‘Rowmania’ Case Study: Starting a Social Enterprise in the Danube Delta Region

The current case study considers a single social enterprise which generated an ecosystem of businesses in an underdeveloped rural area situated in the Romanian Danube Delta region. The authors started their journey of exploring social entrepreneurship in tourism in South-East Romania by discovering the venturesome organisation ‘Rowmania’ and its founders: Ivan Patzaichin and Doru Frolu. Data collection took place in June 2015 in the regions of Danube Delta and Bucharest (Romania) and consisted of six in-depths interviews and discussions with stakeholders involved in the ‘Rowmania’ association. There were three groups: the founders (three interviews: one with Ivan Patzaichin, one with Doru Frolu, and a joint interview with the both of them), enterprise owners (three interviews with a boat constructor and social entrepreneur, a local eco tour-operator and an accommodation provider), employees (discussions with ‘Rowmania’ representatives in Tulcea, the administrative centre of the region and the main starting point for the Danube Delta) and business partners (discussions with an accommodation owner). These six participants represent the key nodes in the social enterprise ecosystem under discussion.

The centre of the social enterprise eco-system is the social business itself: ‘Rowmania’. Like most small businesses this began with an entrepreneur with a vision. ‘Rowmania’ grew out of a single person’s desire to rebuild his native region by reviving local pride and trust between members of the community. Its founder, Ivan Patzaichin is a former international canoeing champion and audacious social entrepreneur. After winning seven Olympic medals at five Olympic Games and coaching the Romanian canoeing team, Ivan saw the fast decline and degradation of Danube Delta and decided to act. This constitutes the starting point of ‘Rowmania’. Ivan’s vision grew and developed alongside his development as a sportsman and entrepreneur. He envisioned the design and development of Danube Delta region by recreating and resurrecting memories from the past when the Delta was ‘the real amazing Delta’, the one where I used to wake up in the dawn surrounded by water. This early childhood memory from fishing with his grandfather at daybreak (a common practice in the region) is still vivid and there is a deep sadness when talking about the realities the region is facing nowadays such as the physical shrinking of the area, rapid degradation of the environment and architectural landscape, illegal poaching or even, fishing with electricity.

Strong communities are built around the idea of cooperating ecosystems that work towards a common goal. ‘Rowmania's' main purpose was to revive local people’s pride and dignity and gradually developing the region. See Fig. 1. This is a process that happened organically according to the president of the organisation, Teodor Frolu, who said that the foundation was laid on some basic principles:

The basic principles were that everything we build must be constructed around the idea of common sense and mutual respect. The relations should be developed together with the people who want to be helped and those who want to do something local, this local pride is very important, and it is important to channel it on something valuable.

For us, the human resource is of outmost importance. Design or landscape can be readjusted, but hard-working passionate people who are willing to collaborate on a new emerging idea..we try to generate a new type of community that appears out of a need and will generate profit, but what is most important—it will generate satisfaction. Satisfaction is the most important ingredient, the satisfaction of doing something good, something to be proud of.

Fishermen depicting a glimpse of the difference between the boats. 2015 Danube Delta Romania @Georgiana Els

Fig. 1 Fishermen depicting a glimpse of the difference between the boats. 2015 Danube Delta Romania @Georgiana Els

‘Rowmania’ is established as a social business venture focused on social and environmental issues of the Danube Delta region. See Fig. 2. By looking at the local landscape and needs, it was decided what is desired and what are the community resources, financial means and assess that should be incorporated in the starting phase in order to effectively develop the region. ‘Rowmania’ has two main aims: (1) promoting and preserving the Danube Delta region by undergoing several social projects and (2) acting as a facilitator for other social enterprises to start, develop and flourish. In the planning process, ‘Rowmania’ established the geographical area of focus (the triangle area with points in three of the Danube Delta villages: Crisan, Caraorman and Mila 23) as the entire Danube Delta region has a wide perimeter (approx. 4000 m2).

The pilot started with the village Mila 23 (less than 1000 inhabitants) which is Ivan’s native village and then continuing with the mapping and developing of social entrepreneurship initiatives from a small region to the larger triangle area. The working perimeter of Crisan—Caraorman—Mila 23 was established after several failures of trying to restore a wider area, but soon realising that changing mind-sets and building local trust is a far more complicated task than initially thought and planned. Horlings and Marsden (2011) suggest that the ‘place-based eco-economy’ is an economy that should be established on initiatives embedded locally and ventured by social entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who develop sustainable ecosystems of support, based on innovative local practices that would attract worldwide attention (Roy, McHugh, Huckfield, Kay, & Donaldson, 2014). A good example of

