery

According to the International Co-operative Information Center, co-ops are vital to a healthy society. Due to the equality of members and emphasis on participation, they encourage democratic processes and social equity. Additionally, as economic organizations, co-ops provide their members with commercial services; as grass-roots institutions, co-ops reflect their communities’ concerns, such as social justice and the health of the environment.

Co-operatives allow widespread participation and encourage individuals to raise guide the development of their communities. Whether the movement for a sustainable future comes in the form of a condom-themed eatery in the midst of Bangkok, or a micro-finance organization in a small village in Africa, co-ops and social enterprise have the power to transform the business as usual.


(Written by Nina Keehan, Edited by Antonia Sohns)

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