Victoria Tortosa Vicente

Ashoka Fellow
headshot_victoria_tortosa.jpg
Spain
Fellow since 2017
This description of Victoria Tortosa Vicente's work was prepared when Victoria Tortosa Vicente was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

Vicky is drastically improving rural habitation and stalling rural depopulation by redesigning distribution services, providing the mainly elderly population with essential services that improve their quality of life and create opportunities for social interaction, human support and care. She founded La Exclusiva to re-establish services that have been abandoned, consequently making rural life more attractive for current and potential residents.

The New Idea

Vicky is reverting the harmful trend of rural exodus through La Exclusiva, a logistics and distribution model that covers the basic needs of those living in rural areas. Thousands of villages around Spain have been emptied, as residents move to the cities in search of better economic opportunities. As people leave, public and private services (shops, chemists, transport links etc.) disappear, making life in these small towns increasingly difficult, and reducing any possibilities for younger populations to move back. With La Exclusiva Vicky is not only providing thousands of village residents with a door to door delivery system of products and services at the same price they would pay in the regular city stores, but also a support system that improves safety, social interactions and quality of life that encourages staying and even returning to reside in rural villages.

Vicky knows that in order to achieve her ultimate objective of repopulating the abandoned rural areas of Spain- a drastic change in services and infrastructures is needed. With this ambition, she has become a key player working with the regional government, and instrumental in setting up public/private initiatives by bringing together private companies from the province capitals, local neighborhood groups, family members, rural businesses and town councils under a same vision.

Vicky has created a hybrid model with private and public entities in which the final customer – rural residents – has access to basic services it did not have access to before, without having to pay any extra cost. To do so, the companies pay a small commission to La Exclusiva in exchange for the additional business they receive (new clients) and the positive social and reputational impact.

This social logistics solution is not just about product deliveries, but about bringing back basic rights, dignity and social support to a largely forgotten part of the population. The majority of this social enterprise’s clients are elderly, many of them living alone and with virtually no connection with others. Vicky and her team speak personally with their customers on the phone, and prompt them about buying fresh food or hygiene products, and generally improving their quality of life Her team delivers the orders, making sure they enter every house, where they subtly take note of the cleanliness, the heating, the general appearance and health of their clients. For many, this is the only visit they receive all week and La Exclusiva ensures they are well attended and that any anomalies are detected. La Exclusiva is in contact with family members of each client (who usually live in the city) and reaches out to them directly if they suspect there is anything amiss.

La Exclusiva’s objective is not solely to help elderly people have a more enjoyable, dignified, healthier and longer life, it aims to bring life back to abandoned villages, allowing those who are there to remain, and attracting new, younger residents.

The Problem

The lack of job opportunities, poor public transport, weak internet connection or mobile connectivity, and the absence of proper available housing and services, are leading to an exodus of population from the rural environment to urban areas, which has caused severe depopulation in areas of Spain, where today less than 20% of the population lives outside of urban spaces.

Over time, the isolation and lack of services create a vicious circle – less population result in less services, and less services means the villages are less attractive for residents, and emigration increases. As a result, rural life and its residents are stigmatized, associated to uneducated, lazy or boring lifestyles. More importantly, rural exodus results in loss of cultural identity, traditions and heritage, while quality education and proper healthcare in those areas are drastically reduced. At the same time, the residents’ vulnerable situation makes them unable to maintain the identity, culture and quality of life of their hometowns.

Over 70% of those who remain in the rural habitat are elderly. They have spent their whole lives in their village, working the land and contributing to the rural community. They are often alone – several villages have less than 30 habitants – with an average age of 75 to 80 years. Many of them find themselves in a village with no services – no local shop, no post office, no church, no pharmacy, no health service and no regular routes of public transportation to larger towns or cities. The end result is that they do not have access to basic quality food, or medicine, or many of the basic rights they should have access to by law.

Where there are children, these have migrated to urban areas and are unable to care for their parents on a daily basis. Many arrive on weekends and stock their parent´s houses with non-perishable food, leaving them with no fresh fruit, vegetables, fish or meat. In the worst-case scenarios where there are no children or children live further away or abroad, many of the elderly residents are admitted to state or private residences against their will.

