A co-op may take many forms, but its core function is always to help its members. South African farmer, the president of the World Farmers’ Organisation, Dr Theo de Jager is a firm supporter of farmers’ co-ops organised around a common commodity.
While he headed up the Pan African Farmers’ Organisation, Dr de Jager was questioned, a little cynically, as to whether he thought he had come up with a silver bullet for African farmers with his relentless focus on co-ops. In answer to this question he promptly replied, “yes”. An idea that is so enthusiastically supported by the global representative of small-scale farmers should be worth some consideration.
THE CO-OP GIVES FARMERS CRITICAL MASS
The concept of the co-op is a sound one, says market expert Michael Cordes.
It works on the principal of bringing together people to create strength in numbers.
This kind of strength gives small-scale commercial farmers stronger buying power when they need to purchase expensive inputs like fertiliser, chemicals and vet pharmaceuticals. They get into a more equal relationship with agri-businesses than they would as individual, small-scale operators.
Large-scale commercial farmers know all about the strength of numbers and they use it to negotiate preferential prices. We should look at success and learn from it.
The co-op can really help its members when there is the possibility of sharing equipment. Think of the difference a tractor could make to a group of farmers who need to plant winter feed for their animals for example.
Perhaps a group of fresh produce growers could buy a small truck to transport their fruit and vegetables to markets that would otherwise have been out of their reach.
MEDIUM- AND SMALL-SCALE FARMERS TOGETHER
Dr de Jager says that real gains are to be made if medium-scale and small-scale commercial farmers get together in commodity co-ops.
The medium-scale farmer will have equipment that he (or she) is prepared to share. Clearly, the cost of maintaining and running the machinery must also be shared, but the capital cost, and the interest on that cost, is held off while the small-scale commercial guys get off the ground.
A medium-scale grower of tropical fruit (litchis, avocadoes) and timber, he is personally involved in a co-op project of this nature with small-scale farmers in his area.
ZAMBIAN FARMERS ARE DOING IT
At the Agritech Expo in Zambia at the end of April, I met a group of farmers from the Copperbelt who belong to a 70-member co-op. There seemed to be a good mix of young and older farmers talking with great passion about the latest challenges and benefits of farming. Many of their members work and have managers on their small farms. The younger set are tech savvy and use their phones as management platforms. Most of them are women but there is no discrimination against men.
The striking characteristic of the group I spoke to was that they were not waiting for state aid; no extension officer had helped them put together any plans. As farmers, they know far more about farming than government will ever know and despite obstacles they are forging ahead. This is exactly the type of attitude that makes for success in agriculture.
THE CHALLENGES AND THE BENEFITS
Of course, there are challenges when groups of people get together to operate. The trick is to set up the rules before the operation starts to run. Make them simple and make them strong.
Members who don’t fit into the mix, can always be asked to leave the group.
Small-scale commercial farmers don’t need offices and staff, but there is room, for instance, to hire a dedicated driver if you share an LDV (bakkie/pick-up). A vehicle driven by one person, who sees to daily checks, recording mileages, purchasing fuel and taking the vehicle in for servicing, is likely to last a lot longer than one that can be accessed by every man (or woman) in the group.
It’s the farmer’s good friend common sense standing up again. Don’t leave him outside the room when you figure out the rules.
A co-op is a democracy and like any democracy it can only flourish when members are active and people are held accountable, says Mike.
Africa’s farmers cannot, and should not, look to their governments to show the way. Many of these governments are incompetent and seem ignorant of even the basic concept of democracy. How on earth, then, will these governments understand agriculture?
And while there seems to be a real shortage of decent leadership in the Sub-Saharan region, there is no shortage of capacity and ability in the farming communities.
Think, plan, strategise and farm with no excuses.