Having handed over the reins to Molly at the beginning of May my heart has remained with Kusamala and I have been looking for a way to continue to contribute to the great work the organisation is doing. Having recently moved to Geneva, home to several international organisations, I spotted the perfect opportunity to help, by attending conferences and reporting back to the team in Malawi.

So, back in October, I attended the “Can We End Hunger?” conference organised by FAO, WFP and The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It was preceded by the opening of the exhibition on the Role of Cooperatives in Food Security, given that 2012 is the UN’s “International Year of the Cooperatives”. Furthermore, it was scheduled as a forerunner to World Food Day on 16th October 2012 and as a compliment to Ban Ki-Moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge (http://www.un.org/en/zerohunger/challenge.shtml). I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little more about the latest policy work at the global level, assessing how this fits with the approach we have taken in Malawi, at the local level.

This first blog concentrates on my findings on cooperatives. At Kusamala we have developed many of our projects with cooperatives (co-ops) and farmers’ groups in mind, seeing them as the best way for farmers to share ideas, learn, witness other successes (and failures) and develop marketing strategies. We often heard that farmers’ main concern is getting access to market; by working together they can undertake group purchasing of inputs (or indeed saving and creation of inputs) and transport, share responsibilities, spread risks and diversify produce. Therefore, I was particularly excited to hear more about the role of cooperatives in food security and what the reasons were behind the decision to highlight them in 2012, as we had developed this strategy without awareness of such high-level support. Consequently, I was somewhat puzzled when cooperatives were barely mentioned in the conference – I guess conventional food security thinking is hard to break out from! We shall see how this develops.

Nonetheless, I managed to piece together some of the documentation and a few comments about co-ops. FAO “recommends the promotion of these special enterprises [co-ops] as a way out of hunger and poverty” citing that “through practices like group purchasing and marketing, farmers gain market power and get better prices on agricultural inputs and other necessities.” Co-ops are also able to seek partners and allies that bring expertise that they do not have, such as business or finance skills. This, come to think of it, is exactly how we got involved in the Mtendere cooperative. Isaac, the head of the co-op and now our agroforestry expert and community liaison, came to us seeking training in agro-ecology and assistance with access to market. We have since included Mtendere in our Peace Corps project and subsequent JANEEMO Permaculture project, training them in agro-ecology and supporting the co-op management team to develop more effective structures and a strategy to grow varied, organic produce that is more marketable in the local Lilongwe market. This provides the co-op with an additional sales avenue and the confidence to grow valuable produce that is demanded in Lilongwe, beyond the simple tomato, onion, peppers and lettuce offerings that currently saturate the market.

Mtendere Co-op members at Kusamala’s market garden

Furthermore, it was noted that an unfortunate reality of global food price increases was that the average farmer seldom benefits, as they are rarely able to respond flexibly to changing market conditions. One of the panel members commented that farmers, due to a lack of access to finance, are often locked into punitive debt conditions with local lenders and thus commit their produce to pay this off, at set rates. In the Malawi context, this inflexibility is due to the significant reliance on maize as the main crop and the single rainy season, offering little in terms of ability to shift production. Furthermore, with food price increases comes a relative increase in the prices of seeds and fertiliser, thus negating any rise in the sale price. Our commitment to agro-ecology means that we focus much of our effort on seed saving, organic fertiliser, integrated pest management and agroforestry, all contributing to greater independence for the farmer. This means they should no longer be at the mercy of companies and market prices for inputs, yet are able to take advantage of the sale prices, across different products. The farmers are also be able to grow more using our techniques, hopefully releasing them from the financial constraints they have with buyers and even take back some of the power by working cooperatively.

Finally, it was interesting to hear how widespread co-ops are:

  • “In Kenya, 924,000 farmers earn income from membership in agricultural cooperatives, in Ethiopia about 900,000, and in Egypt about 4 million.”
  • “An estimated 1 billion people worldwide are members of cooperatives.”
  • And, as a demonstration of its applicability across developing and developed nations, it’s clear that co-ops have a large role to play- “In the United States, dairy cooperatives control about 80 percent of dairy production, while in California most of the specialty crop producers are organized in cooperatives.”

So, while the conference unfortunately did not live up to my expectations (perhaps a reality I’ll have to come to expect), it was pleasing to note through some comments, the exhibition and the various documents available, that our focus on bringing farmers together into groups and cooperatives is backed by policy at the UN level and means that Kusamala should continue its work at the local level, alongside the global support for its strategies.

The answer for my question – are agricultural cooperatives a useful development tool? – is therefore a resounding yes. We have thought so for a long time at Kusamala and it is now clear to see that the UN and its partners do too. It would now be beneficial to hear more from these organisations about how they plan to support co-ops, some more examples of how they have promoted growth and in Malawi we hope to see more evidence of this policy being implemented by development agencies and through Government action.

That is all for this blog. I look forward to updating you more on global policy perspectives and what that means for our work at the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture & Ecology.

n.b. a few definitions of cooperatives, according to the FAO-

  • “any member-owned enterprise run on democratic principles.”
  • A cooperative is a special type of enterprise. It is a social enterprise that balances two main goals:
    • satisfying its members’ needs, and
    • pursuing profit and sustainability – personally, while I would love the pursuit of sustainability to be the case in all cooperatives, my immediate reaction is that this cannot always be true.

 

Key documents at the conference and subsequently released:

World Food Day on 16/10/2012, launched with a document entitled AGRICULTURAL COOPERATIVES: KEY TO FEEDING THE WORLD http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/getinvolved/images/WFD2012_leaflet_en_low.pdf

 

World Bank – Africa Can Help Feed Africa http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTAFRICA/Resources/Africa-Can-Feed-Africa-Report.pdf

While Kusamala’s work focuses on production at the local level, the aim is always there to help farmers and their cooperatives access markets for their produce. Certainly a greater facilitation of trade, at whichever level, would be gladly received.