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Promising Practices: How agricultural cooperatives work for working women in Africa.



Background documents:

ILO CoopAFRICA, Promising Practices: How cooperatives work for working women in Africa, 2010




In Africa, cooperatives (1) can and do work for working women. Regardless of the sector they belong to or the types of cooperative they represent – whether marketing, financial, workers’, or housing, for instance - cooperatives are powerful vehicles of social inclusion and political and economic empowerment of their members. Due to the values, including equality and equity, solidarity, social responsibility, and caring for others, upon which they are based and principles that they embody - voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, member education, and concern for the community - their very mandate places cooperatives in a unique position to ensure and promote gender equality. Furthermore, as group-based enterprises, they bring to their members the benefits of joining forces with others. Apart from being able to access economies of scale as providers of services or products or as consumers, participating in a cooperative as a member, elected leader or manager also brings with it enhanced status and voice. This article explains how cooperatives can work for working women (2) in Africa by focusing on examples of areas where the cooperative advantage is being harnessed for the benefit of women and by highlighting promising practices from ILO-supported initiatives. It also looks at the role of cooperatives in mitigating the impact of the current financial crisis on women workers, as well as at what is being done to further enhance women’s participation in the cooperative movement.


How do cooperatives work for women workers…… in the agriculture sector?

In Africa, women are known to produce up to 80% of the food. Yet, when it comes to agricultural inputs and services, the share going to women is meagre: they receive only 7% of agricultural extension services, less than 10% of the credit offered to small-scale farmers, and own only 1% of the land. In this context, women are often found concentrated in subsistence agriculture and unpaid farm work, and excluded from more lucrative agricultural opportunities such as cash crop production. The cooperative and self-help model can change this. By enabling women and men farmers, or women only, to come together for purposes of acquiring inputs, production services, and the marketing of their produce, among others, agricultural cooperatives enhance productive capacity and give access to markets to those - such as women small holders - who when operating individually would not be able to benefit from these opportunities due for instance to a low purchasing power, a lack of productive assets, or cultural barriers. While women’s presence in agricultural cooperatives in Africa is limited (because of factors such as landownership patterns, the division of roles and types of jobs in agriculture), women are becoming increasingly cooperatively organized in agriculture, and there is solid evidence that cooperative membership enhances productivity, incomes and the quality of life for both the members as well as the community at wide.

Promising Practices

ILO Business Development Support to Nronga Women Dairy Cooperative, Tanzania

Working on empowering local communities to enhance their economic position and address the challenges surrounding them, the ILO-SIDA and CoopAFRICA project on HIV/AIDS supported the Nronga Women Dairy Cooperative Society to train its members on entrepreneurship development and business management. Using the Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) training programme, ILO enabled 400 women in Nronga village to change their ways of doing business to a more profit making focus. Discussions with the Cooperative Manager Ms. Ainea Usiri following the intervention have revealed that the volume of milk collected at their cooperative has increased, and women are keeping proper records on milk sold and used for the family consumption. Some of the members have started new businesses and they now have good knowledge of searching for markets and producing goods that respond to the needs of their clients. Women are no longer scared to take risks and start new business ventures.

Women and Youth Employment through Improved Beekeepers’ Cooperative-type Organization and Modern Beekeeping project,  Tanzania 

The project initiated by CoopAFRICA in collaboration with the Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO) and funded by the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations (AGFUND) aims at creating employment, generating decent incomes and contributing towards poverty reduction for a significant number of beekeeper communities  in rural Tanzania, with a particular emphasis on women. 
Implemented by SIDO in 10 districts in Tanzania the project supports the formation of cooperatives and similar self-help, community-based associations in organizing services pertaining to production and postharvest processing of honey. The capacity of the cooperatives formed in the communities is strengthened through leadership and management development for efficient services to members, technical training in modern methods of bee-keeping, honey processing, packaging, branding and marketing. Member education programmes underscore participation. The majority of beneficiaries of the project are women, and through special affirmative action programmes the project provides support to women entrepreneurs, thus contributing to gender equality.

