The project staff and in particular the participation agents (see Section 10), together with potential group members, line staff and ad-hoc experts including knowledgeable local farmers or fishermen, identify a range of possible common productive and other activities in the action area for which groups of disadvantaged people will be formed.
The types of group activities in a certain area depend of course upon the local economic, social and institutional potentials, furthermore upon the needs, desires and capabilities of each group formed as well as upon the design, objectives, staff and resources of a project. The many viable group activities carried out by beneficiary groups range widely but four broad types can be distinguished as follows:
a) Direct income-raising activities: These may consist of improved and increased production in existing or of new enterprises in any economic (sub-)sector like agriculture, livestock, fishery, forestry, handicrafts, processing, transport, trading, marketing and so on. Practice shows hundreds of different group undertakings which yielded economic but also social benefits. The latter include more skills, risk-taking, group cohesion and eventually self-management. Some examples for illustration are:
- intensification or improvement of various food and cash crops such as rice, plantains, pineapples, coco, yams, maize, pepper, oil seeds, cotton, vegetables, fruits and so on;
- development of small-scale animal husbandry activities such as poultry, rabbit, duck, turkey, goat and sheep raising, bee-keeping and so on;
- development of small-scale aquaculture (fish ponds), riverine fishing, etc.;
- introduction or improvement of low-cost facilities for processing of produce such as rice, fruits, etc., and also for dairy and fish products;
- introduction or improvement of low-cost, small-scale irrigation, drainage and/or anti-erosion systems;
- development of low-cost storage, transport and marketing facilities
- creation of supply points for inputs such as fertilizers, etc.;
- establishment of utility stores for farming essentials, household articles, etc., as well as petty trading;
- development of production and marketing of local handicrafts (handlooms, etc.). cottage industries, trades such as carpentry and blacksmithing, charcoal making, household utensils, production of local building materials and so on.
See also the Small Farmer Development Manual, Chapter 5 on Low-Cost Production through Group-Action, and Chapter 2, Section III, sub-section 4.7 on Productive Employment for the Landless (Appendix 3: Selected Bibliography).
b) Income enhancing activities: these include:
- cost reduction and income maximizing activities which aim at reducing production costs and/or obtaining better prices, e.g. bulk purchasing of inputs, group transport and/or marketing or products;
- consumer savings: e.g. obtaining consumer goods at lower prices by joint purchasing;
- social savings: reaching agreement through group pressure to cut expenditure on costly customs like ceremonies (weddings, funerals) but also on bad habits like unreasonable spending, drinking, gambling, etc.;
- social insurance: group-wise protection against emergencies or calamities by means of group (welfare) funds or collective insurance arrangements so that group members do not become over-indebted.
c) Production facilitating actions which create proper conditions for group production, e.g. action for enforcement of land reform laws, for consolidation of holdings for joint production, etc. See on such activities, e.g. The Small Farmer Development Manual, Chapter 7, "Land Reform as a Grassroot Production and Income-Raising Need", op. cit.
d) Socio-cultural group activities. Many groups feel the need for social and cultural activities. For example, in the field of health and sanitation (mother and child care, latrines, piped water, etc.), education (functional literacy courses, activities for school-going children and so on), family planning, folk-culture, theatre; village beautification (tree planting) and so on. In many areas there is an acute need for group actions aiming at better nutrition: adequate diet and food preparation, better food storage, proper distribution of food in the family, clean water supply, improved personal and environmental hygiene, utilization of biological waste (biogas), etc.
Many potential socio-cultural activities are suggested in the Small Farmer Development Manual (op. cit.). Chapter 5, "Small Farmer Action for Nutrition and a Better Life".
Most projects emphasize, at least initially, direct production activities which strengthen the group's cohesion, management skills, and economic base. It is however important that each group identifies, chooses, plans, executes and evaluates as much as possible on its own a feasible activity and reaches self-reliance; the participation agent and other field staff should give guidance mainly in the initial stages and withdraw as soon as possible. Practice shows that the most preferred types of group activities are those that yield clear economic benefits and are based on the felt needs of the group members.
As indicated in section 11, in various cases small-scale feasibility studies could be needed for obtaining workable proposals. The latter should consider also existing (innovative) income-generating and other activities promoted by government or NGO agencies in the area. The identification of viable group (production) actions forms part of the on-going action-research e.g. from the household survey data collected a number of ideas/proposals may emerge.
The income-earning activities in particular for new or "young" groups should be low risk, based on local experience and low-cost, intermediate technology. They must furthermore yield quick, tangible returns and thus be of short duration: in most cases less than one year, so that groups become more motivated and encouraged for further action.
