Eko local currency: Alex Walker

Alex Walker is the chairman of Ekopia, a community with 250 members in the Findhorn Ecovillage near Inverness in Scotland. Each member of invests small sums of money into Ekopia when they join, through community shares and by buying the local currency, Eko. Ekos can can be used in the local businesses, including the shop and the pub.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Alex Walker, I’m the chairman of Ekopia which operates in the heart of Findhorn Ecovillage. Ekopia is a community benefit society with 250 members. Each member invests small sums of money into Ekopia which we use for local social enterprise.

Our principal business is the issuing of community shares which we then reinvest in these enterprises. We also run the Eko currency, a local currency of notes in four denominations, where one Eko is one pound. There are denominations of one, five, 10 and 20 Ekos.

What is the point of the Eko?

It has a variety of different purposes. One is economic. We sell the notes. We have between 20,000 and 25,000 Ekos in circulation and we can reinvest the pounds from that at a low rate of interest in other projects.

Secondly, it encourages trading between community businesses and local people, because it’s harder to spend the notes the further away you go.

Finally it’s an educational tool. It tends to precipitate conversations about what it is and why, it helps with our idea about Findhorn as a place for innovation. We’re now on our fourth issue. At the end of every issue we count up the notes. There are always fewer in number than the amount we issued, because people have destroyed them or given them away as presents. We can then use the difference as part of the gift economy.

When was the moment you decided to do this?

The Eko had a precursor currency that started in 1985 after I visited an economic summit in London. This currency was called Blue Money and it was printed on pieces of blue paper before desktop publishing. We used that currency for more than 15 years.

The Eko was created as a modern upgrade to that system, a year after Ekopia was formed in 2002. There were a number of important changes. Eko notes look like currency. Also because there was a degree of nervousness in the eighties about alternative currency, Blue Money came with a rule that it could only be used to purchase foodstuffs. The nervousness was: “What happens if people spend all this down the pub,” so the idea was to limit that. It stuck. When we created the Eko we made the argument that it was time to up our game and allow it to be spent on whatever people wanted to spend it on.

How do you fit it in?

Because I am chairman of Ekopia it is my responsibility to make sure the Eko is trading properly. I’m responsible for policy and strategy.

It doesn’t take up too much time. The advantage of a note based currency system is that once it’s up and running there is very little to do day to day.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

Every time we have a new issue we use it to support a particular project. As the years go by the nature of the support might change. I think the most important project recently is the provision of affordable housing.

We’re located in the North East of Scotland, an attractive area where house prices are very high relative to local wage rates. Our parish has been identified as one of the most expensive, where houses in the cheapest quartile cost 11 times more than average wages. Even though house prices would be considered low compared to the South East of England, they are extremely high compared to wages.

We recognised years ago that this was a problem. We have invested the £25,000 that we raised from issuing Ekos into affordable housing projects.

What’s been the hardest moment?

A few years ago our local shop hit some difficult financial times.

We got through them, we’re out of the woods and we’re in profit, but that was a difficult moment because without the shop the currency system would have suffered.

What kept you going at that moment?

The enthusiasm of the community as a whole for getting the shop out of the hole that it was in. There was a sense of anxiety but there was a sense of people pulling together to figure out how they can make this work. Communities operate best in times of crisis and this was an example of that.

What’s next?

We’re in the last year of the current issue of Ekos, which is supposed to run out in the latter half of 2017. So we will want to have a fifth issue and we are thinking about the design and what to do with that.

We’ve never used an electronic system before. My view is that we’re too small for that and it would require a lot of overhead, but I think it would be good to explore whether that’s a real prospect or not.

How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?

I voted to remain. I did so as part of a wider population that voted in the same way locally and nationally. In Scotland there was a significant majority in favour of staying. We live in a rural area, we welcome people who want to come and live here, even when it creates challenges. The Ekopia project is international in nature and we welcome people from all over the world.

How will the outcome affect what you do?

I don’t think it will affect the Eko in a direct sense, or Ekopia, but it could have negative effects on the community if it becomes harder for people to come and live here from other countries. Changing immigration controls in recent years have made things more difficult for people to come and stay or even to visit.

What does community mean to you?

It’s a simple idea but it’s a complicated word to describe. Often in one place there are many interacting communities. The word conjures a sense of collaboration which is very important. Having notions that collaboration is a force for good as opposed to the divisiveness on the political stage is positive.

A community suggests a substantial group of people working together for some common purpose, but once you burrow beneath the surface there are many versions. The Ecovillage has become much difficult to describe but it’s become more interesting because you have many communities working together and you have to work out what that means.

What would you say to someone looking to do the same thing?

I would encourage them to research what’s going on and be positive about it. As with other things, it seems like not much is happening elsewhere in the world and then suddenly you’ll start researching it and you’ll find other people getting excited about it. There are a lot of examples to learn from and learning from elsewhere is important so that you are aware of the legal issues, the financial issues and the kinds of local currency. Doing all that research is important.

It can be worthwhile if the circumstances are right. I don’t think every city or community needs their own currency. You have to understand the community that you are trying to engage and find a currency that works for them.

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