Expert article
Modifier 27 June 2023
by Rossella Soldi

SEMBRIA, the missing perspective

Communicating stories and facts
SEMBRIA is a non-profit association with a mission: to address the needs of rural territories through the implementation of participatory projects. The initiative is rooted in the Urban Forest Innovation Lab (UFIL) implemented by the Municipality of Cuenca (2018-2022) and is an example of a positive outcome of the UIA project.

Through the UFIL project, the Municipality of Cuenca aimed at developing a forest-based bioeconomy to transform its large forests into a driver of socio-economic development. To achieve this objective, the project launched and run an urban forest innovation lab where training, prototyping, coaching and business incubation led to the development of products and services, potentially able to enter the market. The forest innovation lab hosted three residential courses during the project time frame and had a total of 84 participants. This web article tells the story of Irene. She is one of the two key members of SEMBRIA and in 2021 she participated in the second UFIL innovation lab course.


Both Irene and her sister were selected by UFIL to participate in the 2021 project’s residential training. Before UFIL, they were living in Madrid where they had no permanent employment. Irene is a forest engineer and chose to remain in Cuenca after the training. The business idea she initiated at the end of the training was not the one developed in UFIL. Also, she involved other persons.

Sembria partners
SEMBRIA partners. Source: SEMBRIA.

Currently, Irene works in SEMBRIA with Silvia, a friend she met some years ago in Costa Rica. Silvia is the president of the association. She is specialised in environmental sciences and conservation aspects. Another young woman, also named Irene and specialised in communication and design, remotely supports the association from France, where she is based. Finally, Irene’s sister went back to Madrid after her participation in UFIL and only marginally keeps on collaborating with SEMBRIA.

As mentioned, today SEMBRIA is not the business idea originally developed by Irene and her sister in UFIL. The original business project had to do with the creation of labelled supply chains of mountain agroforestry products. Irene explains:

This idea was the one presented in the UFIL Demo Day in December 2021. We were supposed to put in contact producers and consumers and add value to locally supplied products that could be  tracked through a QR code system. We knew this idea was ambitious and we knew we could not tackle it without investments. That is why we decided to focus the association on creating projects with value rather than on valuing products. That is where we are today.

When trying to understand if her participation in UFIL was really necessary to start SEMBRIA, Irene has no doubts:

UFIL was important. There, I learnt how to quantify and cost my input into a business activity. I learnt about management and also a lot about Cuenca and the public administration. I am from Madrid, so ‘local’ knowledge and networking are key to run an activity here.

The motto of SEMBRIA is ‘We weave the territory’. Meeting with persons, listening to their needs, using creativity to find solutions, translating these solutions into projects to respond to real needs… these are the activities undertaken by SEMBRIA to 'weave the territory'. SEMBRIA's aim is to put into practice a paradigm shift which Irene describes in these terms:

Instead of starting from the product and from telling people what to do to add value to the product, we start from people, listen to their needs and ideas and afterwards try to create value in the territory with a project that responds to these needs. We create bottom-up projects using participatory methodologies. We communicate and give stories a value.


When I note that participatory or bottom-up approaches are not new and that UFIL was supposed to put forward innovative ideas, Irene replies:

We innovate with our methodologies. We don't think about projects from the office, but from the territory and for the territory. We are fully involved in everything we do. We rely a lot on the exchange of experiences, on the combination of different type of persons, and on creativity. We believe that our approach allows people to take ownership of the activities after we leave.

These young women are aware that several other participatory initiatives exist, but instead of competing with these initiatives they look for synergies with their promoters. Examples of these promoters are the Local Action Groups (LAGs) funded through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). From their contacts with one LAG, SEMBRIA prepared and had financed one project. Irene explains:

LAGs usually have funds available and ideas of what needs to be done, but do not have enough people, or people that they trust, to implement projects. This is why they are an important reference for us and we are becoming a trusted partner for them.

Since the beginning of our talk, I was wondering why these young women started with a non-profit association. Irene's reply is convincing:

We really count on people to create and implement projects at the territorial level. We talk to everybody. People get to know us.  In this exchange, we are facilitated by the fact that our association is not-for-profit. One of the reasons we identified ourselves as a non-profit  organisation is because we don't create projects for our personal gain, but for the gain of the community where we go to work.

Furthermore, Irene explains that after her participation in UFIL training she had to create a new team and new horizons. All these changes somehow mined her certainties:

Creating a company involves many risks and this is why we decided to start in the form of an association. We thought we would have got no benefits beyond our salaries. Now, after one year, our plan is to start a company . But we want to keep the association alive, so as to be able to access government aid and grants that normally go to non-profit organisations.

