"2023 IS EXPECTED TO BE A VERY CHALLENGING YEAR IN ALL SECTORS".
She graduated and worked in the health area, but embraced a completely different challenge, at the beginning of 2022, as a councillor of the City Council of Castelo Branco and president of the InovCluster association, an association whose mission is to contribute to the increase of competitiveness of the agro-food products and companies of the centre region of the country, both nationally and internationally. In an interview to DISTRIBUIÇÃO HOJE, Patricia Coelho talks about the new brand Queijos Centro Portugal, 100% national and that pays tribute to the shepherds and the ancestral techniques of shepherding in the centre of the country, but also about other projects that intend to add value to the sector.
What is the role of InovCluster and what were the main challenges of your integration in this entity?
This association was born in 2009 with the objective of providing support to entrepreneurs in the agri-food area. I have been president since the beginning of 2022 and it has been a great challenge to take on this position. I was invited by the current Mayor of Castelo Branco to be part of his list in the 2021 local elections, the list won and I was elected councillor. InovCluster, as well as CATAA (Centre of Technological Support for Agro-Food) are two associations connected to the municipality, which ends up being an excellent partner for both. I had to study a lot to be able to take on this challenge and these new functions. What this association does is give support to entrepreneurs, to municipalities and to entities that are in the agri-food area, with the majority of the total number of associates  located in the Centre of the country. In addition to this, we provide support at a national level.
What was the programme for the Centre region PDO cheese chain that culminated in the creation of the new brand Queijos Centro Portugal?
PDO cheeses have a protected designation of origin. It is a project that has been implemented from the beginning of the raw material up to the stage we are at now, which consists in publicising the PDO cheeses. At this point, we need to publicise and continue to implement the brand in the market. Consumers, when they go shopping, are not yet aware of the question of whether the cheese is PDO or not PDO, nor are they able to differentiate between the two. This project only concerns the Centre region and three demarcated regions: Serra da Estrela, Beira Baixa and Rabaçal. There was, therefore, the need to leverage these products so that people can understand the difference between these cheeses. Naturally, a DOP cheese is more expensive than a cheese that doesn't have this denomination, but it's also produced with high quality raw material and needs to be valued by the consumer. It not only has a higher price, but an effectively higher quality.
"Naturally, a PDO cheese is more expensive than a cheese that does not have this designation, but it is also produced with high quality raw materials and needs to be valued by the consumer"
What did the initial phases of this project consist of?
At the beginning, it was necessary to train pastors through the School of Pastors, which happened under the previous direction of InovCluster. In addition to training, financial support was given to people who wanted to become shepherds and have a flock. It is an under-valued profession, unfortunately. It was curious, because we had the participation of young farmers who wanted to take this step. After this first phase of training these people and increasing the number of herds in these three areas, we moved on to a phase of training and giving tools to the cheese dairies. This phase allowed us to help some cheese dairies in the Seia area which were totally destroyed by fires, which also caused serious problems for cheese production in the Serra da Estrela area. Therefore, it was possible to leverage the support to be given to these cheese makers. We also organised the Cheesemakers' School with the same context and within the logic of promoting training. When I took over the presidency of InovCluster, the project was already in another phase, of labelling and launching the cheeses at the Inov Food Summit 2022, held between 8 and 10 November 2022. It was an event created to show what we do in this association and bring together all those involved in the agri-food area. It was an opportunity for professional enrichment and allowed to give tools to entrepreneurs to apply for our projects, evolve in their industries and market their products (which go beyond cheeses).
CHEESES WITH THEIR OWN IDENTITY AND DISTINCTIVE QUALITY
InovCluster, Association of the Agro-Industrial Cluster of the Central Region, in partnership with the Programme for the Enhancement of the Value of the Centre Region Cheese Sector, has just launched a new brand which, through an identity image, aims to differentiate the Centre Region's PDO cheeses in the market and thus help add value to them and to its entire sector. Created by Ivity Brand Corp, the new "Queijos do Centro Portugal" brand encompasses three sub-brands, inspired by cultural and iconic elements of each territory, creating a distinctive identity for the Centre region's PDO cheeses: Queijo da Serra da Estrela PDO, Queijo da Beira Baixa PDO and Queijo Rabaçal PDO. The aim is to empower these regions to preserve and recognise their past associated with cheese making, but also to strengthen and encourage for a more sustainable future with more love for the arts and crafts of national culture. These cheeses share between them the "cura" or rigorous maturation and the waiting time necessary to refine their flavour, hence the signature of this new brand: "Guardados pelo sabor" (Kept by flavour). The 15 partner entities of the Programme for the Enhancement of the Value of Cheese Production in the Centre Region took this as one of the great challenges of the project. The partnership is now focusing on the next stage, which will be the implementation of these brands in the market, with the hope of a good adhesion from producers and consumers.
