The Cooperative Facility for Africa (COOPAFRICA), a regional technical cooperation programme of the International Labour Organization (ILO), argues strongly that cooperatives can play an important role in overcoming these barriers in Africa. Regardless of the sector, they belong to, or the types of cooperative they represent, their very mandate places cooperatives in a unique position to ensure and promote gender equality. When women are systemically marginalized and disadvantaged through lack of education, information, networks and access to important resources such as capital and labour, systems that encourage cooperation and coordination are essential to empowering women. Cooperatives reduce the resource constraints placed on individual women and foster a community of women who are working to empower themselves and one another.
Cooperatives provide essential services to a large portion of the female population in Africa, primarily the self-employed in rural areas and the urban informal economy. Such services include market access, agricultural supply, marketing and exports, transport, storage, appropriate financial intermediation, joint production, mutual risk coverage, affordable housing, and many others. In addition, cooperatives play a role in supporting social cohesion, strengthening civil society and facilitating popular participation. Agricultural cooperatives, specifically, form an important part of the value chain. They help women farmers increase their outputs and incomes by pooling available resources through the supply of agricultural inputs as well as enabling the marketing of agricultural produce. They further support small-scale agricultural female farmers by mitigating their risk to the vagaries of subsistence farming and increase the bargaining power of its members. They facilitate adherence to fair trade principles and standards that govern national and international commodity trade by ensuring that a fair price is paid to producers for their products. While these practical benefits are invaluable, the psychological and social benefits are even more so: the structure of a cooperative enables women to help and empower themselves, as well as other women.
The NEPAD Spanish Fund for African Women Empowerment promoted the development of cooperatives for more than 129, 00 rural women by means of the organisation of rural women into cooperatives; the legal accreditation of the cooperatives in the country of operation; providing direct access to markets for small-scale female farmers; cooperative development for knowledge exchange (ensuring agronomic best practices are adhered to); securing land rights and titles for female farmers through the establishment of cooperatives and facilitating access to credit and credit at lower interest rates.
The Good practice Approach and Success Stories
The following two NSF-funded projects outline the success that was achieved through cooperative development.
In Angola, the project initiated by SOS CEDIA aimed to facilitate the economic empowerment of rural women from the Zaire province. They focused on creating an enabling environment for women to carry out agricultural activities by organising the 103 beneficiaries into a legally recognised agricultural cooperative, namely the KUZI Agricultural and Livestock Production Cooperative.
These interventions ensured that the women were not penalized for existing inequalities in education and literacy, and further enabled them to form successful income-generating endeavours. The cooperative allowed the women to pool resources and promoted efficient division of labour amongst the members. This allowed the women to maximize output and subsequent profits, and this improved their livelihoods and those of their dependents.
SOS CEDIA focused on the creation of an enabling environment for women beneficiaries to carry out agricultural activities. In total, 95 hectares of land were brought under cultivation to the benefit of 103 rural women and their dependents by the provincial government to the registered Cooperative “Cooperative de Produccao Agro Pecuaria do Kuzi, R.L.”. On 12th of June 2016, the Minister of Family and Women visited the project jointly with the Local Governor of Zaire Province and provided to the Cooperative 92 hectares of land and the land entitlement.
The creation of the cooperative facilitated the repatriation of refugees from DRC to received national identification documents hence recovered their full citizenship. Other outcomes of the project included the delivery of agricultural inputs to enhance the efficiency of operations, the provision of technical assistance to improve the quality of post-harvest agricultural products, training sessions in financial management, agricultural organisation of microenterprises and business management. Additionally, SOS CEDIA facilitated linkages and access to markets for surplus produce. This project showed that, beyond facilitating the formation of the cooperative, it provided support in the form of education that supported the future sustainability of the cooperative.