Before my talk with Irene, I had looked at their website and knew they had some projects ongoing, but they were not big enough to justify Irene’s optimism. What did it change in the last year? Irene smiles and says:

Well, our original business idea to create value chains of local products was considered a good one and taken over by a local authority. We helped a biodiversity association to put together a project proposal for this village and the proposal was positively evaluated and granted €2 million funding. Once the project will start, we will be called to provide consulting services. This is very good news for us because this project will last up to 2025’. 

Finally, I had one more question for Irene. UFIL was about forest bioeconomy development in and around the city of Cuenca. Irene is a forest engineer. Still, forestry was never mentioned by her when talking about the projects SEMBRIA got involved in. Is there any specific reason for this? Irene explains:

Indeed, wood value chain is a sector we will consider. When I was in Costa Rica - where I also met Silvia -, we were working on this. In the future, our plan is to specialise in a number of sectors and forestry will be one of them. However, the forest sector is rather closed and masculine. It is not easy to find opportunities there. We need to talk to a lot of people. We want to see if there is the interest in building an association to voice the needs of territorial stakeholders. We are not going to change our approach. We want to start from the people, their needs and their objectives. So, we need to understand how people are impacted by forests and how they are involved. We also need to raise awareness on forest products before finding ways to put value on wood. That is what we plan to work on. On processes rather than on products.

So, it is evident that UFIL imprinting is there and that these young women are very likely to contribute, in the near future, to develop the forest-based bioeconomy envisioned by the project. They only took a more complicated path, as adding value through processes takes longer than adding value to products.


Started in April 2022, SEMBRIA association is already producing more earnings than expected. Silvia and Irene took on board another girl to help in the field work. They are open to involve more people if needs arise, but admit that it is not easy to find motivated young persons who are willing to live and work in rural areas. Irene specifies:

SEMBRIA is very much scalable because participatory approaches are mentioned by many, but few know how to make them happen. We have the technical knowledge and we are gaining experience. We can sell these skills to anybody, including municipalities and large companies.

In terms of replicability, Irene is also very much convinced that their idea can be implemented anywhere:

We use objective technical and scientific knowledge and a series of tools that do not depend on who we are and where we work. Subjectivity begins when we start traveling across the territory, applying the methodology, getting to know the peculiarities of each place. Each project resulting from this approach is unique as it fits the characteristics and needs of the area. ‘Sembria’ is a Spanish word that in English means to sow. So, it all starts with a seed, some agents, an idea. It doesn't matter where the idea comes from, or from which perspective. There must be the desire and spirit to make it concrete, to change, and to translate it into a project of and for the territory.

SEMBRIA: field work

Irene decided to move to Cuenca from Madrid. Thus, she is well qualified to advice on what is needed to start working in and around Cuenca:

It means to live there and get to know its inhabitants. Also, it means to have enthusiasm and good will, not to be afraid to fail and know that something may go wrong and may need to be fixed or changed. It is also important to keep your feet on the ground in case of success.

In terms of bioeconomy development, in Irene’s opinion the sector is not yet mature in Cuenca:

There is a lot of concern to solve the problems related to the bioeconomy and a lot of will to create opportunities and to support entrepreneurship. However, I think there is a lack of a union of concepts, and of creation of spaces to share and generate new knowledge.

I conclude my exchange with Irene asking her about the main challenges currently faced by SEMBRIA. Her reply touches upon personal and professional aspects:

Our main challenge today is knowing how to cope with the amount of information we receive without overwhelming ourselves and maintaining our lives happy. For us, both physical and mental health are very important, so we are trying to achieve a balance (we are achieving it). Another challenge is to promote associations between different sectors, move away from complaints and start building for the good of the territory rather than of the individual(s). A last challenge is not to become out-dated, stay active, travel and discover new ways of doing things, share experiences with others and strengthen our network.

Irene put together a small group of young women, with some ongoing projects and many more to come, with the view ‘to promote a collective transformation towards development models that put people and the territory at the centre’ (SEMBRIA website).

  • SEMBRIA is used by Irene and Silvia to facilitate processes and listen to people in those rural areas where UFIL was unable to arrive. As mentioned in other web articles, UFIL had difficulties in reaching out to the general public and to territories. Thus, it is simply great that one of the small ideas nurtured in the UFIL lab, even if changed and adapted to circumstances and needs, is finally bringing the whole territory and its inhabitants into the picture. This is, indeed, the connection that the project struggled to create during its implementation.
  • Also, SEMBRIA tells a story of idealism, where starting a business is not primarily for making profit, but for creating value for all. And of awareness, of how important is keeping one's life balanced. A lesson that usually takes years to learn.
  • As a last remark, out of the 84 persons trained in the innovation lab, only 37% were women (see the article on the final results of UFIL). This uneven participation reflects the fact that, as mentioned by Irene, the forest sector is by tradition a 'masculine one'. So, we may also expect that SEMBRIA will contribute to balance the gender perspective in the sector.  

I am doing the work that I always wanted to do.  

That is how Irene ends our talk. It sounds like another good achievement of the UFIL project.