Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugаrchin, Bulgaria: Navigating the Unknown Potential of Rural Food Systems

 

Nestled in the heart of the Balkans, the Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugаrchin (TAU) region in Bulgaria stands as a pilot for transformative initiatives. Covering Troyan, Apriltsi, and Ugarchin municipalities, this area spans 1,650.2 km² with a population of 33,858. TAU is positioned strategically, just 150 km northeast of Sofia, with a pivotal role in connecting the capital to the Black Sea. 

Transition Focus: Socio-economic and Demographic Shifts

The TAU region faces socio-economic and demographic challenges, with depopulation at its core. The informal economy, job nature, and ethnic segregation contribute to this issue. Despite rich natural resources, the region struggles to capitalize on them for economic and social development.

Living Lab Challenge: Navigating the Unknown Potential of Rural Food Systems 

The primary challenge identified in TAU revolves around understanding the untapped potential of the rural food system to address socio-economic and demographic transitions. Data gaps in the linkages between food production and consumption, as well as the lack of cooperation between local actors, hinder progress. TAU aims to foster rural food systems, bridge gaps between vocational schools and local businesses, and tackle issues like unfair payments and undeclared jobs in the agri-food sector. 

Rationale: Spotlight on Food as a Unifying Force 

Food emerges as a pivotal focus for TAU, transcending differences and offering a lens to examine public and private practices. The lack of policy support in this domain highlights a significant data gap. By concentrating on food systems, the experiment aims to delve into demographic change and social inequalities. 

Policy Relevance: Paving the Way for Rural Food Policy 

TAU lacks a comprehensive rural food policy. The Rustik experiment strives to fill this void by providing knowledge, data, and models for its development. Aligning with regional and local policies, the experiment could address depopulation concerns and promote sustainable economic growth through food-related initiatives. 

Research Questions: Unveiling the Dynamics of Rural Food Systems 

The experiment seeks answers to crucial questions: 

  • How does the rural food system impact local entrepreneurship and depopulation trends? 
  • What role do family gardens play in local economies and socio-economic inequalities? 
  • How do rural food systems interact with urban economies, and which urban economies influence them? 
  • Can the preservation of local food traditions contribute to community resilience and a sense of identity? 
  • What factors make the local food sector attractive to newcomers and tourists, promoting sustainable local economies? 

Emerging Data Needs: Bridging the Knowledge Gap 

The experiment faces a lack of data on various aspects, such as the local population’s access to fresh, seasonal, and local food, cooperation between vocational schools and local agri-food businesses, and the role of family gardens in sustaining local food traditions. To address this, new and existing sources are being explored to create a comprehensive rural food map. 

Data Availability: Sources to Fuel the Experiment 

The experiment relies on a mix of available data sources, including registers of farmers, food processing enterprises, social kitchens, and more. However, limitations arise due to the non-public nature of certain datasets, hindering a granular analysis. 

Challenges and Capacities: Navigating the Road Ahead 

Challenges include limited access to crucial datasets and the absence of registers, such as that of family gardens. However, partners involved possess the necessary competencies to overcome these challenges, with additional capacity available if required. 

As the Rustik experiment unfolds in TAU, it promises not only to uncover the potential of rural food systems but also to pave the way for informed policies that can foster sustainable development, address depopulation concerns, and contribute to the region’s resilience and identity. Stay tuned for updates as TAU embarks on this transformative journey. 

RUSTIK Living Lab in Austria’s Nockregion-Oberkärnten – Navigating the Future: Small Rural Businesses in Focus

Welcome to the inaugural Living Lab Report for the Austrian Pilot Region, Nockregion-Oberkärnten, situated in the heart of the Central Alps within Carinthia’s southernmost province. Covering 1,324 km² and encompassing 17 municipalities, this region grapples with the persistent challenge of population decline. With only 15% dedicated to permanent settlement, the economic landscape thrives on key sectors like tourism, agriculture, forestry, trade, industry, and construction.

Living Lab Challenge

Our Living Lab challenge focuses on Small Rural Businesses (SRB) in Nockregion-Oberkärnten. Initially exploring the application of a Quality of Life (QoL) Index, we redirected our attention to the more pertinent challenge of identifying the needs and challenges faced by SRBs and establishing a network to support them. This encompasses businesses, including farmers, with no more than 50 employees. The primary objective is to pinpoint data gaps, map the current regional state, and foster a comprehensive understanding of challenges encountered by entrepreneurs and business owners.

The groundwork laid will assess and justify the necessity of establishing a regional network/platform for SRBs. Envisioned as a central hub, this platform addresses challenges such as strengthening awareness of regional products, fostering value chains, facilitating joint training, enhancing negotiation power, addressing sustainable green business management issues, navigating rental space availability, managing challenges in employee recruitment and retention, and focusing on women as a specific target group.

Rationale

This approach rectifies oversights in previous projects by focusing on SRBs’ absence in regional strategies, especially during their foundation and takeover processes. The decision to spotlight SRBs aligns with their substantial contribution to the local economy, providing diverse employment opportunities. In Carinthia, small businesses constitute about 94% of all businesses, playing a crucial role in stimulating local activities and combating vacancies, contributing to the overall attractiveness of rural municipalities.

Knowledge to Date

Insights from expert interviews, PRP meetings, and literature research showcase existing business collaborations and challenges faced by SRBs in Nockregion-Oberkärnten. Previous initiatives like IGO and AGZ aimed at business settlements and sharing employees among different employers, underscoring the region’s efforts. Challenges, including limited time capacity for small business owners, difficulties in consolidating projects, and issues like employee retention and high rental prices, have surfaced through stakeholder engagement.

Research Questions

  • What is the current state of the SRB landscape in Nockregion-Oberkärnten concerning the number of businesses, sector, branches, and employment sizes?
  • What data points and indicators are relevant for stakeholders to describe or gain a better understanding of the current situation of SRBs? What are the opportunities and shortcomings
  • What benefits do SRBs envision from a new platform or network, and how should it be structured to ensure acceptance?

Policy Relevance

To address the socio-economic transition, a holistic approach involving all sectors is deemed necessary. The Living Lab’s transition challenge aims to strengthen the position of SRBs in regional decision-making processes, aligning with the PRP’s objective of attracting new inhabitants and encouraging locals to stay. Establishing a network of SRBs is viewed as a critical step in adapting regional policies to address demographic change.

Emerging Data Needs

The Living Lab will focus on SRBs, aiming to identify and fill data gaps to understand their challenges and obstacles. Combining quantitative and qualitative local data will provide a comprehensive foundation for future strategies and decision-making.

Data Availability

While statistical data on workplaces, companies, and employees for SRBs is available, specific needs and challenges data are lacking. Expert interviews and consultations with stakeholders will be conducted to improve the knowledge base. OpenStreetMap data since 2012 will complement spatial analyses, providing insights into the spatial distribution of economic activities in the region.