Since the 1980s, Jean-Guy Henckel has worked to help the most excluded out of long-term unemployment. His innovative model trains them to produce high-value, organic agricultural products and organizes them into local “Cocagne Gardens,” organizations that market their packaged products to conscientious consumers, who in turn commit to buying their products every week. Beginning locally, Jean-Guy has expanded his approach to over 100 locations across France.
The New Idea
Jean-Guy has contributed to a shift in national policy that helps people out of poverty through employment instead of assistance. He was one of the pioneers in the field of social integration, and one of the first entrepreneurs in France to create Social Integration Enterprises in the 1970s—aimed at empowering and integrating marginalized individuals both socially and professionally, and reflecting a sharp departure from traditional social work. Formally recognized in 1998, twenty years after the first pilot site, Jean-Guy’s model has helped to create a legal framework for the development of Social Integration Enterprises. Jean-Guy showed that the most powerful way to promote social integration is to produce high-quality products that provide a renewed sense of pride and self-worth to those producing them. Experimenting with sustainable development models long before they became a fashionable concept, he created his first organic garden in 1991, which trained people in difficult social situations to grow and sell premium products. Jean-Guy explicitly chose to specialize in organic products to strengthen environmental awareness, appreciation, and commitment of both the Garden’s employees and consumers. His was a pioneering model in Community Supported Agriculture, as Cocagne customers are more than mere buyers: They are “consum’actors”—or, engaged consumers who commit to buying a minimum amount per week as a conscious investment in the lives of the people who work there. Due in large part to his efforts, a law was enacted in 1995 to recognize this specific type of social enterprise, Ateliers & Chantiers d’Insertion (ACI) or Insertion Workshops and Work Sites. Driven by the success of his first social businesses, and aware of the potential impact of such a model, Jean-Guy created the Cocagne Network, a replication model designed to trigger large-scale change. His network derives from traditional franchising models, but integrates essential elements to guarantee social impact. Each Garden adheres to similar non-negotiable quality principles, and yet is given flexibility according to the local contexts, depending on its unique geographic situation, traditional culture, the types of workers to be reintegrated, and other related factors. Jean-Guy found the right balance between franchising the Gardens and integrating them into a national movement of similar social ventures.
The economic crisis of the 1970s triggered a chronic rise in unemployment and social exclusion in France, which led to growing social instability and the marginalization of many poor citizens. The employment market became increasingly closed to unqualified youth, and the unemployed were left mired in long-term unemployment. It became clear that social work had to change, despite the reluctance of many social workers and resistance in the sector. To enable the marginalized access to “social citizenship” and to break the cycle of social assistance, a few experiments were conducted to integrate the excluded, and were met with mixed success. For example, in the early years of this movement, jobs given to the unemployed were usually of low added value, and often failed to genuinely empower citizens. In December 1989, the French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, requested an evaluation of the National Social Welfare Law. This evaluation highlighted new types of poverty affecting farmers in rural areas. Many farmers were living under the poverty line, barely making ends meet, as agriculture became monopolized by an industrial sector that was obsessed with cutting costs at the expense of quality. By the end of the 1980s the agricultural sector was in crisis—riddled with scandals and mistrust due to livestock epidemics and the growing industrialization of the sector—eventually losing the confidence of customers and endangering respect for the profession. The social integration initiatives existing at that time were rarely structured or organized at a national level. Local initiatives failed to expand from strong dependency to local public funding, and a limited ability to transfer social models in different regions.
