Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Lucas Mprechas, Founding Member and Coordinator of the Social Network for Social Solidarity and Regional Development (KAPA Network), Greece

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with cooperative and wider social and solidarity economy (SSE) policy makers, researchers and practitioners from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work. On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Lucas Mprechas founder of the Social Network for Social Solidarity and Regional Development (KAPA Network) in Greece.

Article | 25 November 2021

Could you tell us about your background and how you got involved with cooperatives ?

I work as a Member of the Special Technical Laboratory Staff in the Department of Materials Science Engineering of the University of Ioannina, having the specialty of Computer Engineer.

Since my youth I wanted to pursue a profession that is productive and provides real and practical solutions to everyday problems. I chose to work in the field of IT, which was a new field of work growing in popularity around the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was interested in low-cost technological solutions that even people with limited income could apply to improve their lives with basic knowledge and skills. I understood wealth to mean "rich in education". I was also interested in co-creating free software and hardware and provide IT solutions that would be shared as commons. This collective activity and sharing spirit was the second element that attracted me to the world of IT. Today I am very happy to work at the University of Ioannina and I can transfer to young people all the knowledge and experience I have. I believe that young people with knowledge and skills on computers can become more independent and creative.

As I grew older, I came in contact with new ideas and social proposals for the organization of the society. It was in 1985 when I first read about the ideas and work of the pioneers of utopian socialism such as Robert Owen, Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, William King, Louis Blank, and Pyotr Kropotkin. A proposition based on the education and collective activity of the people are two characteristics which always attracted me. For me it was an unprecedented proposition on social organization far different from the private and public sectors. It was a proposition which was combining the positive aspects of both the public and the private sectors together. I thought who knows our needs better than ourselves and what dependencies and restrictions do we create when we are dependent on others to meet our needs.

It was around the same time found out that before the founding of the modern Greek state each community and village worked with a similar community-based model where people worked together and formed a joint fund to meet common needs notably for schools, churches, medical care, and orphanages. I knew that the community-based model no longer existed in my country. It was not until I was 25 years old that I read about cooperatives. I kept gathering information on the Greek and international cooperative experiences, until I realized that in Greece the way cooperatives operated did not correspond with the international model. Greek cooperatives needed to rediscover their roots, I thought.

Could you tell us about the Social Network for Social Solidarity and Regional Development (KAPA network)? 

It was in 2007 that as a group of friends we felt the need to pool our knowledge on the international cooperative movement and share it with Greek citizens. We felt we needed to remind them of the community model of cooperation which was a way of living in the country for centuries. What is a cooperative if not the evolution of the community-based model?

We founded the Social Network for Social Solidarity and Regional Development (KAPA Network) one year later in 2008. We started to post information on the benefits of cooperatives from around the world. We got ourselves familiarized with cooperative education. Long last we identified the need to promote a single cooperative legislation aligned with the international cooperative principles that promote cooperation among cooperatives at local and international levels.

The goal of all the abovementioned activities was to acquire knowledge and skills and to create the appropriate environment to support the establishment and development of cooperatives, so it becomes a lifestyle choice for us and our fellow citizens. Cooperation in all aspects of our lives is what gives meaning to life itself.

It was during the UN International Year of Cooperatives in 2012 we established formal communications with European and international cooperatives organizations. With the help of these organizations we were accepted to participate in cooperative education programs like the CoopStarter program in partnership with Cooperatives Europe. We also got cooperative experiences working at the Unicorn Workers Cooperative in Manchester (UK) accepting the proposal made by Cooperatives UK.

We also had the support of international cooperative organizations to promote legislation in line with cooperative principles when the Greek government undertook a legislative initiative. Around the development of the new law on the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) a delegation of international organizations came to Greece articulate the international community's proposals on the SSE. They included the ILO, Cooperatives Europe, International Organization of Industrial, Craft and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA) and Social Economy Europe (SEE).

In 2021 we established a cooperative educational platform and the gaiacoop, and online consumer cooperative. We hope to develop it into a multistakeholder cooperative platform (producers, consumers, employees, supporters ) where part of its surplus will be allocated to cooperative care service structures. The gaiacoop will cooperate with productive agricultural cooperatives and other SSE bodies. The Kapa network is exploring collaborations with interested institutions such as the credit union of Viotia with 7,000 members and the National Federation for the Blind of Greece with 20,000 members.

We also have started to welcome people from younger generations into the K.A.P.A network. They have different knowledge and skills than my generation. They are also generous with their time and knowledge.

Could you tell us briefly about the cooperative movement in Greece? 

The cooperative movement officially began with the enactment of the first (and unified) cooperative law 602 in 1915. During the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1922, for each of the villages where the Anatolian populations were settled, an agricultural cooperative was established. In addition to organization of agricultural production, they offered credit services and supplied food and basic necessities. During the German occupation in World War II, hundreds of consumer cooperatives were formed in cooperation with agricultural cooperatives to save the people from starvation.

After the War the legacy of the consumer cooperatives remained, but being closed to only members of a specific professional sector, they lost the opportunity to grow by accepting new members and thus further increasing their negotiating power. In the 1960s there was an attempt to create an open consumer cooperative with the support of the Swedish cooperative movement (Consum). Although it reached 400,000 members across Greece, in the 2000s their stores were bought by the private sector.

Greek agricultural cooperatives failed to maintain their independence from the state, which funded, controlled and directed the social policy of agricultural cooperatives by the Agricultural Bank. Today, as many agricultural cooperatives have closed down, their property is being sold off to the private sector. In 2020 the institution of institutional investors was introduced to the cooperative banking sector, changing the principle of ’one member, one vote’ to ‘one share, one vote’. I think cooperatives in Greece, are at a point of finding their identity.

How have Greek cooperatives and wider social and solidarity economy responded to the COVID19 global pandemic? 

Greek cooperatives did not have organized action against the global COVID-19 pandemic. Cooperative banks provided personal protective equipment (PPE)s to hospitals. The Federation of Pharmacists' Cooperatives also offered their services to the public. In the wider realm of SSE units, there was a voluntary offer for manufacturing sanitary protection materials.

What are the key challenges that the Greek cooperative movement needs to address to be better prepared for future crises and to build resilience?

Greek public opinion recognizes that the effects of the socio-economic crisis around the global COVID-19 pandemic will not be temporary and will leave their marks for years to come. In the last two years there are significant price increases in food and energy sectors. Many companies closed down due to the lockdowns and unemployment has increased. In previous socio-economic crises cooperatives helped people stand on their own feet and survive with dignity.

There are pressing needs to change the cooperative legislation and revamp the cooperative education in Greece. These are necessary for cooperatives to contribute to building resilience in their local communities. I think the biggest challenge to Greek cooperatives is to recognize that they belong to one movement, which is not only local but also global. Solidarity with international cooperative movement can help accelerate cooperative development even under these unfavorable conditions. This has happened before in the history of Greece. After Word War II, poultry cooperatives were established with international support. The Pindos Poultry Cooperative in the region where I live is one of the largest companies across Greece providing livelihoods for thousands of poultry farmers.

What do you see as emerging sectors and opportunities for cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy in Greece in building back better?

I believe that cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy in Greece have the opportunity to engage across sectors to meet the daily needs of people: from food production, processing and consumption, to care, renewable energy and platform economy. Cooperatives as a choice and as "children of necessity" could play an important role to build back better for a human-centred future of work. An economy with strong cooperative presence will weather shocks better.