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Breathing new life into a regional community

By Nicola Field 

In country towns the local school is often a pivotal hub. So when the public school in Learmonth, located 130 kilometres west of Melbourne, closed its doors for the last time in 2012 the 400-strong community felt the pinch.

Fortunately, Rob Sorros FIML and his colleagues at Mapfort Consulting have now found a novel solution that will breathe life into the site of the former public school – and create a new hub for the community at the same time.

Part of this solution will be a small scale cidery with capacity for end-to-end production – from apples grown at the onsite orchard (currently the school oval), through to processing and retailing of cider and related products at various other facilities on the school grounds.

The other part of the solution, Soros explains “is the provision of vocational training, where students can learn a variety of skills from propagation to retail trades in a hands-on environment.”

The venture will be run as a social enterprise with a charitable foundation established to create social impact through social seed venture capital, advocacy and local economic development work. A total of $250,000 of direct social impact is expected to be realised locally (outside of the operation) in the first year of operations.

Not surprisingly, Soros describes the local community as “very supportive” of the project, which is still waiting on government funding to determine the scale of production.

For Soros, the project involves some unique challenges. “We’re effectively taking three businesses and putting them into one – a philanthropic foundation, cidery, and learning centre.”

The nature of the undertaking as a social enterprise brings its own set of hurdles. “I believe social enterprises need to be nimble and agile while striking a balance between purpose and profit,” notes Soros.

He continues: “A minimum of 50 per cent of our profits must directly address the social issues the foundation was set up for. That effectively means we need to be able to survive on the remaining surplus.”

In addition to juggling commercial viability and sustainability, Soros points out that social enterprises have quite different benchmarks compared to profit-based organisations.

“Profitability is key but we must also ensure our dual mandate to model replicable social impact and rejuvenate a regional community is met. This raises the question how we measure the success of the venture. We are measuring financial and social risk-adjusted returns using the latest social impact measurement frameworks developed at the Asia Pacific Social Impact Centre at the University of Melbourne. Having metrics that matter is very important to us.”

With production planned to kick-off in early 2019 one thing is for sure: the community has a brighter future ahead, and it’s a fair bet the townsfolk of Learmonth will be celebrating with a glass of the newly minted local drop.


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