The FIOM project promoted the economic empowerment of women from the Kayonza, Kirehe and Ngoma districts of Rwanda. It assisted 30 community-based groups to transform into 16 legally registered cooperatives. The support of community-based groups in the process of their transformation into cooperatives created a favorable environment for collaboration between beneficiaries, local authorities and financial institutions. Training was conducted on the Rwandan law governing cooperatives, as well as in financial management, processing of various products, machining techniques and production hygiene, entrepreneurship and marketing. In addition to the formation of these cooperatives, seven agri-processing centres specialised in pineapple, maize and other produce were established and equipped. This included supplying ICT equipment and providing training in the use thereof.
The project benefitted 706 women and 63 men and helped to double the household income of the beneficiaries. A documentary was made about the project. Products and infrastructure development were showcased at an Open Day as well as by means of radio broadcasts. The project, thus, promoted both sustainable growth and income generation, as well as encouraging women participation in the industry.
This project showed the benefit of engaging with the community to broaden the impact of the project. The training provided by the organisation empowered the women by educating them about their legal right to form cooperatives. The project also enabled the women to learn new skills and production techniques, which empowered the beneficiaries to innovate and create goods which they previously could not produce. The project also illustrated the importance of providing support in the form of education and infrastructure to beneficiaries which allowed them to produce and sell their products. The success of this was highlighted by the significant increase in the household incomes of the project’s beneficiaries.
The following success stories exhibit the positive impacts of FIOM’s project on women in Rwanda:
Mrs Christine Nyirahirana works with an agri-processing unit. Previously production was only of maize which, just after the harvest, the traders came to buy at a very low price. This project opened new markets in the local schools, the managers of which visited the unit to assess its capacity. She said, “No doubt they were convinced of our equipment, our corn production and our management organization”.
Mr Protais Murayire, the Mayor of the district of Kirehe, commented, "It's very wonderful! Seeing the objects exhibited in this centre made by these women, no one can doubt that Kirehe's women are a catalyst for development".
Key Lessons Learned from the Cooperatives Development Sector Projects
Securing legal accreditation is vital for cooperative success and to secure land rights for female members of the cooperative.
In Angola, the project initiated by SOS CEDIA aimed to facilitate the economic empowerment of rural women from the Zaire province. They focused on creating an enabling environment for women to carry out agricultural activities by organising the 103 beneficiaries into a legally recognised agricultural cooperative, namely the KUZI Agricultural and Livestock Production Cooperative. Such interventions ensured that women are not penalized for existing inequalities in education and literacy and enable women to form successful income-generating endeavours.
Use cooperatives to assist communities in the commercialisation of surpluses, identification of markets and to provide members with access to credit
An important role of agricultural cooperatives is to assist communities in the commercialisation of surpluses and the identification of markets. They ensure that a fair price is paid to producers for their products and increase the bargaining power of its members. Cooperatives further assist members to access credit and negotiate fair credit facilities. For example, in Mozambique, the project by CARA (Institute for Research, Advocacy and Citizenship) contributed towards the economic empowerment of 2,197 rural women by organising them into 83 associations. These cooperatives played an important role in assisting the women to find suitable markets, particularly for surplus produce.
Important to find mechanisms to overcome institutional weaknesses, free riding and inadequate government policies governing cooperatives
Some of the problems faced by cooperatives include poor management, inadequate training, the free-rider problem and a lack of communication among participants. To overcome these problems, organisations should prioritise the training of cooperative managers and engage in capacity-building projects and provide assistance during the formulation of cooperatives. To overcome free riding, mechanisms should be established so that the benefits, which accrue to members of the cooperative are in line with the efforts of the member. Furthermore, the reformulation of government policies governing cooperatives and lobbying efforts to support the harmonisation of laws governing cooperatives in Africa will benefit cooperative development in Africa.
Several of the projects funded by the NEPAD Spanish Fund for African Women Empowerment encountered many of these obstacles and some tried to pre-empt such problems by addressing one or more of these issues. For example, the FDC (Foundation for Community Development) aimed to establish national, regional and continental networks to empower women entrepreneurs and women in business. Challenges they encountered included lack of access to information on business issues; government laws and regulation; weak professionalisation; inadequate networking; and lack of financial support.