In practice, how did the promotion of this brand of cheeses happen?
During the month of December, we held street events with exhibitions of our cheeses in various locations in Lisbon and Porto. InovCluster thus took its cheeses from the Center to the large urban centres, where large population centres are concentrated, as we promoted this direct contact with people. The PDO cheeses of Serra da Estrela, Beira Baixa and Rabaçal have a new image and we want to take the consumer to taste and identify/differentiate them from others. For these actions to come to fruition, it was necessary to involve the cheese makers, which is not always easy. We have to help work with them to make them understand that the change to a PDO cheese is important for us to value our cheeses even more. By integrating everyone, we can create a value ecosystem - from the shepherd, to the producer and culminating with the consumer - and a healthier sector. The work so far has been done, we have the cheese dairies and the shepherds involved and by the end of the year we will have a closing event for the Centre Region Cheese project to present the results, and I think one of the conclusions we can draw is that it would be worth having a 2.0 project to take a new step. Should this project come to fruition, I think it would make sense to be able to count on the large distributors to add even more value to the sale of these cheeses that are found in hypermarkets, even though most of them are found in local markets.
Currently, there is an increasing need to reinvent the agri-food sector in various areas. Does InovCluster also take this aspect into consideration in its projects?
Yes, there are other local products that need to be leveraged as much or more than cheese, such as PDO olive oil and honey, for example. These two products are from Beira Baixa, but there are many others from other regions, because it's necessary to create this awakening to the PDO, independently of the products they are. A large slice of the consumer is not awake to this question of differentiation of products, which are an added value on the Portuguese table and which value what is ours.
What other projects or services promoted by InovCluster would you like to highlight?
At the moment, we are building an internal project, because we have the know-how, the people, the tools, we know how to do it and we want to help our associates to create, build and submit projects to funding. Many times, companies would like to apply for funding, but are unable to do so. In case these projects are approved, we also help our associates to implement and develop them. We also have another project related with internationalisation, which supports in 50% the investment that businessmen make to go to international fairs, such as Alimentaria, in Barcelona, or SIAL, in Paris, and participate as exhibitors. This participation has a relatively high cost and this project pays 50% of that investment.
Is it important to bring the associates closer to international projects?
We have a project in partnership with the CATAA association and the municipality of Castelo Branco, the Fusilli [Fostering the Urban food System Transformation through Innovative Living Labs Implementation], which involves 13 European cities and the only national city is Castelo Branco. It is a project that intends to bring the community closer to local producers and products and to implement healthy lifestyles and eating habits. This project started at the beginning of the year and will end at the end of 2024. In Castelo Branco, we have been training the population through showcookings, workshops and going to schools. We have the notion that if we manage to pass on the message to the youngest, we can reach their parents and grandparents. We also involve our municipal market, where the project is held once a month. We have a product in focus every month and we choose according to seasonality, we do demonstrations and we develop actions. The fact that we also have the CATAA association in this project allows our researchers to transform a product in the laboratory and make it healthier. For example, in December, the idea was to create a healthy recipe for Christmas. From 14 to 17 February 2023, we will be at Biofach, in Germany, with this project "Taste&Feel Portugal" and we will take and exhibit our associates' products. We want to help them break new ground in their business prospects and have a close relationship with them.
How do you promote the connection to the distribution and retail sector?
As an association, our objective is to support our associates through our various projects, but also to help them if they have any problems in distribution, for example, and we eventually suggest another associate, creating synergies. We can do this work of interaction between all. We would like to have companies in the distribution area in our associates [we have educational institutions, research and development institutions, municipalities from various parts of the country, etc.], but until now they have not sought us out.
Did you feel any constraints from producers due to the pandemic and now inflation?
What I heard from the cheesemakers is that there was a drop in sales at the time of the pandemic, but that they managed to recover somewhat afterwards. Next year, the municipality will organise a cheese fair in Alcains, during the month of May, and besides the cheesemakers from Beira Baixa, we'd like to have other cheesemakers at national and international level. In 2022, we have already managed to bring some Spanish cheesemakers, but we would like to add even more value. We invite all cheesemakers to participate so that we can show what's good in Portugal. 2023 is expected to be a very challenging year in all sectors.
PROFILE - PATRÍCIA COELHO
Graduated in Cardiopneumology in September 2003 from the Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra - School of Health Technology of Coimbra and completed his master's degree in Socio-Organizational Intervention in Health in November 2008 from the University of Évora. In December 2013, she received her PhD in Biomedicine from the Universidad de Extremadura - CampusBadajoz. She is an assistant professor at the Castelo Branco Polytechnic Institute - Dr. Lopes Dias School of Health, deputy director of the Organic Unit at the Castelo Branco Polytechnic Institute, councillor in various areas of the Castelo Branco City Council and president of the Inovcluster association.
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