Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I got a message from a friend...

I got a note from a friend of mine recently implying that I must have some thoughts on the questions I posed in my last blog and maybe even some answers. I definitely don’t have answers. But I recognise that asking questions is A LOT easier than answering them so I should at least attempt at sharing some thoughts.

My first question was regarding the logic of working with cooperatives. This debate is very much alive and actually is the most common topic of conversation between my CARE colleagues and I. Not to mention a topic that the South African EWB team is trying to get a handle on.

I am walking and chatting with two sorghum farmers

I think cooperatives in theory are a great idea: a group of people with a common interest banding together (cooperating) to take advantage of the benefits of working together. Some examples are buying farming inputs in bulk, reducing transport costs by bulking, revolving loan schemes, having more of a voice in business transactions, etc… A cooperative is meant to provide services to members in addition to making money to reinvest in the cooperative and pay out in the form of member dividends. The trouble as I see it is that human nature gets in the way. When does making money for your community take priority over making money for your own family? Cooperatives become political bodies, the board are elected members and in many cases the general membership are like disengaged citizens. From my observations (limited to the 6 cooperatives here in Copperbelt Province of Zambia), the general members do not hold the board accountable and in many cases the board don’t have any business skills. Lose – lose.

My colleague Sunday (pointing) chatting with farmers about sorghum - this field hasn't done very well.

Since we can’t change the project design*, and the design is to work through farming cooperatives; what can we do to increase the chances that the farmers will benefit from sorghum growing and selling after CARE pulls out? One idea is to encourage what one might call ‘anchor farmers’. This means work within the cooperative model but create a group of dedicated producers that will have a vested interest in seeing the sorghum business succeed. Thulasy has an excellent example of what this looks like, one of the cooperatives she is working with is running a dairy business, of roughly 300 members, 20 produce 75% of the milk. These are the ‘anchor farmers’. Now the next question is what does working with ‘anchor farmers’ look like?? And will this small group of stronger farmers ensure that the sorghum business continues to function? Aaahh, there is always an abundance of questions! And I am guessing the answers will only be discovered by looking back from the future! But it’s better to try something new not knowing if it will succeed or fail, than to keep doing the same thing that you already know will fail (I am sure someone has said that better)

(*Why can’t we change the project design? Another good question – the answer has a lot to do with accountability to donors, CARE philosophy, the way the development sector works in general – somewhat related to my last question from the previous post)

Lots of love to everyone,