In the late 1970s, when Jean-Guy witnessed the evolution of the nature of poverty and the appearance of chronic exclusion, he began to look for new solutions to help the poor help themselves. With the idea that “No one is a priori unemployable,” Jean-Guy decided to experiment with a new type of organization; one that was more people-centered, and would combine social objectives with economic sustainability. He pioneered Social Integration Enterprises when he created a carpentry shop and employed forty people who suffered from social and professional difficulties. Jean-Guy realized that while employment was indeed a major obstacle for the marginalized, the need for capacity-building was a larger challenge, and he launched a training center to provide the skills training needed. Realizing his employees had problems with transportation, he created France’s first associative driving school. Each of these companies were created to employ and educate excluded people using sustainable business models and in doing so, Jean-Guy played a key role in demonstrating and shifting the mindsets of social workers previously averse to private activity. The 1998 law for the fight against exclusion finally recognized Social Integration Enterprises, and facilitated their public/private funding across France. Such companies now generally offer excluded people personalized training and social integration paths, using work as a bridge towards long-term professional insertion, autonomy, and full citizenship. The focus of the training centers, carpentry shops, and Jean-Guy’s other projects was carried over to the creation of a sustainable enterprise, Cocagne Garden in 1991; employing excluded workers to grow and sell high-quality organic produce. With this, Jean-Guy created the first Integration Work Site, or ACI, in France. Having obtained official legal status in the 2005 National Plan for Social Cohesion, ACIs offer a first step towards full employment to people who have been estranged from the job market. ACIs work with those in especially difficult social and professional situations and provide them with employment to reintegrate into the market. Representatives from ACIs follow-up by supervising the training of their employees and creating the conditions for sustainable employment. Cocagne Gardens are based on three pillars: To restore workers’ self-esteem, to achieve environmental sustainability, and to promote engaged consumption. By training long-term unemployed people and giving them a job they can take pride in, Jean-Guy is not only reintegrating them economically, but is also restoring their sense of self-worth as citizens. Since its inception, over 25,000 people have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society by Cocagne programs. Moreover, Cocagne has a strong environmental dimension, relying on Jean-Guy’s core belief that caring for the rural landscape is tantamount to safekeeping the future of rural society. Finally, Jean-Guy achieved success by harnessing the unmet demand for quality produce and creating local networks of distribution based on community supported agriculture principles. This outreach effort has turned customers into key players in the organization, creating a new level of relationship and mutual engagement between groups that were once opposed: Rural/urban, consumer/producer, and among social classes. Today, over 15,000 families participate in the consum’actor network every year. When Jean-Guy first envisioned Cocagne, he was told it would be financially impossible to succeed for two reasons: First, there was no established consumer-base for organic produce, and second, that there had never been a private social enterprise in France. When Jean-Guy started the Cocagne Gardens, social outreach was viewed as a duty of the government and private funds as tainted by consumerism. He quickly proved that a private social enterprise could both meet social needs in a more personal way than public policy could, and be economically viable and competitive within its sector.The first Cocagne Garden was replicated and reached forty-five by 1999. Jean-Guy understood the need to structure an organized network to maintain a common vision and facilitate interactions between the different entities. Though he wanted to foster cohesion and common identity between local citizen organizations, he did not wish to squelch the individuality, freedom, and creativity of each group. Jean-Guy started his umbrella organization, Réseau Cocagne, with this in mind, and wrote the network charter around the four basic principles of the organization. Each Garden must: Employ people in difficult situations; commit to organic farming; work with a network of concerned customers; and, build bridges between the social, public, and professional sectors to ensure that each member garden has supporters from all three groups. With these core pillars in place, Jean-Guy has given each local structure the chance to come up with new ideas and their own modus operandi that may be shared through the network with the other Gardens. Today there are over 100 local Cocagne Gardens in operation, with plans to start twenty more in neighboring countries such as Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland. New ideas and implementations are constantly being put into place, such as the creation of organic flower farms a few years ago. The network holds yearly meetings in which hundreds of people, including employees, volunteers, and managers share ideas and offer their input, in an effort to refine and improve the model. To this end, Jean-Guy has created a training center, where Réseau Cocagne synthesizes the lessons it has learned during the past few years and passes them on to new people; ensuring its priorities and core values are not lost as the organization grows and evolves.
Jean-Guy grew up in a small industrial town in the northeast of France. In the midst of the industrial crisis, he witnessed the lack of options available to people in his area. Jean-Guy went on to study specialized education and sociology. He was working in a homeless shelter when French society found itself in socioeconomic upheaval as unemployment and poverty rates skyrocketed in the late 1970s. Always pragmatic and active, Jean-Guy rejected the sector’s conventional wisdom that private money was bad, and sought to define new conventions.Jean-Guy has never been deterred by challenges in which he has had little initial experience. His objective has always been to create jobs for excluded groups, so he has learned a lot about different sectors in order to create companies that reach this goal. Indeed, Jean-Guy began making plans for the first Cocagne Garden despite a complete lack of agricultural knowledge.Since the 1980s Jean-Guy has had a profound influence on government policies regarding social and professional inclusion of the most excluded, including most recently the Grenelle de l’Insertion, the national consultation initiated by the Government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in November 2007 to redefine public policy on Social Integration.Jean-Guy wants to use his experience and networks to help other innovative, up-and-coming social projects take off under his patronage. While not looking to make his own organization larger, he wants the social sector to be vibrant and influential in French society.