Spanish Cooperative Innovates to Remain Resilient

Agricultural cooperatives are an increasingly favoured structured for rural business to take, in order to continually innovate around the modern challenges faced by rural businesses.

As part of the RUBIZMO project to discover the vital ingredients for developing entrepreneurship and successful rural business models, we spoke with Oleicola El Tejar, a Spanish cooperative focusing on the holistic use of olive byproducts, to find out how collaboration and innovation can unlock rural business potential.

Foundations and early activities

To understand the origins of the cooperative, we spoke with Francisco Galán Cano, Research and Development Manager at Oleicola El Tejar. He guided us through the cooperative’s history, its early activities and explained what makes it so special.   

“We were formed in 1967 and started simply with the extraction of olive-pomace oil. In the 1980's, with the adoption of new techniques and technologies to extract olive oil, we began to produce a single waste material called alperujo.”

Alperujo is a mixture of olive pulp, skin, pit and water, and is often used as a biofuel. However, Oleicola El Tejar decided to invest in alternative Research and Development technologies that instead allowed them to transform the alperujo into a wider range of products including: pulp for animal nutrition, active carbon from the olive pit, organic fertilisers and even solid fuels.

Moreover, thanks to the alliance with the scientific-technological company NATAC Group, Oleícola El Tejar established in 2011 the Innovaoleo biorefinery, obtaining high-value bioproducts -destined to the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, cosmetic, animal feed and food industry- from the agro-food biomass.

Success through diversification?

Francisco told us that this strong commitment to diversification, a strategy in place since the 1980’s, was made in order to create a more resilient structure in the face of challenges, one of these challenges being the ever-fluctuating price of olive oil.

“As a second degree cooperative, we are naturally affected by the fluctuations in price and demand of olive oil as it affects our 80,000 farmers members” Francisco explained.  

“Nowadays, our activity is divided approximately in half with 50% involved in the sale of electric power, and the other 50% focusing on olive-pomace oil and subsequent by-products.”

This diversification has allowed the Cooperative to cushion the different fluctuations, and to continue serving their members.

Innovation the key

Oleicola El Tejar’s commitment to diversification was only possible due to an equally strong commitment to invest in different technologies.

“Our pledge to Research, Development and Innovation helped us to progress in the integral use of the products derived from the olive oil production.”

“We are also constantly involved in both European and national projects, with the ultimate aim of enhancing the olive growing further.”

Recently, their investment in innovation was evidenced through their 2017 upgrade of the Palenciana power plant which helped the Cooperative to improve its energy efficiency, decrease the use of additives and cut down CO2 emissions.

Beyond their success linked to development of new, innovative technologies the Cooperative has also had a significant impact on the lives of locals.

“Our cooperative is very important from the point of view of the creation of direct and indirect employment, accounting for 300 direct jobs and also many indirect jobs within the community.”

A leading example

Susana Rivera, from Cooperativas Agro-Alimentarias, believes that Oleícola El Tejar’s commitment to the valorisation of olive by-products and their transformation into electricity and other innovative products is the best example today in the Iberian Peninsula.  

“The Cooperative has been a pioneer in providing technological solutions that have demonstrated a high awareness for the conservation and protection of the environment.”

“Their story is a clear example of business success, which has developed over the years as a response to the needs of the sector, its partners, and the society.”

To read more about the Oleicola El Tejar cooperative or more inspiring business cases from the RUBIZMO project you can access the virtual library.