The European Commission has created the Start-Up Village Forum as an initiative to boost research and innovation in rural communities and create a more innovative entrepreneurial spirit to attract more young people and talented individuals in relation to green and digital transitions in the European Union (EU). In this article we will tell you about the project and the initiatives implemented by Santander to promote young entrepreneurship in keeping with our commitment to the rural environment and its transition to a greener economy.

The European Union's rural areas are a basic feature of Europe's way of life. They are inhabited by 137 million people who account for almost 30% of its population and over 80% of its territory, considering all Europe's small or less densely populated towns and nuclei. They are widely acknowledged and appreciated for their production of foodstuffs, management of natural resources, protection of natural spaces, leisure and tourism.

There is a concern nowadays that these areas have been neglected in favour of more urban areas. Some of these problems nowadays are the erosion of rural infrastructures and provision of services, including access to healthcare, social services and education, postal and banking services, and fewer employment opportunities and possibly lower earnings in rural areas or limitations with regard to transport and digital connectivity.

This is why the European Union has drawn up a roadmap for rural areas to address these challenges and concerns, moving in on emerging opportunities in relation to the EU's ecological and digital transitions, making use of the lessons learned from the COVID 19 pandemic, and identifying ways of improving living standards in rural communities, bringing about balanced territorial development, and stimulating economic growth in these areas.  

Rural areas are the undisputed protagonists for the EU's green and digital transitions. Through sustainable production of foodstuffs, preservation of biodiversity and the fight against climate change, they play a vital role in bringing about the European Union's Green Deal, “Farm to Fork”, and the EU's biodiversity objectives. 

Sustainable development

Achieving the objectives of the EU's digitalisation plans by 2030 also means providing more opportunities to achieve sustainable development in rural areas beyond agriculture, livestock farming and forestry, creating new prospects for growth and the geographic distribution of manufacturing and, above all, services.

Janusz Wojciechowski, Commissioner for Agriculture, summarised all these policies in a recent speech: “Fostering rural innovation should largely contribute to the green and digital transition, benefiting our rural communities, our farmers and society as a whole”.

In this regard, the first step taken by the European Commission was the creation of the Start-Up Village Forum as an initiative to boost research and innovation in rural communities and create a more innovative entrepreneurial spirit to attract more young people and talented individuals.

This forum has emerged as an open space where local, regional, national and European institutions and stakeholders can meet, discuss and shape action for start-up -driven innovation in rural areas. It also seeks to provide knowledge on rural innovative start-ups, the types of innovation they are involved in, the gaps in the services that they expect from innovation ecosystems, and how these could be strengthened in the future.

The list of the Start-Up Village Forum's objectives is as follows:

  • Support the further development of rural innovation ecosystems.
  • Identify and analyse triggers for innovation in rural areas.
  • Connect rural innovation actors across the EU, with a focus on start-ups.
  • Provide a common understanding of the concept of start-up villages and highlight the link with the concept of a "smart village".

Finally, the EU declares that this forum also helps changes in society, including those ushered in by COVID-19, to be transformed into opportunities for rural areas, in order to prevent an asymmetric recovery and ensure that all community territories have the means to exit the pandemic on an equal basis.

Santander and rural innovation

There is no shortage of innovation and good ideas in the rural environment, as demonstrated by Santander X's 100 best projects. In Europe and beyond its borders, there are examples such as Appgricola (Mexico), an application for smartphones to monitor and manage crops in fields. This provides data such as temperature, humidity, redox and the pH of the facility, along with meteorological predictions and alerts based on different parameters. The application is designed to operate as a preventive and regenerative response to agricultural challenges, including the impact of climate change, and the system guarantees farmers a production increase of as much as 30% per tree and per fruit with export quality, and a reduction of production costs of up to 20%. The solutions adapt to the individual needs reported in the data provided by farmers.

Another major idea is Canalyticals in Spain. Although it does not focus exclusively on the rural environment, its technology has had a major impact on the primary sector. It has assisted livestock farmers in rural areas of Spain, by analysing the grazing pastures used by farms. Using a combination of data downloaded from satellites and prediction algorithms through automatic learning processes, the system can identify locations with the best grazing in terms of quantity and quality, helping farmers give their animals a natural ecological diet, instead of having to rely on industrial fodder.

Some more examples are CafeProt, also operating in Mexico, and providing a low-cost portable technology to help Mexican coffee-growers by analysing their crops to detect the conditions in which fungi can germinate, or Cell Farm (Argentina), Latin America's first clean meat start-up using a stem cell bank of the country's main types of cow.

Santander is committed to the rural environment and its transition to a greener economy as part of its plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions throughout the Group by 2050 in support of the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change which, among other initiatives already implemented, include energy efficiency loans, the installation of solar panels, purchase of electric cars and agricultural vehicles with lower carbon emissions.

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