Project level Capacity Building for Women’s Cooperative Entrepreneurship in the Kingdom of Swaziland

The project, funded jointly by AGFUND & DFID-CoopAFRICA  and implemented by the latter was launched in June 2008. In a country where 66% of the population live below the poverty line partly as a consequence of unemployment (40% of the labour force) and exacerbated by an extremely high prevalence of HIV and AIDS infection (38% of the adult population), and where women are more affected than men by all three problems, cooperatives can address all these dimensions in the fight against poverty by providing opportunity, empowerment and security.   The project aims at creating viable and sustainable cooperative organizations capable of creating economic empowerment of women, job opportunities and a reduction of violence against women, especially in rural areas.  In pursuit of this aim the project helps to build the capacity of cooperative trainers and field workers, develop systems and tools available in the local languages for cooperatives and women entrepreneurs and provide technical advice to cooperatives and group of entrepreneurs and establish cooperatives for women entrepreneurs.


How can cooperatives work better for working women? 

While the advantages of the cooperative approach are clear, challenges persist. In cooperatives in the majority of African countries, women remain under-represented as both employees, members and in particular leaders. For instance, CoopAFRICA research reveals that in Ethiopia, only  18% of cooperative members are women and ICA data from Kenya show that  women comprise 40% of employees in agricultural cooperatives, only 26% of members, and a mere 9% of management. Achieving active and equal participation of women - being able to influence decision-making and shape the cooperative’s agenda as leaders, or being able to access benefits such as services or education as members, for instance - which is not shown by statistics, is an even greater challenge, although the democratic nature of the cooperative does mean women members, like men, can have a stronger  voice in the cooperative’s matters than in other types of enterprise. 
The reasons for the persisting gender inequality are numerous and complex, but include, among others factors, basic structural and socio-cultural issues beyond the control of the cooperative movement – such as inequalities in access to resources, education and training, unequal division of labour and use of time between women and men as well as stereotyped conceptions on the roles of women and men – as well as legal constraints stemming from cooperative law or, as is more of frequently the case, related legislation (property, land and inheritance rights) or cooperative by-laws. 
Recognizing that ensuring gender equality is not just the right thing to do, in terms of respect of rights and following the cooperative principles, but also makes good business sense - as shown by the numerous studies which demonstrate that investing in women has high returns at both the level of the individual enterprise as well as at the macro level in terms of poverty reduction and development  - , responses to address these challenges are being formulated within the movement at different levels to ensure that both women and men can contribute to and benefit from cooperative development.
At the international level, ILO Recommendation No. 193 (2002) on the Promotion of  Cooperatives explicitly states that “special consideration should be given to increasing women’s participation in the cooperative movement at all levels, particularly at management and leadership levels” and that national policies should “promote gender equality in cooperatives and in their work” ; at the regional level, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA)- Africa is following up to the body’s global gender equality policy through the formulation of a Gender Strategy Framework for Africa adopted by the ICA Africa Regional Assembly in 2008; and at the national level, a number of apex organizations as well as primary and secondary level cooperative organizations are designing and implementing policies to ensure gender-equitable participation in cooperatives. 



(1) A cooperative, as defined by ILO Recommendation No. 193 (2002) is “an autonomous association of  persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations  through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise”. In Africa, it is estimated that some 7% of  the population is affiliated with the movement, and that this is on the increase (P.Develtere, I.Pollet and  F.Wanyama, Cooperating out of Poverty, ILO COOPAfrica, 2008 ).

(2) In this article, the term "working women" is referred to in a broad sense, covering women who work as  employers, employees, own account or contributing family workers in the cooperative sector or beyond,  carrying out work that is either paid or unpaid, or formal or informal in nature. This use of “working women”  is not intended as a proposal for a definition, but as a working term for the specific purposes of this leaflet.




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