Sharing initiatives in Flanders slowly pick up steam, and fans

Summary

A host of companies and initiatives built around sharing everything from cars to gardening tools have popped up across Flanders of late. Though not all locals have wholeheartedly embraced it, according to local entrepreneurs, the sharing economy is here to stay

Good for everyone

The sharing economy has arrived in Flanders and the rest of Belgium, even if most people don’t know about it yet. Awareness and levels of participation are low, according to a survey published in July, but the idea of sharing appeals to people, which leaves local companies in this innovative area of business feeling optimistic.

“I talk to a lot of people about our concept and about other concepts, and mostly I hear good things back,” says Sebastiaan Schillebeeckx, founder of campsite platform Campr. “There are a lot of new Belgian companies starting in this sector, and I think the future here is good.”

Maarten Kooiman, co-founder of car-sharing site Tapazz, agrees. “Everywhere there is idle capacity, or where there are big organisations doing things that people can do collectively, there is the potential for new systems that can deliver the same or better services at a lower price.”

The sharing economy is about finding unused resources and making them available to people who would like to use them. This saves money, reduces environmental impact and builds social connections.

For example, rather than buying gardening or DIY tools you can borrow them from a neighbour through the Peerby website, a Dutch initiative that now operates in Belgium. The service is free, so it saves you money, and you can meet people in your neighbourhood who share your interests.

Lenders have the satisfaction of seeing their tools put to use rather than laying idle, and the planet is spared the burden of making more ladders and lawn mowers. 

Everyone benefits

Not all sharing economy initiatives are this pure, though. Many involve paying to “share”, with both the lender and the intermediary company taking a cut. This does not cancel out the benefits, but it does change the relationship between lender and borrower. 

The sharing economy has a great deal of potential

- ING Bank

Yet if the economic balance is right, everyone benefits, and it is possible for whole new businesses to emerge. Hence the excitement about Airbnb, which connects people with empty rooms or apartments with travellers looking for somewhere to stay, and alternative taxi service Uber, which (though technically illegal in Brussels, where it continues to operate) allows drivers with time on their hands to pick up people looking to get from A to B.

The success of these companies also explains the protests from professional taxi drivers and hoteliers who see Uber and Airbnb using casual labour to compete in their markets, side-stepping regulations they have to follow.

The July survey that reported low participation levels in the sharing economy was commissioned by the bank ING, which was interested in finding out how the sharing economy would change the way its customers spend their money. The pollsters questioned around 1,000 people in 13 European countries about their involvement and attitudes towards sharing.

This was defined as sharing goods rather than services, so while borrowing a car was covered, sharing a ride was not. The survey also excluded sharing without payment.

In Belgium, the survey found that only 8.5% of people surveyed had borrowed or lent something for money in the previous year. Of these, 1.7% were only lenders, 4.3% only borrowers, with 2.5% doing both. The items most often borrowed were cars, holiday homes and bicycles. Those most often lent were clothes, cars and things for children, such as toys.

Brussels comes through as a relative hotspot, with more than 16% of residents in the survey participating in the sharing economy. This can be explained by the greater population density and relatively low levels of car and bicycle ownership, which makes borrowing these items a more popular option.

Low participation, high interest

When asked if they envisaged sharing resources in the year to come, 44% of respondents said yes, with 7% considering lending, 14% borrowing and 23% interested in doing both. “This indicates that the sharing economy has a great deal of potential,” ING concludes.

This assessment of the sharing economy in Belgium – low participation but high interest – sounds about right to local entrepreneurs. “There are other countries that are more active in the sharing economy, and Belgium is still just catching up,” says Schillebeeckx. But things are moving quickly. “A lot of people are open to the idea, so I think 44% is a realistic number.”

His Antwerp-based company Campr is a variant on the Airbnb model that connects campers with people who have space that could accommodate a tent. One motivation was to open up unconventional sites for camping, such as back gardens and other urban locations.

This has proved a hit with users. “Garden camping is the most popular,” says Schillebeeckx. “People like the idea of having their own private campsite and having a more personal connection with their hosts.”

There are currently more than 230 campsites in the system, 60 of them in Belgium. As of the end of July, more than 100 nights had been booked. “This is our first summer, and we are getting some bookings in, but we can also see that it takes time to set up a marketplace,” Schillebeeckx explains. “It is not something that you can create in a month and expect it to be profitable from day one.”

Word of mouth will help it grow, and that takes time, he says. “But if the system works well, and people use it and have a good experience, then more people will join in.” 

Local roadblocks

Car sharing site Tapazz, which is also based in Antwerp, has had a more complicated set of barriers to address since it was established in 2012. Some are common to all sharing economy initiatives, such as how to reach people who are not digital natives. But others are more local. 

Other countries are more active in the sharing economy; Belgium is still catching up

- Campr founder Sebastiaan Schillebeeckx

“In Belgium, culturally you still have the car as a status symbol,” says Kooiman. That makes some people reluctant to share, while others are prevented from sharing because they drive company cars, a popular option thanks to fiscal incentives offered by the government. “Around 40% of cars in Belgium are company cars, and until now most companies only allow employees and their partners to drive these cars.”

A further problem is that Tapazz is competing with the car club Cambio, which receives public money for activities such as marketing. “Individuals who want to rent out their cars have to do so almost at a loss if they want to compete with the government-sponsored car club,” Kooiman says.

The government is not interfering on purpose, he adds, but its tradition of supporting Cambio is hindering new approaches to sustainable transport that could emerge from the community.

Discussions about these barriers are underway, and there has already been progress in the area of insurance. One Belgian company, P&V, has developed a policy specifically for people who want to lend their cars through Tapazz, and Kooiman is hopeful that other options will follow.

At the moment Tapazz has 1,400 members. “There’s a lot of potential for increasing that,” Kooiman says. “As soon as these barriers are taken away that will make a big difference, and then we can easily evolve towards tens of thousands.”

Late adopters

A newer sharing economy company is PiggyBee, whose site recruits travellers to deliver items from one place to another. For instance, if you can’t get your favourite English tea in Brussels, the site will connect you with a Eurostar traveller willing to slip some into their suitcase.

At the moment this is a free initiative, with participants offering small tips or payment in kind in return for the delivery. But that will change in the next few months as the site adds paid options.

“I’m an entrepreneur, so the idea is to make money one day,” says founder David Vuylsteke. “We launched the site to see what would happen, and then the idea is to put a business model on top of that.”

Although PiggyBee is based in Brussels, the concept is international; it doesn’t matter if Belgians are slow to catch on. “In general, Belgians are late adopters,” says Vuylsteke. “Only time will change that. Once everybody is talking about [the sharing economy], then it will work.”

Yet he thinks Belgium is a good place to launch a sharing economy company. Investors may be cautious, but they have a long-term view that allows an idea time to mature, and there are plenty of skilled people in the workforce. “Belgium is a nice place to build a reliable, solid business,” he says, “rather than something that rises very high, then crashes very fast.”

Photo courtesy PiggyBee and Richard Hammond for Greentraveller