In most cases, rural to urban migration has resulted in general economic growth and increased wellbeing. However, these population movements have brought their own problems when urban life does not provide the opportunities hoped for. This situation has been worsened by the recent severe economic downturn in Spain where unemployment rates have reached 25%. In Madrid, more than one million people live on 484 Euros a month, and approximately 760,000 live on only 242 Euros. Overall, there are 1.3 million people who are at risk of poverty, an estimated total of 20.3 percent of the city’s total population.

Much research, effort and finances have been focused on the concept of megacities and the consequences of extreme urbanization whilst little time has been dedicated to reversing trends that created these challenges in the first place. Vicky´s initiative addresses the problem with a simple, strategic and replicable model.

The Strategy

To ensure its systemic impact, Vicky has developed a replicable operating model on three levels:

The first is fieldwork research. The team identifies all the small villages and families in a given region. They then map the services offered and those missing, and design a needs map, deciding which villages they should prioritize.

At this stage, some fundamental rules are followed, such as not entering with La Exclusiva in towns where there is a functioning local shop, to avoid unnecessary competition. However, in these cases she does collaborate with the shopkeeper to complement any missing products and expand on the available services.

The second level is route design and distribution. Once the villages and needs are defined, La Exclusiva creates a series of weekly routes to deliver the products and services from the provincial capital, to the villages. These routes are designed to provide the highest logistical efficiency, reaching 30 villages per day, with enough time to give the clients the personal attention they need.

Weekly orders are taken either on the day of delivery, where La Exclusiva team helps the residents identify any needs they may have, or over the phone. The clients are given one phone number from which they can administer all of the requests, while in some cases the family members manage orders and service requests on their behalf.

La Exclusiva is a social enterprise and its financial sustainability is based on the commission paid by suppliers. La Exclusiva charges between 5% and 15% on their suppliers’ sales, while the consumer pays the market price, and no extra cost for delivery. A standard La Exclusiva consumer will spend about 40-50 Euros a week.

To date, la Exclusiva directly supplies the following services: food, clothes, books, toys, newspapers and magazines, fresh fruit and vegetables from a certified ecological local producer, electronic devices (televisions computers, printers, office supplies), home appliances and more. Not only do they deliver these items but they also install them and take away old appliances to the recycling point.

In the case of other services, if requested, La Exclusiva offers support in the selection of local suppliers, and facilitates the arrangement, also for a small commission paid by the supplier. These services include an energy cooperative for heating quotes, insurance, workmen such as plumbers and electricians, a highly successful “change bath for shower” programme and home renovations.

The third level is convening. With the routes up and running for over 500 villages, the next step is to develop a wider network of influence to strengthen habitability and quality of life and thus encourage migration back to the rural areas. Vicky works to influence the strategic partners in both the public and private sector, offering valuable added value to both areas: a) private suppliers and distributors are increasing market share and reaching new customers with no effort and a relatively small price (in 2016, Leclerc the supermarket they work with, made an extra 400,000 Euro turnover through their collaboration with La Exclusiva), whilst supporting a positive social impact b) the local government is keen to participate in the network as they receive strategic insights on their citizen’s needs and on how to be more effective, while demand for public services also increases.

In this context, Vicky created “La Exclusiva Club”, a movement that accelerates the impact of hybrid partnerships and joins the efforts of all agents involved in rural development: residents, their families, private companies based in the larger towns, small businesses and rural enterprises, realtors, mayors, Local Action Groups, municipalities, and larger local governments.

La Exclusiva Club has the overall objective of connecting needs with services, and filling the gaps that cannot be covered with the distribution system. The club empowers residents to connect with other actors and find solutions to their less urgent needs, and also works as an employment center, where people request specific services and the villagers themselves can offer their services or suggest potential candidates (this has been the case for hairdressing services, for example).

La Exclusiva began in 2014 and Vicky´s work in the province of Soria now reaches at least 30 villages a day – and provides services to a total of 10,000 families.

Her most significant impact however is in changing lifestyles and attitudes of her customers. Over 60% of clients have improved their eating habits incorporating fresh fruit, fish and meat into their diet, while many have increased sociability, with greater access to press and better predisposition to sharing services and products with their neighbors.

