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Posted November 1997

Participation in practice / 5
Group activities

Introduction | People's Participation Programme (PPP)| Project preparation | Forming groups | Group activities | Implementing agencies | Financial component | Group promoters | Participatory training | Monitoring and evaluation | Project sustainability | Costs and benefits | Replicating the PPP approach | Complete Special as a single 121K file

PARTICIPATORY GROUPS are formed around activities that meet the identified priority needs and aspirations of those who wish to become members. The purpose of these activities is primarily economic and developmental: to increase members' production and income, reduce costs, promote financial self-reliance and contribute to community welfare.

The nature of group activities will depend on the needs, desires and capabilities of each group, local economic, social and institutional potentials, and the project's design, objectives, staff and resources.

Raising income

PPP groups developed a wide variety of income-generating activities. In Ghana, groups engaged in maize farming, cassava processing, brickmaking and production of baskets and beads. In Thailand, they raise pigs, poultry and freshwater fish. Zambian groups have set up rural nurseries to propagate cashew seedlings for sale. Other groups earn income from production and marketing of vegetables. In Lesotho, activities ranged from sewing and knitting to crop, poultry and animal production (one piggery group recently won first prize for its piglets at a national agricultural show). Groups in Sri Lanka earn extra income through intensive production of cash crops, sesame oil extraction, rearing chickens, goats and milking cows, and labour contracts.
Although group activities vary widely, four general types can be distinguished:

Selecting group income-generating activities

The principal objective of group activities in all PPP projects is to improve group members' incomes and mobilize group savings. That is why PPP emphasizes income-generating or cost-saving activities based on local experience and low-cost technology. These undertakings do not replace but are meant to supplement members' normal production. Activities of this type are most likely to broaden the groups' economic base, mobilize savings, strengthen group cohesion and develop their enterprise management skills. Groups are encouraged to undertake social or community improvement activities only at a later stage.

Building a rural enterprise

Two PPP groups in Ghana, established a highly profitable cassava processing enterprise. The groups began producing gari (dehydrated cassava meal) in 1983 to raise extra income. They soon realized they could make better profits by increasing the volume - and improving the quality - of output. Members made an inventory of available raw materials, labour and processing technology, and assessed their needs for transport, marketing, technical skills and capital. After attending an FAO workshop on cassava processing methods and small scale enterprise management, they built a processing plant on land obtained from the relative of one member. The enterprise has expanded rapidly. The members process more than 50 tonnes of cassava a year and have won orders from government institutions and food exporters.
It is important that - as far as possible - each group identifies, plans, carries out and evaluates its own activities. This is essential for group development and, eventually, self-reliance. While group promoters have an important role in encouraging group activities, especially in the initial stages, theirs is a facilitating role that will be reduced gradually as the groups develop.

Since the main objective of any enterprise is to produce something that people will buy, the group should be taught how to conduct simple market surveys in their community to identify a product or service needed and how much customers are prepared to pay for it. The group should then decide whether members have the resources and skills to supply it. The group should choose a product or service it can produce economically and well, avoiding complex production processes. Next, the group should calculate what is required to establish the enterprise, i.e. what skills and other resources each member can contribute. The final, and most important step, is to calculate expected profits.

Each group should prepare a simple group business plan dealing with the socio-economic conditions, resources and problems of the participating households. They should also prepare a schedule of operations and plans for future subsidiary on- or off-farm income-raising activities of individual members that may strengthen their economic base.

Small-scale feasibility studies may be needed in order to produce workable proposals for group activities. These studies should consider existing income-generating and other activities promoted by government or NGO agencies in the area. The identification of viable group activities also forms part of on-going action research - for example, a number of proposals may emerge from household survey data.

Problems in developing group activities

Development of group activities faces a number of obstacles. Among them are insufficient, inadequate or late delivery of inputs, lack of training of local field staff and group members in group dynamics and group enterprise management, and insufficient consideration of the feasibility, cost/benefit and creditworthiness of the group enterprise

The importance of group planning

Examples from Zambia and Swaziland highlight the importance of planning in group activities. A Swazi group decided to raise broilers for sale. Members obtained credit to build a chicken shed, then discovered some of the problems of running a rural enterprise: wild fluctuations in the availability of chickens, high transport costs and unreliable markets. After three years, the activity had barely made a profit and members had to repay the loan from their own savings. In Zambia, meanwhile, two groups decided to establish orange groves only after a detailed feasibility study which showed that they could expect profits of $7,500 a year within 10 years. The study estimated total costs of $3,800 in the five years before the trees became productive. Thereafter, the groves would yield 1.5 tonnes of oranges, rising to nine tonnes by the fifth season. In this period, total profit was expected to be $21,000.
The first hurdle faced by most groups is that of financing the activity. While the project may envisage provision of credit for the groups, experience indicates that initial activities should be funded by group members themselves through savings. This ensures that the scope of the activity is within the group's existing capacity and resources, builds commitment to the group and reduces debt dependency. Another common problem in developing activities is the groups' need for training. Members often have low literacy and numeracy skills, both of which handicap sound management. Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of training materials for the rural poor in this field.

As a group develops its activities and sees the rewards they bring, it usually begins to undertake additional, more complex enterprises. The risk here is that groups may "bite off more than they can chew". Group promoters should help their groups examine objectively the feasibility of proposed new activities by assessing the availability of group resources, funding and local markets.

It is no easy task to teach groups with limited literacy, numeracy and organizational skills how to manage an enterprise. The project may need to develop training materials and methods tailored to the learning capacities of group members. These should focus on developing skills in two critical areas: operational and strategic management. Operational management deals with issues arising from groups' day-to-day activities. For effective operational management there is a great need for instructional manuals on group dynamics, group business management, monitoring and evaluation, and savings/credit.

Strategic management focuses on solving problems related to the long-term development of certain group activities, allowing members to anticipate the impact of external factors (for example, new price policies or environmental damage caused by over-cropping or over-fishing).

Finally, the groups need to examine very carefully the feasibility of undertaking collective production activities. Experience with PPP has shown that while group members obtain better returns by sharing production inputs and experience, many have learnt - the hard way - that actual production is often best conducted on an individual basis. Many attempts to farm communal plots have failed owing to disputes over the allocation of labour and the division of income.

Project staff generally advise those groups wishing to use communal plots to plan the activity together, but divide the land into individual plots for production. Collective efforts are better suited to the sharing of newly acquired technical skills, or expensive or laborious tasks such as transporting inputs and produce.

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