Issue Pack: Agricultural co-operatives



1. Introduction – two true stories about agricultural co-operatives

Story 1 : Makuyuni lies on the main road between Arusha and the Serengeti and Ngorongoro National Parks in Tanzania. Streams of tourists pass through the area. But just a few kilometres from the road is a totally different world. Small-scale farmers farm small, arid plots of land. Simple houses are spread along dusty, potholed tracks that wind through the hills. Many people must walk several kilometres to fetch water.

The Swedish Cooperative Centre supports MWIWAMO, a local network of farmers’ groups in the area. MWIWAMO works in several ways to increase farmers’ incomes. “The majority of our members are actually women,” according to field worker Luhekelo Sanga. Members are organized in groups of around a dozen. They receive training and individual advice from field workers. Gender equality is a common focus of their activities. Few women own land themselves. The women do most of the agricultural work, but the men control the resources and determine how they are to be used. MWIWAMO works to identify ways to increase income from the small farming niches that are traditionally identified as women’s work, such as growing vegetables.

The women who work with MWIWAMO have also invested in keeping chickens. Now that they know more about feeding, preventing illness and ways to build small henhouses, their operations have grown and their income has increased. Beekeeping and honey production also increase incomes. Large wooden beehives hang in the trees outside Anna Saloni’s house. Anna and the other members of the beekeeping group were trained to use more modern beehives to increase honey production. They also learned how to package honey in jars with beautiful labels and how to expand beyond local markets, for example by targeting supermarkets.

Like several other women, Anna Saloni has received help to build an earthen tank to store water. She also uses it to store maize and other crops that need protection from rats and other pests.

Eight members of MWIWAMO have received two months’ training as para-veterinarians. “Especially during the rainy period, the animals get sick a lot. I try to help my neighbours as much as I can,” says one of the new vets, Zakayo Saitabau.

  • Adapted from Swedish Cooperative Centre, 2010. The Toughest Job in the World.

Story 2:
A healthy crop of tobacco grows in Henry Chikanga Nyasulu’s fields, and a huge spread of maize dries in the sun on his homestead. His land includes two beautiful brick houses with corrugated iron sheet roofing. Nyasulu is Treasurer of the Joka Smallholder Farmers’ Association in Malawi.

Born in 1966, Mr. Nyasulu dropped out of school early because his father lacked the money for school fees. He worked as a tenant farmer in the early 1990s, and was trained to grow tobacco. Returning home, he used some of his earnings to buy cattle and two goats, began tobacco farming and joined the Msaope Club of Mawiri Group Action Committee. The 1995/1996 growing season was a good one. Mr. Nyasulu earned more money than he ever had in his life – 22,000 Malawi kwacha (about $US145).

He was happy with his earnings, but the Club had some problems, including the loss of tobacco bales during transport and marketing. So when Mr. Nyasulu first heard on the radio about the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM) and its activities to help small-scale farmers, he and the other members of the Club decided they could benefit from NASFAM’s guidance. In 1999, the Club was accepted and became one of the founding members of the Joka Association.

Following its acceptance into NASFAM, transporters came to the farmers’ land to collect the bales, and the Club had its first season without any losses of tobacco. Mr. Nyasulu thought that the 22,000 Malawi kwacha he made when he first joined the Club was a large amount. But the profits from his first season as a Joka member were three times as much!

Mr. Nyasulu was trained by the Joka Association on crop diversification. He decided to spread his income base and increase his food security by growing more cash and food crops, including paprika and maize.

Mr. Nyasulu’s standard of living has increased dramatically: “The moment I joined the Association, I knew I had struck gold. Ever since then, all I have made are profits. In this period alone, I have bought five more cows … Last season I built another house, and because I grew a lot of maize, I have added three more barns.” Unlike many in the village, he no longer has to worry about providing food for his family.

