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, beyond their economic function, 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, without relying on men or patriarchal systems and governance.
The NEPAD Spanish Fund for African Women Empowerment promoted the development of cooperatives for women by means of a number of key interventions which amongst others included 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 agricultural cooperatives further helped to equally distribute the cost of ancillary support services such as input costs (seeds, fertilisers, access to both manual and mechanical farming equipment), storage, marketing, and agro-processing activities. Other cooperatives again assisted communities to better manage their finances and obtain credit facilities. Credit activities become the centre of interest and reason for holding village cooperative meetings regularly.
The twenty NEPAD Spanish Fund for African Women Empowerment projects that promoted the development of cooperatives led to the establishment and/or to strengthened 175 cooperatives that benefitted more than 27,390 women. The total amount disbursed by the fund was € 4,125,715. Cooperatives were established in Angola, Benin, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Senegal, South Sudan, The Gambia, Togo.
By supporting the development of cooperatives for women, these NSF projects have contributed to achieving the African Union’s Agenda 2063 aspirations of “a prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development” and “an Africa whose development is people-driven, especially relying on the potential offered by its youth and women”. Likewise, they support the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development goal 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, as well as goal 8 to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.
Key lessons learned from the projects:
- Legal accreditation is vital for cooperative success and to secure land rights for female members of the cooperative
- Use cooperatives to assist communities in the commercialisation of surpluses, identification of markets and to provide members with access to credit.
- Find mechanisms to overcome institutional
Legal accreditation is vital for cooperative success and to secure land rights for female members of the cooperative
Securing legal accreditation is vital for cooperative success and to secure land rights for female members of the cooperative. The CLEAR (The Centre for Land, Economy and Rights of Women) project in Uganda and Kenya notes that access to and control of land and other natural resources is crucial for the livelihood needs of rural poor households. However, major social, political, and institutional challenges prevent the rural poor from gaining secure tenure rights. Such challenges are more pronounced for women due to widespread patriarchal control of resources, particularly land, and unequal distribution of roles and responsibilities.
The Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) helped 45 vulnerable and 65 war-affected female residents from the Maimu Salala district of Liberia to form an agricultural cooperative, thereby increasing their earning capacity. The success of the project is largely attributed to the fact that the beneficiaries and project coordinators worked in unison with the Cooperative Development Agency of Liberia (CDA) to ensure that the Maimu Women Agriculture Cooperative met all the requirements for government accreditation. 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 ensure 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.
A problem identified by CEPGL (Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries) in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that women involved with cross-border informal trade do not have access to bank credit facilities. They must rely on household resources or money borrowed from family or friends. The project sought to increase their economic capacity by encouraging the formation of cooperatives to increase the possibility of lines of credit becoming available. Consortium Six S Grapes (Action Research Group for Economic and Social Promotion) assisted with the formation of 40 village and community cooperatives in Mali and provided them with seed funding. Using this credit line, the 1,560 women beneficiaries could pursue various income-generating activities and generate a considerable net profit. Credit provision continues even after the conclusion of the project through the reinvestment of income generated by these activities. Credit activities subsequently became the centre of interest of village cooperative meetings.
Institutional weaknesses, free riding and unclear or inadequate government policies governing agricultural cooperatives
Some of the problems faced by agricultural 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. 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 professionalization; inadequate networking; and lack of financial support.
The Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) project team worked in unison with the Cooperative Development Agency of Liberia (CDA) to ensure that the Maimu Women Agriculture Cooperative met all the requirements for government accreditation. They further identified the need for the development of motivational strategies, creation of opportunities for learning, sharing, and constant engagement as core issues that should be addressed by such a cooperative venture. The YEYA Agricultural Organisation project in the Côte d'Ivoire identified an urgent need for training sessions to support the women’s groups engaged in traditional poultry and rice farming and the cascading of information about cultivation. The project initiated by CFEMA (National Council of Women Entrepreneurs in Mali), likewise engaged in training to strengthen the organisational, technical, material and financial capacities of organisations of women traders and entrepreneurs in Mali. The MINICOM (Ministry of Trade and Industry) project in Rwanda, in turn, engaged the women trade cooperatives in capacity-building programmes.