LSE’s Donnas Ojok gives a brief history of agricultural co-operatives in Africa and discusses the potential these organisations have for the continent today.
The agricultural co-operative movement in Africa started around the late 19th century and early 20th century. It thrived during the colonial era – mostly because of the administrative support provided by colonial authorities to satisfy their own interests. This led to an exploitative relationship which was later challenged by a combination of African co-operatives and labour unions leading to co-op and labour reforms towards the end of colonialism. Post-colonial African governments also took deliberate efforts to strengthen co-ops. These were mostly formed by plantation and cash-crop farmers and they prospered, providing employment for thousands of people and offering better market opportunities for farmers’ produce. Unfortunately, the rise of African dictators in the 1970s and 1980s like Mobutu, Kamuzu Banda, Idi Amin, Sani Abacha to mention but a few led to a difficult time for co-ops as these leaders pursued policies which were, for lack of a better word, disastrous to the entire agricultural sector. Amin’s economic war in Uganda is a classic illustration of this point.
Subsequent African governments in late 1980s and early 1990s did not do much to revive co-ops stemming from a multiplicity of factors, notably conditionalities from the World Bank. The Washington Consensus attached conditions which deterred governments from supporting farmers. Any government would do so at their own peril – losing out on overseas development aid to help their ailing economies at the time. However, co-ops flourished in exceptional cases like Burkina Faso during Thomas Sankara’s short tenure, only to experience a freefall after his assassination in 1987.
In the 1990s, many co-ops were established with the support or under the auspices of NGOs. Farmers were mobilised and encouraged to form farming and marketing groups and hundreds of storage facilities were constructed to promote collective marketing and connect farmers to better buyers. Unfortunately, these projects had short life spans with minimum built-in sustainability mechanisms. As a result, most of these groups disintegrated not long after they were formed and many of the agricultural storage facilities constructed are still currently underused. Today, empty agricultural storage facilities, overgrown with grass are a common sight in Northern Uganda which received billions in aid for post-conflict reconstruction.
Creating a built-in sustainability mechanism for effective co-operative operationalisation in Africa is very challenging and complex mostly for four obvious reasons. One reason is the high illiteracy rates among rural smallholder farmers leading to the lack of quintessential leadership and technical skills needed to run and manage the co-ops.
Secondly, trust, a key conditional pre-requisite for any co-op to succeed, is lacking among many rural farmers mostly because they have been let down on multiple occasions by members of the elite who offer help, but who ultimately exploit them.
The third is the lack of necessary infrastructure especially the poor road network which makes it extremely difficult to connect the farmers to the market.
Finally, the government arguably must shoulder its share of the blame by failing to do enough to incentivise and support co-ops to thrive through the policy and institutional frameworks.
Arguably, a fifth reason, one that is geberally ignored, could be added to the list. This is rooted in the origin of the co-operatives in Africa. As mentioned earlier, these were set up to to serve colonial interests i.e. bolstering cash crop production to meet industrial demands in Europe, rather than solidifying and augmenting the economic strength of the African population. Principles and values were therefore simply copied from Western co-ops and pasted on to the African versions without taking into account the specific socio-economic and political context of continent. Fredrick Wanyama, a co-op expert notes that the very principles and statement of the identity of co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity and that in the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, mutuality and caring for others. True, these values are not new to African culture. Indeed they are uniquely placed within the African Ubuntu philosophy. So why have co-operatives failed in most African countries? Why do many people claim that co-ops were more successful in the past than today. The co-op values may be African in theory but the degree to which these hold in practice is not just an issue of normative hindsight but a subject that requires critical and objective reflection. I therefore suggest that the co-operative formation and management process should be organic and slowly nurtured by the people to meet their own expectations and local needs.
Co-ops still present a unique opportunity to revolutionarise the agricultural sector in Africa. A few co-ops in Africa have already defied the odds and are emerging as a new breed of farmer organisations. These are structured on a social business model and they seek to make profits and create social impact. Kibinge Coffee co-operative in Uganda is one of them. Founded in 1995 by four farmers, the co-op is today a Fairtrade-certified agency and recently crowned as the winner of Fairtrade International Small Producer of the Year for Africa Award. The co-op also runs projects beyond agriculture to include rural electrification, Kibinge does this by creating an innovative private-sector-inspired business model which enables it to attract the investment, technical expertise, and advice she needs. It also emphasises strong and accountable leadership, which upholds the virtues of transparency and trust – an asset missing in most traditional co-ops.
Co-ops should therefore reinvent their wheel to muster the dynamics of 21st century business environment, lest they will get knocked out by stronger agricultural value chain actors who are more efficient, effective and competitive. Evidence points to a first step of an entrepreneurial management team taking calculated risks, motivating farmers, and inculcating trust among varying stakeholders.
Finally, deviating from broad-based global beliefs and embracing local, context-specific practices might reduce the challenges and enable success. Otherwise, treating a poor, illiterate farmer in rural Malawi like a rich and highly literate farmer in the Dutch countryside is like comparing temperate apples to tropical mangoes.
Donnas Ojok is a postgraduate student at LSE. Follow him on Twiitter @OjokD. Visit his website: www.donnasojok.com
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.