‘We keep going’: Adventures in the South Wales Valleys

3rd July 2019



‘We keep going’ - The adventures of the South Wales Valleys

UnLtd helps entrepreneurial people to make lasting social change. A recent learning journey in ‘The South Wales Valleys’ brought together a collection of social entrepreneurs passionate about social enterprise from across the UK.

Thanks to players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, we are supporting and empowering social entrepreneurs in the South Wales Valleys to transform their local area.

The identity crisis

The South Wales Valleys was once the powerhouse of the world, providing valuable coal and iron ore for major export from the ports of Swansea and Cardiff. Once the costs of mining became too much, the industry moved away, leaving a vast area bereft of alternative and appropriate economic activity. The Valleys’ like other mining communities, have experienced austerity for a long time. 1 in 4 young men under the age of 25 are out of work.

Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to “regenerate” the region, but with little long-lasting success. In recent years the Welsh Government has put together a “Valleys Task Force” to look at an economic action plan. The image outside of the Valleys is that the area is poor and deprived. This perception is unsurprisingly not well received by those who live there. The communities are close-knit, and there are many talented people moving forward despite the system and sometimes the geography being against them.

An untapped opportunity

Nonetheless, local people are now coming to realise there are many untapped assets, resources and talent in South Wales, along with an enviable sense of pride in their community.

The Welsh think tank, The Bevan Foundation, is a big supporter of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship in the Valleys. They say that, “Social businesses tend to be more rooted in their local community…so there’s far less risk of them upping and leaving and it also means more money circulating in the local economy. Second, they create local jobs and sometimes opportunities for people who find it difficult to get work. Social businesses usually have higher levels of employee commitment and job satisfaction and tend to be more value driven”.

On the ground and under

The UnLtd Resilient Communities programme work focuses on empowering people’s work on the ground, but our first stop on our learning journey took us 300ft deeper as we explored “Big Pit” in Blaenavon which is now The National Coal Museum for Wales.

This mine played a significant part in the community, yet once the coal industry went into decline it crippled the local area. Three million visitors later, Big Pit is bringing global attention to Welsh heritage and culture.

Everyone was connected with “the pit” in one way or another.

Vera Jenkins, a member of The Friends of the Navigation Colliery in nearby Crumlin, is making the most of its coal mining legacy. The Friends aim to bring the old mine buildings and surrounding land back into use. This includes sourcing renewable energy from the underlying mine water. To do this they will train apprentices in mastering the technology, work with partners and create jobs as a result.

The costs of protecting and re-building the site is a tremendous challenge for The Navigation. With trespassers, vandals and even arsonists, plus government inertia, the question of “what do you do?” rings around the area.

“You keep going, you keep plodding on. You can’t let them beat you.” - Vera

This was echoed by other social entrepreneurs such as Annys Darkwa, founder of the Rhondda Hub for Veterans. Annys aims to not only support veterans who fought for our country, but also find accommodation for ex-offenders and the homeless. She saw that offenders are 60% less likely to re-offend if they have somewhere to stay, and her team provide mentoring support to go with the housing.

“There are many gaps out there, all you can do is fill that gap” - Annys

Annys experienced multiple rejections starting this venture, but her own lived experience, tenacity and passion enables her to succeed.

“I’m not going away”

Along with Annys, we also met Rhondda Valley’s Greenstream Flooring, a social enterprise based in Porth, with a twist. They recycle and sell reclaimed carpet tiles that would have gone to landfill, offering a significant reduction to the prices charged by mainstream carpet retailers.

Ellen Petts, founder of Greenstream Flooring, and the team have provided over 1.6 million tiles to people in need. They are now working nationally by scaling up their online presence through eBay, and supplying carpets to public bodies and housing associations. Greenstream Flooring employs 10 people from the Rhondda community who have struggled to get work elsewhere.

Another award-winning leader with lived experience is the self-identified “rebellious” serial social entrepreneur Jo Ashburner. Jo grew up in the Neath Valley and Swansea and found herself living out of a car with a new-born baby in London 20 years ago. She feels that Welsh authorities “are failing to admit that homelessness is an escalating and severe problem”, so now she is tackling it herself.

Her mission is having vulnerable adults trained with accredited skills to become full-time machinists, teaching them to manufacture the ROOF coatbag, a slash-proof coat that converts into a sleeping bag.

We met Jo in a former primary school near Neath, now home to social enterprise ‘Me Myself & I’ led by Anita Tomaszewski.

“If you believe in what you do, you will do it. And we strongly believe in it” - Anita

Anita’s ethos for her venture is “people helping people”, offering individuals with early stage memory loss emotional support and opportunities to socialise in a relaxed setting. There’s also help for partners, siblings and children of those with dementia who are more prone to emotional breakdowns.

Lack of compassion in the care industry is the stigma that Anita wants to change. Through her Community Care Academy, she trains young people to go into homes and help those who live with dementia, making the job more rewarding as well as raising the bar for a better care system nationally.

“You will see poor care. It will hit you in the face. But do not drop your standards.” 


What social entrepreneurs learnt from the visit to South Wales?

  • Be radical. “Say what you need to say” in order for change to happen. At times it will feel uncomfortable.
  • Have a business mindset. Always look at how can you can make the impact that you do worthwhile, but think about how you will earn money, or it will never be sustainable.
  • Your own health and wellbeing are a priority. Build a team around you, you don’t have to do everything.
  • Meet and collaborate with other social champions in your area, it’s a great source for peer mentoring.
  • Involve your community and don’t give up. Despite being told you have no chance, use who you know, social media and online campaigns to reach your target.
  • Don’t drop your standards. There are problems in society, but we must never compromise on our work practices, commitment and motivation.
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