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Cooperatives for better livelihoods and food security

Producers’ cooperatives help rural women in farming, fishing and forestry meet the special challenges they face, including gender inequalities.

Rural women can reap numerous benefits from producers’ organizations. [FAO / S. Nelson]

With the theme, Cooperative enterprise empowers women, the 2010 observance of the International Day of Cooperatives (3 July) puts the spotlight on how organizations can help women gain influence and access to the things they need to work more effectively -  and improve well-being in their households and communities.

As the lead UN agency in the fight against hunger and extreme poverty through agriculture and rural development, FAO works with producers’ organizations and cooperatives to reach both rural women and men who are small producers in agriculture and who, otherwise, might not gain access to the resources or services they need to improve their livelihoods.

Much of the agricultural work done in smallholder households is performed by women, whether in female-headed or male-headed households. Yet, worldwide, women in agriculture are less likely than men to have access to land, equipment, credit, training and other tools which could help them to improve their food security and livelihoods.

Eve Crowley, Deputy Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment division, talks about the value of rural institutions and FAO’s activities in support of Producers’ Organizations (POs) and Cooperatives:

Are producers’ cooperatives just for farmers?
When we talk about producers we mean both men and women who are farmers, fishers, forest users, post-harvest operators, livestock groups and also workers’ groups.

Why do small producers need cooperatives?
Small producers are key to economic growth in most developing countries. They are more than half of all rural inhabitants. Some 1.5 billion women and men are in smallholder households. And their contribution to rural economies is significant because 40-60% percent of total rural incomes are produced by smallholders. They make a sizeable share of the transfers, wages and farm income in rural areas.

But they also face certain barriers. The first and most important is their dispersion and small scale. Roughly 85% of farms worldwide are less than 2 hectares in size, so this creates a problem for small producers to access services, whether it’s information, infrastructure, or access to productive assets and markets. All of these things constitute high transaction costs for them. And they have limited representation in policy processes.

How can cooperatives or producers’ organizations help rural women?
Building and strengthening institutions like producers’ organizations and cooperatives that support or involve both women and men is one way to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women in agriculture.

In addition, the establishment of women‐only cooperatives can be a valuable strategy for women to develop their own businesses, based on their economic and social needs and realities.

In groups, producers are more efficient and effective, they have stronger bargaining power, they’re able to obtain a better quantity and quality of inputs, as well as to market a higher quantity and quality of outputs. Whether in women-only cooperatives or mixed groups, small producers are able to guarantee regularity and diversity in their production. They can also minimize the time amd the risks and the costs involved, both in producing and in accessing services.

How can producers’ organizations make rural development policies and programmers more effective?
Producers’ organizations enable governments, international organizations like FAO and its UN partners, NGOs and others to provide support to rural women in more effective ways.

When small producers, women or men, are dispersed, it’s very difficult for governments or donors to know how to reach them. But when they’re in organizations, they can benefit more effectively from capacity development support, service providers can reach them and do so more effectively. Buyers and investors can do so as well and other producers’ organizations, should there be a need to federate.

Can you give us an example of how producers’ cooperatives have helped women?
In the fisheries industry up and down the coast of West Africa, post-harvest operators - who handle fish processing and marketing responsibilities after the fish are caught - are overwhelmingly women. They dry, smoke, load and sell fish. In some countries, they sell salt and oysters at the market. But they have struggled to find the money, training and fish processing facilities to keep up with market standards and earn sufficient income.

For donor and government assistance to be effective, it was not enough to help individuals in an ad hoc fashion. Through a project implemented in Cameroon, Chad, Senegal and The Gambia, FAO brought together women who knew what they needed but who lamented that they had frequently been excluded from decision-making boards and meetings within fisheries’ groups, even though they outnumbered men by far in coastal fish processing operations.

The project is called the Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme Post-Harvest Fisheries Project. Here’s how it worked in The Gambia: Women organized themselves into legalized, village-based groups by work category, which also included men. They eventually grew into clusters of larger associations with national recognition. Throughout the process, the needs of both women and men were taken into consideration.

The National Fisheries Post-Harvest Operators Platform, with about 1550 mostly female members, has signed agreements with government, NGOs, microfinance institutions and other development partners to receive assistance in information, guidance, services and technical support. The National Platform participated in the formulation of the 2007 Fisheries Act, which recognizes the importance of artisanal fisheries to the economy.

As a result of the Platform’s activities, the country’s poverty reduction strategy now includes post-harvest issues in fisheries.

What are some of the practical results of the assistance received by the women’s organization?
The women enhanced their activities with credit schemes provided to all members at more affordable rates and are now sharing communal, renovated fish-processing facilities on a pay-as-you-go system.

The women now have new fish-smoking houses and better equipment. The renovation of eight, and construction of two newly built, fish smoking houses and drying racks for the women has enhanced their productive capacities, reduced post-harvest losses and improved the quality of fish produce.

The women also received training in how more effective processing and hygiene can help them to preserve and sell more of what is caught. They are more aware of such issues as sustainable fisheries management, waste collection and hygiene in processing and storage.

One important point: The women received functional literacy training, which was necessary for more effective participation in decision-making.

These groups are considered a prime example of the importance of giving women a direct say in what measures are needed for them to improve their livelihoods, and supporting their efforts to contribute to institutions that influence national and regional agriculture from the bottom up.