Article by Jennie Rhodes, published in SUR English 20151120

Vilostrada, which means Viva (Live), Love and Strada (Road), calls itself a lifestyle brand. The family that run it call it the “mothership” that fuels the community building project, Common Ground. They also launched their digital agency ‘Digistrada’ in December, which is the internet based side of the initiative.

Vilostrada’s story began in 2013 when the Ahlén family, from Sweden, sold 75 per cent of their belongings, gave up their IT jobs and busy lives in Göteborg and came to Frigiliana. For Victoria, the change wasn’t so big, having been born in Finland and educated in the USA, travelling and adapting to new ways of life wasn’t too big a challenge. However, bringing Lucas and Maj, then aged eight and five, was an important factor and the children have been central to the Vilostrada story. For Victoria and husband Joakim, their children’s education is at the very heart of what they do and they felt that they were “missing the point in life” in Sweden.

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They arrived in Spain on August 24th 2013, but Victoria knew she needed more. “My heart was telling me to travel to northern Morocco,” she says. Two weeks later, they found a guide in Nerja, who was prepared to travel with the couple and to whom Victoria gave the instruction to find them a social entrepreneur. The guide fulfilled her promise and upon arriving in Morocco, they were introduced to Jaber El Hababi, a hotel owner with a passion for ecology, sustainability and buying locally sourced products. On that very first trip, Victoria and Joakim filled their car with Moroccan crafts and brought them back to Spain to sell as a test collection.

Victoria speaks frankly about their decision to come to Spain and not Morocco; “Spain is in the EU, It’s easy to fly to and from Göteborg where most of our family and friends are and it was a safe option.”  Morocco, she says, would have been something different, but they had also fallen in love with Andalucía. Asked what the hardest thing about moving abroad is she says “setting a date and booking a ticket. You just have to begin and follow your heart.”

This is the passionate message that Victoria and Joakim have installed in their children and taken to companies and projects they have worked with. Self-confessed “digital nerds”, Joakim and Victoria recognised that they were able to combine their web development and IT experience with helping others. Victoria worked with the strapline ‘social media for social good,’ and while still in Sweden started helping companies promote their social responsibility work via social media. She worked on projects from the World Transplant Games to various cancer charities. Victoria has also travelled to conferences in Paris and South Africa with her message, teaching people how to use digital media to educate and share stories.

Since that first trip they have been introduced to other local craftspeople and developed a fair trade relationship with them, selling pottery, typical ironwork and textiles among other things, via their webshop, the eco market at Viveros El Algorrobo Garden Centre, near Vélez-Málaga, on Saturday mornings as well as in Sweden. Shopping locally is an important part of both Andalusian and Moroccan culture and it’s another central theme to the Vilostrada philosophy.

Victoria and Joakim go to Morocco about once a month; sometimes together and sometimes on their own. The children go twice a year, to fit in with school holidays and some of the most poignant stories that the family tells are of how Maj and Lucas have directly helped the children involved in the projects they support, through their social enterprise, Common Ground, which is funded through the money they make selling the products as they buy in Morocco as well as fundraisers. One story tells of Maj giving away her wellington boots to a child during a rainstorm on one visit and another of Lucas raising money with the help of his school friends back in Sweden and his birthday money, to pay for an electrician to a mountain school and a year’s supply of lightbulbs.

Common Ground is currently supporting two existing projects in Morocco:

Darna, which means house in Arabic, is a project that has been running for 20 years thanks to a team of volunteers, many of whom are women. The project looks after 300 children at any one time, through a series of initiatives, including a house, restaurant, farm and theatre. Common Ground has been working with Darna since September, providing them with educational tools and a website, with the aim of giving them a stronger political voice.

The other is a project called OAPAM, based in village of in Chefchaouen, working with around 200 children and disabled adults, again, providing them with education tools. Some of the products for sale at the market are made by people involved in the project.

As well as attracting regulars and tourists at the eco-market, Vilostrada has a huge following globally and in the former home country Sweden, which, Victoria says helps when spreading a positive message of common ground and peace during all ongoing world events. Victoria says it has shown many people not to fear the unknown and through a saying from the Berber philosophy, wants to remind people that, after all “we all come from the same tree.”