The triangle area defined by ‘Rowmania’ in the Danube Delta Region. Source

Fig. 2 The triangle area defined by ‘Rowmania’ in the Danube Delta Region. Source: Developed by the authors

local innovation is the re-adapting and re-inventing of a traditional regional type of boat made out of wood called a ‘lotca’. ‘Rowmania’ identified a challenge in the fast disappearing type of dinghy boat called ‘canotca’ due to the new ‘modern plastic boats’. ‘Canotca’ is a small boat that replicates the allure of the new developed ‘lotca’ boat, but is made on a canoe system and permits slow tourism on the narrow channels of the Danube Delta. The ‘lotca’ boat was innovated and readapted to the modern needs by a local engineer, inventor and entrepreneur nurtured by the association—‘We came with a local option/ solution that will enable us to re-launch the wood boat construction, but to suit a need and ‘canotca ’ is the best example (...) we take something traditional and relevant in the landscape and we reinvent to be both actual and traditional in the offer that goes on the market.’ According to Marsden (2012), a growing number of economic activities use resources in a more durable sustainable way by employing the local knowledge and skills.

‘Rowmania’ project implementation will be described by examining and clustering its on-going projects, projects that are continuously and cautiously readjusted by the association according to the changing needs of the local environment. The authors decided to present project implementation by creating a visual graphic based on the concept of triple bottom line. See Fig. 3.

‘ Rowmania’ on-going projects based on the principles of the triple bottom line. Source

Fig. 3 ‘ Rowmania’ on-going projects based on the principles of the triple bottom line. Source: Developed by the authors

Following the concept of the triple bottom line presented above, ‘Rowmania’s’ purpose is to empower and transform the local community by using basic principles to design sustainable human environments. By placing local community at the core and searching for sustainable opportunities based on the three pillars: economic, social and environmental, ‘Rowmania’ seized the opportunity and ability of both tourism and education to contribute to important social aims and changes. The educational programmes developed are fostered mainly around the social and economic pillars by looking at training opportunities for the locals:

  • • training provided for the local accommodation providers;
  • • by following the concept of ‘human ecology’, prisoners are taught the local arts and crafts and traditional eco building;
  • • training fishermen for tourism and wooden boat construction as an alternative to industrial fishing;

Tourism is regarded as a global force that needs to be applied by following the local principles in order to foster development, but at the same time to protect the natural environment. Tourism is the main driving force of the association as, through its on-going projects, it encompasses the principles of the triple bottom line:

  • • Bird watching: the first dedicated area for bird-watching in Romania;
  • • ‘Pescatourism’: spending and observing a day in the life of a fisherman;
  • • Slow tourism: 1-4 days tours with the traditional ‘canotca’ boats.
  • • Slow food: Gastronomic itineraries to foster the development of local accommodation providers;
  • • ‘Rowmania’ Fest: an event (rowing competition, outdoor concerts, movies, shows involving the local community members, gastronomic events and public debates) aimed at raising awareness on sustainable tourism and supporting the local communities in the Danube Delta for a long sustainable development.

By scrutinising the local problems and developing local solutions, the framework provided through the case fosters an environment under which local entrepreneurs can start and flourish. The association’s role is to develop successful business models adapted for the local community and thus developing the node of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. By learning from the natural systems, organisations should optimise rather than maximise and a good comparison to exemplify this idea was offered by a social entrepreneur (nurtured by the association) who compared the environment of the Danube Delta with the environment of a city: ‘the Delta system needs to be regarded as a urban system where you have areas like highways for high speed like the channel, but you needs areas where you reduce the speed, you drive slowly, or use the bike without aggressing the environment’ . Similar to a biological ecosystem, within a business ecosystem ‘the health and vitality of each firm is dependent on the health and vitality of all firms in the ecosystem' and the progression of the system relies on one or two leader companies who can administer the platform around which other social entrepreneurs can align and tailor their social ventures (Teece, 2012, p. 106). In this way, business ecosystems with well-timed innovative strategies are the ones who flourish and create social change.

The study of social enterprise eco-systems allows us to understand and explain the creation, growth and adaption of social businesses. Creating a map of the nodes or organisations which influence the social enterprise and the links between them has both explanatory and predictive value. Those businesses which are surrounded by supportive structures are much more likely to survive and prosper than those organisations which exist within a sparse or non-existent web of positive relationships. If government wishes to create conditions for the success of a social enterprise it is not enough to provide solely legal and regulatory support from a distance, which may be a necessary but is not a sufficient condition for success. What is needed is the facilitation of the whole system of support, from local governments with understanding and supportive attitudes; to local communities with a wish for their social organisations to survive and prosper; to entrepreneurs who are willing to provide a helping hand to those who wish to develop their own social businesses. The totality of this represents the eco-system necessary for success.

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