The activities can take the form of group or individual production or a combination of these such as individual operation but sharing of common facilities or joint input-purchasing and/or bulk marketing. Thus certain phases of productive activities may be done better jointly and other ones better individually. It is in the interest of the group members to act jointly when the (sub-) activities are more cost-effective and offer economies of scale.
Each group prepares a simple group production plan which includes: a) the socio-economic conditions, resources and problems of the participating households; b) the plan for the group undertaking including a schedule of operations; and c) possibly the plans for subsidiary on- or off-farm income-raising activities of individual members which may require some group help.
Some major constraints to carry out successfully income-raising activities are: insufficient, inadequate or too late delivery of inputs, lack of training of local field staff and group members in group dynamics and group enterprise management, lack of mobility (means of transport) to help groups in planning adequately their activities and insufficient consideration of the feasibility, cost-benefit and credit-worthiness of a group enterprise. For the provision of group credit, see Section 9.2.
Once a group has performed successfully its initial undertaking, it will undertake additional, more complex profitable activities. All necessary guidance and support for the groups is to be obtained from or through the group promoters who liaise the groups with the local delivery system.
An overall point is that there are two levels of management of group activities. One is strategic management whereby groups must anticipate the impact of occurrences external to them (e.g. new price policies or environmental damage like over-cropping or over-fishing). The other is operational management where groups deal with issues arising from their day to day operations. However, in particular for the latter type there is a great need for instructional manuals on group dynamics, group business management, monitoring and evaluation, savings/credit, etc. (see Section 11).
When is a group mature? The indicators of group maturity and self-reliance are: (1) regular meetings with active participation of all group members; (2) savings accumulated and less dependence on credit; (3) self-sustenance through food production; (4) joint preparation of group production plans; (5) ability to handle inputs and supplies; (6) ability to market the produce profitably; (7) adequate profits and just distribution of these among the group members; (8) effective record keeping (see Section 13); (9) effective links with line agencies and NGOs; (10) involvement in social activities e.g. literacy classes, home management, contributions to community development works, etc.; (11) number of activities successfully undertaken; (12) more women and youth participation; and (13) rotation of leadership.
After one to two years well-performing groups may be encouraged to engage in inter-group activities, e.g. for joint input purchase, storage, marketing, processing, training, appropriate technology, etc., not only to obtain economies of scale, but also as a move towards inter-group associations or federations of say 20-25 groups at secondary level. The emphasis will be on functional associations for the economic and social emancipation of the rural weak. In the federations accountability to the primary groups should be maintained as a basic principle. A federation represents thus groups and is not an executive body.
Inter-group associations should have an educational orientation towards their member groups and become a source of technical assistance, economies of scale, managerial guidance and coordination. They can offer training to new groups and even help finance their activities from accumulated savings. Moreover they can serve as reference points and examples for new inter-group associations and eventually perform (part of) the functions of group promoters.
In most cases it is more advantageous and preferable to create multi-activity inter-group associations instead of single-activity ones (e.g. for one crop) in order to meet better certain common needs of the groups: e.g. training, information exchange, and more massive pressure on the delivery system.
The federations may be legalized as (pre-)cooperatives or associations in order to obtain more recognition, legal status and services and facilities.
The groups may also link themselves to participatory, rural poor-oriented cooperatives or other people's organizations, if any, while maintaining their necessary autonomy. It should be stressed here that the groups do not replace cooperatives and other village institutions: they will remain interest groups taking part in production programmes.
The federations of groups and/or linkages to existing organizations will not only facilitate the delivery of services and facilities, but also the consolidation of group plans into multi-group or federational plans to be matched with area and regional development plans through local coordination committees (see Section 8.2). In this way a two-way (bottom-up and top-bottom) planning process will be developed.
Through inter-group activities and federations of groups, the poor become increasingly self-confident and recognized by their wider community; they obtain organizational power and will eventually also be represented in local government bodies.
When groups become more self-propelling, the participation agents will gradually withdraw and become eventually redundant for these groups, which is a main indication for a successful participatory process. They can then give more attention to new groups and may also perform specific functions for associations of groups (see Section 10.5).
 See Uphoff, Norman,
Collective Self-Help: A Strategy for Rural Development in Ghana, FAO/PPP Report,
 Beginning in 1994, FAO has published a series of field manuals on these topics: "The Group Promoter Resource Book" (1994); The Group Enterprise Resource Book (1995); The Inter-Group Resource Book (2001); and "The Group Savings Resource Book " (2002), all of which are now available in all four FAO main languages: English, Spanish, French and Arabic and can be downloaded from the Internet at: http://www.fao.org/waicent/faoinfo/sustdev/IN3_en.htm.