With these changes, approximately 30% of clients who previously considered leaving the villages have decided to stay. Vicky has ensured that her clients living in villages feel more secure and happier knowing that La Exclusiva will visit them once a week. In a survey with family members, an overwhelming 95% declared that La Exclusiva had made a positive change to their lives.

Thanks to this model, many retired ex-residents are now returning to their villages for longer stays, from their initial two-week holiday to stays of up to 6 months over the spring and summer season. Younger people who have the option to work from home are also staying longer during their visits and even considering a permanent move. The indirect and long term impact of such behaviors are incalculable, ranging from attracting young families and professionals to move back, to the reopening of local schools and increase in job opportunities, amongst many more.

In January 2017, Vicky launched La Exclusiva in the province of Burgos, negotiating a new deal with Día as their main supplier, a network of Spanish supermarkets with 8,000 selling points across Europe..

La Exclusiva’s model was designed to be replicated, and Burgos is the first example: A local manager was recruited to lead the chapter and since then La Exclusiva is reaching 200 villages in the province every week, and increasing. With the Soria chapter running with a team of three, and with the local manager in Burgos, Vicky’s role is increasingly focused on opening partnerships in other regions of Spain, responding to petitions from local governments to implement La Exclusiva in their provinces (such as Teruel or Guadalajara), and identifying the strategic partners to facilitate it.

In this context, Vicky’s model responds to two types of growth patterns that are compatible: scalability and replicability.

Scalability is easily managed by directly hiring more employees and investing in more vehicles (the enterprise’s only fixed costs), all centrally managed from Soria. With an efficient ratio of three employees for approximately 500 villages, the numbers are easily scalable.

Additionally, replicability of La Exclusiva is being designed through a model of social franchise, with a defined set of guidelines, contacts and structures to facilitate openings in virtually any part of Spain and even Europe or Latin America. She is currently developing a training program to teach the model, with documented and standardized processes, aimed at social entrepreneurs who may want to replicate in their areas.
La Exclusiva is also a key part of a European Union initiative “Interreg” whose main objective is to exchange best practices on rural depopulation.

The Person

After a rebellious adolescence, Vicky’s mother sent her to volunteer in Peru and Bolivia at the age of 16. This experience changed her outlook on life and made her aware of social inequality, denial of basic human rights and gender-based discrimination. On her return, she studied a degree in Business Management and set up a small business with her partner, managing 5 shops in rural towns. Her husband took lead of the business, whilst Vicky decided to follow her vocation for social justice and started working as an intern for the local NGO, Cives Mundi.

She quickly grew within the organization, and eventually took leadership of the Latin America branch, working on projects for poverty reduction, rural development and human rights.
As part of Cives Mundi’s activities, in 2010, she became actively involved in the set-up of an innovation hub in Soria, led by a local serial entrepreneur, Joaquin, who became a crucial inspirational figure for Vicky. Through her work in the NGO and her experience working alongside Joaquin, she became much more aware of and involved in the world of social entrepreneurship on a local level, and planted the seed for La Exclusiva

Vicky is from the provincial capital of Soria, one of the least populated provinces of Spain with 90,000 habitants. Born into a traditional Spanish family, Vicky´s grandparents lived in a rural village since birth and she witnessed how the surrounding villages gradually emptied over the years, with life becoming increasingly difficult for those who remained. Vicky has a deep understanding of the needs of the rural population. Through her grandparents (also customers of La Exclusiva) she experienced firsthand the personal and social cost of rural exodus, awakening an unparalleled passion for bringing life back to the villages.

Vicky has a vision of a rural life that isn’t linked to a stigma of abandonment, unemployment or illiteracy. With this in mind, she has become an influential voice in the fight against rural depopulation, mobilizing large partners and unifying them for a common goal. Vicky was a key player in the European Forum on Depopulation held in Soria in 2016, and in March 2017, La Exclusiva appeared in one of Spain’s most watched television programs, with over 3 million viewers. Under La Exclusiva’s umbrella, Vicky continues to innovate with potential projects such as a Rural Realtor initiative or a livestock initiative to create employment in the villages.