Co-operative jewels – the story of co-ops in the Czech Republic

 Working with Co-operatives Europe, I have had the chance to visit the coop sector in the Czech Republic this week.

It is a country I have loved for some time, having visited it many years before to write an article for the Financial Times on computing in the country. In those days, of perestroika, a second Prague Spring, technology was a mix of home grown and struggled imports from the West – the old 1980s Amstrad PCW on the one hand and a domestic creation I found, invented by an agricultural coop, that was faster, but heated up so much that it could be used to fry eggs.

The Czech Republic has a rare wealth of culture, writers, musicians and artists. It was home of the original Good King Wenceslas (although some bad King Wenceslases were to follow, you know what Kings are like). But the cultural hero is the stalwart, comic character the Good Soldier Schweik – someone who gets on with life despite all the worst accidents and circumstances.

The Czech Co-operative Association, Družstevní Asociace ČR, was our host – with my counterpart, David Füllsack. They have 1,242 member coops, through sector associations such as for agricultural, retail, housing and worker co-ops. Around 23% of farming, by land, for example is co-operative, whether on farm or through marketing beyond. This includes hops, milk, fruit and vegetables. Of course, history matters, particularly in a sector that grows from the roots. Just as the period of independence post 1918 was a flourishing period for the arts, architecture and music in the wider nation of Czechoslovakia (The First Republic), so it was for co-operation. 

In 1908 there were 99 housing coops in Bohemia and Moravia. By 1922, it was 1,236. Zdeněk Juračka, of the consumer co-operatives, told us that “the golden era of the consumer co-operatives was the First Republic. The worst was the communists, they nationalised one third of our assets and confiscated facilities, expelling members of the coops to remote areas.”

Co-operative housing is a common presence across the country, particularly for apartments, over half of which (56%) are in co-operatives – although there has been a steady stream of conversions to private ownership over the last twenty years. There are also ten co-operative schools and one Management Institute.

Granát Turnov is a coop formed when private goldsmiths came together in 1953 and is one of a number of manufacturing, or production, co-operatives (the oldest of which is a toy maker dating back to 1906). The coop is the world’s largest producer of garnet jewellery. It operates a mine in Bohemia, where the garnet jewels comes from, and sells across the world, with design and fashion awards to its name.

You can’t visit the Czech Republic and come away feeling just a little bit Czech yourself. It is a people and culture to admire, and to learn from.

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