Hebridean Chocolates

Posted by editor 26/09/2013 0 Comment 3393 views

hebchocBy Jenny McBain //

The sweet taste of social enterprise success

Most people associate big cities with opportunities.  But Oliver*, who is in his early twenties, actually moved from a major city in the south to the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland in order to make progress in his life.  Happily, that decision has led an unequivocally positive outcome.

Oliver has what is described as moderate additional needs and was told he would never work or live independently.  His parents did not want him to settle for a life of low expectations, so they relocated to the island of Lewis and Oliver began volunteering at a social enterprise where he learned how to make chocolate.

Hebridean Chocolates employs around eight people and their mission is to train and support their workforce so they can create top quality confectionary.  This is sold to fellow islanders.  It is also available online and is popular with those who visit the islands to enjoy their rugged beauty and sense of space.

After just six months as a voluntary worker, Oliver was employed in a paid capacity for 16 hours a week.  Now he is a fully fledged chocolatier and  has just completed his Scottish Vocational Qualification level two.

His former manager Ann Sobey says, “Oliver is now a key member of staff.  He is very capable and pleasant and always comes in to work extra hours when asked.”

Oliver professes to love his work.  He says, “The people are nice; they are very friendly and if you don’t know how to do something they will show you what to do.  I am learning new things every day.”

Life outside of work is good to. He says, “I like to be out and about. I don’t like staying in the house all the time like I did when I lived in the city.  I enjoy life on the island.  Sometimes I go shopping after work.  I do archery once a week and I am going to start playing squash.”

Besides Oliver, there are seven others employed by the business.  So what are the particular challenges associated with such an endeavour? Ann says, “The biggest social challenges are common to all social enterprises; you are effectively riding two horses at once, as it were.  You have to provide a pleasant, supportive environment for the workforce but you also have to meet targets and fill orders. But it is an astonishingly rewarding place to work and has a joyful atmosphere.”

Hebridean Chocolates prides itself on being the only chocolate producing social enterprise in the UK and it may actually be the only one in the EU.  Chocolate is not a product that would be readily associated with this region.  However, it is proving a hit with customers.

In the run-up to Christmas a pop-up shop was opened in a vacant retail outlet in Stornoway – the main town of the Isle of Lewis. It was run by young people on a  British Council Active Citizenship scheme and took in around £9.000.

The company is also proud of the geographical reach being attained by its products.  They were delighted to receive photographs of a family eating their very special Gaelic-inscribed Easter eggs on the Great Wall of China.  And a group of trekkers who tackled the Atlas Mountains took Hebridean Chocolate to fuel their progress.

The parent company behind Hebridean Chocolates is called Third Sector Hebrides and it is run by Alasdair Nicholson.  He says, “We run a number of social enterprises in the Outer Hebrides and they add an annual total of £500,000 to the local economy.  This is a substantial contribution when you consider that the population stands at around 26,000 people.”

Entrepreneur Tom Farmer, who founded Kwik-Fit, recently visited Lewis to open the first MOT testing station to be run as a social enterprise.  The community interest company behind it is called Staran which means pathway in Gaelic.  And the name reflects one of the enterprise’s main aims, which is to help people to find ways into employment.

Staran is run by Third Sector Hebrides, as is Am Paipear- a community newspaper.  All these projects are thriving under difficult circumstances.  Alasdair says, “This last year has been a tough and challenging time for us. We have had to manage without substantial revenue support.  However, we have running costs above and beyond those in the private and commercial sectors.”

If people situated far from major markets can run successful, creative businesses which foster social inclusion, then it should be possible for their efforts to be duplicated in big cities.  You can help Third Sector Hebrides by buying their excellent chocolate and finding out more about what they do.

*Oliver is not his real name






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