Aaron Moritz traveled from his home in Delavan, Wisconsin, to Guinea in 2012, serving with the U.S. Peace Corps. With prior training in agriculture and forestry, Aaron aimed to help the villagers he met increase their agricultural output and transition from subsistence to commercial farming. Aaron shared his story on how he and the villagers made that transition by establishing a gardening cooperative.
When I arrived in Lafou, I found some cooperative enterprises in place, but just barely. There was a soap-making co-op that didn’t know how to make soap. A beekeeping co-op that had never kept bees. And of the seven gardening cooperatives I met with, not one of them had maintained any sort of cashbox, to keep account of expenses and income.
What is a co-op?
The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) defines a cooperative as having “voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member-economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for communities.” (Wanyama – PDF)
In short, these cooperatives were poorly organized. In the following blog, I’ll focus on how a disorganized cooperative may become better organized to move forward for the benefit of all contributing members.
Two principal criteria must be in place for a cooperative to become functional. First, members who are serious about making the cooperative work should set stringent rules and standard meeting times and identify ways to generate a revenue flow. Second, members must have a clear vision on what they’ll gain by being active and contributing to the group effort. They should have consensus in how that goal will be reached.
Enforcing Rules and Generating Income
I found that establishing rules and getting people to respect meeting times was a gradual but necessary process. In some ways, it is the most important aspect of managing a cooperative well, because rules and membership fees can weed out uncommitted members. Having a large membership is not an advantage if some members are half-hearted about their participation. A smaller dedicated membership is easier to manage, and it allots greater shares of the output to those who have made a true commitment.
The rules you enact should continue to evolve, and they should be enforced. For the first year of operation, most of our revenue came from monthly cooperative dues and late fees. This gave us investment capital to start various projects, including two cooperatively run gardens.
In addition to those gardens, the cooperative invested in nonperishables like bulk amounts of soap and dried hot peppers. We also made jam from squash and mangoes, which we marketed in the city. Once we had generated around $300 USD, we started providing microloans to members who proposed feasible projects. This program helped the cooperative by generating loan interest fees, and it also helped members by providing them low-interest loans for other business ideas they wanted to pursue.
This mutually supportive lending arrangement brought the cooperative to a turning point. Members started to see returns on their monthly investments and felt empowered by the success of the group. Many members saw a 100 percent return on their original loan amount, profits far exceeding the dues they’d paid to the cooperative up until that point.
In addition to generating revenue and getting people to honor meeting times, rules served to trump social hierarchies. For example, with 30 predominantly female members, two men routinely failed to come to meetings. One was an imam, the other the co-op president’s uncle. Culturally, it was impolite to evict these two members, but because there were rules in place, the president was able to say, “We are not choosing to evict you; you have chosen to evict yourself.”
Creating Interest and Incentives
Generating the initial show of interest in potential members can be challenging. In the beginning, you don’t have much working capital. Initially, I had to convince members that even though they wouldn’t receive benefits immediately, they would eventually profit from co-op membership.
We were fortunate in that the World Food Programme (WFP) gave us the opportunity to participate in a trial program. They were looking for gardening cooperatives to provide fresh vegetables to local schools for children’s lunches. In exchange, the WFP offered the cooperative beans, rice, salt, oil and other staple foods. The members saw the advantages of the agreement and were anxious to begin the partnership.
The distribution of these staples offered the new members their first insight into the potential of cooperative organization. The value of membership was further reinforced when former members who had failed to show up to meetings were denied portions.
All active members received equal shares regardless of their individual roles in the cooperative. A new democratic era had begun, and this renewed some members’ faith in the president.
If you form a cooperative of devoted members with a specific goal in mind, the cooperative will succeed. You can isolate the devoted members from the freeloaders through stringent rules and fees. In general, the more money and effort people contribute to a project, the more committed they’ll feel, and these contributions will give them an overall greater sense of ownership toward the enterprise. As for generating income, this can be done in a multitude of ways. Be creative! YALI has a series of inspiring blogs on topics like Agriculture and Business & Entrepreneurship.
Cooperatives are not necessarily the right choice for every individual or every community. Still, they are a good way to build the skills and know-how of individual members. This group organization also mitigates the risks associated with starting a new business.
Building this skill base in a cooperative can help an individual become confident in developing his or her own business strategy and starting his or her own new enterprise. And fellow co-op members might even lend the money to begin.