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Re: Enabling rural cooperatives and producer organizations to thrive as sustainable business enterprises

Christian Chileshe 3C Development Management & Entrepreneurship Experts Limited, Zambia
Christian Chileshe


In the several years that I have spent with rural producer and other groups, including cooperatives, I have been brought to a point of deep reflection on what it will take to help them break through to a level that will set them on a path to success (as defined by themselves).

I live in a country where cooperatives have been part of our development agenda for at least close to 50 years.  Many people know about cooperatives from encounters, not from a conceptual perspective. We therefore have major differences in how they are perceived, even amongst political and other decision-makers. Continued changes in the country's political economy have left our cooperatives in disarray.

I think that, in our quest to obtain the results that cooperatives can bring to especially rural development, we have tended to forget or overlook some fundamentals that underpin their success.

I put forward four specific thoughts for our consideration, some of which may sound like book stuff. But then, I think this is one of those instances when theoretical principles really matter, especially when they are defined within relevant context.

1. Cooperatives are substantially a social institution that has potential to produce economic and political benefits. So people organising themselves into cooperatives is largely a matter of them (and any facilitator) understanding the current and ideal sociological circumstances.

If so, to what extent do cooperators allocate space to clearly reflect on their current sociological circumstances and on what they perceive as ideal? Or do we start with only economic benefits in view, overlooking key process aspects that could help us get there?

2. Cooperatives are about how people organise themselves (not organised by outsiders) to respond to various specifically or broadly defined opportunities.

To what extent, then,  is effort devoted towards developing a common vision, mission and objectives. I am not referring to the development of a strategic plan (which is often largely developed by an outsider anyway), but to an ongoing institutional process that reinforces locally grown vision, mission and objectives.

3. The members will already have been socialised in some way and this comes with them into this new social group.

How much space exists for cooperators to reflect on how their social backgrounds may positively and/or negatively affect the new institution? Could there be need for some "resociolisation"?

Two quick examples may help to illustrate this point:

Ordinarily, cooperatives will adopt a horizontal form of collectivism - a devolved democratic structure where ownership is held in common. Most rural African communities have been socialised in a vertical structure where authority (and all that is perceived to go with it, e.g wisdom of the ancestors rests, etc) rests in particular hands and the rest take instructions. Some of the most practical challenges I have faced have actually been around this aspect!

Another example could be with cooperators dealing with the concept of "group business" in an environment where group activities have not been perceived to have a strong economic dimension to them

4. What mechanism are being employed to identify and tap into individual members competencies, and to work with this to build strong internal structures? What bases are used to determine who does what or holds what position? This is one area when gender (amongst other issues) arises.

Notice that there above core aspects require cooperators themselves to deal with, not an NGO or government. The role of external players is to facilitate a process leading to realisation and action by cooperative members.

How can this be done?

Well, it is certainly more than running training workshops (which are generally found to be a convenient intervention in many respects!). It involves multi-faceted conversations that engages the group, key individuals, community players, local & central government, NGOs, etc to ensure the particular society is, as much as possible, moving in a generally common direction (or at least leads to minimal to no resistance).

In Zambia's earlier years, cooperatives become (albeit unintentionally) structures for receiving government support (e.g agric subsidies) and not enterprises. This has been difficult to shake off, and at some point, a previous government decided to simply ignore cooperatives. There is now fairly serious thought on how cooperatives could become part of especially rural development efforts. But I don't think many people know how this can be done, and if they do, I am not sure if they are prepared walk the long road of re-orientation (which may very well be heavily sociological and deal with the issues raised above, amongst others).

In the wake of a looming food and nutritional crisis, I don't think we should lose more time. My main challenge is to the enlightened citizens of developing countries. There is a lot that we know we can do. How much of this have we done? What world will we leave for our grandchildren? What will we be remembered for?

It is time to focus on dealing with the underlying issues and not just the symptoms. This is tough, but such is life! So let's get going with it . . .

Christian Chileshe
Principal Consultant
3C - Development Management & Entrepreneurship Experts
Lusaka, Zambia