This year, Mr. Nyasulu grew three and a half acres of tobacco and expects to make around 80,000 Malawi kwacha net profit (about $US525). He also grew three acres of soybeans, paprika, maize and 12 acres of cassava. When asked the secret to his success, Mr. Nyasulu spoke very directly: “First and foremost is the fact that I make sure I attend all Association meetings. It is there that I get information on good farming methods. I make sure that I follow the advice given by the Association advisors and implement what I have been taught in Association trainings. Another contributing factor is that I closely supervise my workers and I work with them, because I am the one who attends the trainings and I need to make sure that what my workers are doing is in line with what I have learned.”
He adds, “Over and above this, I owe my success to my wife who has been a constant help from the time I joined the Association – though I must admit that initially I did not want to bring her in the business wholly. However, my attitude changed completely when the Association started the gender program. That is when we were taught the importance of doing farming business with our spouses. Now I see my wife as part of the whole business. Ever since then, she knows how much we have marketed and I consult her on how much we should spend and what to do with the rest of the money.”

  • Adapted from ACDI-VOCA. Joka Smallholder Farmers’ Association.

2. Background information on agricultural co-operatives

This section gives basic information on agricultural co-operatives. Please consult the resources in section 4 for more information.


The International Co-operative Alliance defines a co-operative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

The seven internationally recognized co-operative principles are:

  • voluntary and open membership;
  • democratic member control;
  • member economic participation;
  • autonomy and independence;
  • provision of education, training and information;
  • co-operation among co-operatives; and
  • concern for the community.

An agricultural or farmers’ co-operative is a group in which farmers pool their resources in certain ways. Most agricultural co-operatives in Africa are agricultural service co-operatives, which means that they are owned and operated by members and provide different kinds of services to individual farmer members. There are two main types of agricultural service co-operatives, supply co-operatives and marketing co-operativesSupply co-operativesprovide their members with inputs for agricultural production, including seeds, fertilizers, fuel and machinery services. Marketing co-operatives assist their members with processing, packaging, distribution, and marketing of farm products (both crop and livestock). Some co-operatives provide both input services and marketing assistance. In addition, farmers within and outside of co-operatives often rely on credit co-operatives to finance both working capital and investments.

The other type of agricultural co-operative, which is much less common in Africa, is an agricultural production co-operative, in which production resources such as land and machinery are pooled and members farm jointly.

It should also be noted that local agricultural co-operatives often create second tier co-ops to create economies of scale. For example, a group of primary co-operatives might work together to build central storage facilities, get better prices for bulk inputs, market much more effectively, and achieve greater political influence. All this might be achieved through the creation of larger, for example regional, co-operative entities.

Information in this section from the following websites:

Benefits of co-operatives

Agricultural co-ops offer three kinds of benefits – economic, social and political:

Economic benefits: Agricultural co-ops create opportunities for farmers to increase their income. This can alleviate poverty at the local and national levels. Co-ops can help farmers access farming inputs, storage facilities, credit, and market information, and can improve the marketing of their products.  Co-operatives create employment opportunities and allow disadvantaged groups to organize themselves for their economic benefit.

Social benefits: Co-ops provide social benefits by protecting members from risks and addressing important social problems. The profits made by co-operatives can be used to benefit members as they see fit, through democratic decision making, for example by establishing medical clinics and daycare facilities. Other social benefits of co-operatives include:

  • improving farmers’ living and working conditions;
  • providing financial services to help members respond to unexpected problems;
  • making production and consumption credit available to small-scale producers;
  • offering production, health, funeral and life insurance and protecting buyers from adulteration of commodities; and
  • taking social actions such as care for the aged, children and handicapped, and creating employment for socially disadvantaged people.

Political benefits:Co-operatives can play a vital role in public life and civil society. They can express their views on issues that affect their communities’ welfare, including environmental conservation, public health care and education. The contribution of co-operatives to civic life is founded on the fact that they provide opportunities for members to participate in democratic decision-making processes. The principles of voluntary and open membership and democratic member control ensure that the co-operative is a school for values such as honesty, transparency, and equity.

  • Information in this section is from International Labour Organization, 2010. The hope for rural transformation: A rejuvenating cooperative movement in Rwanda. Co-op Africa Working Paper No. 12.

3. Production ideas

 There are many ways to create effective and entertaining radio programs on agricultural co-operatives. Here are some suggestions:

  • Write and produce a five-minute drama about a farmer who joins an agricultural co-operative to address a specific problem or problems related to marketing products, purchasing inputs, storage, farming practices, or other issues. You could contrast his or her positive experience with a farmer facing the same problems who chooses not to join a co-operative and does not receive the benefits of membership.
  • Interview members of a co-operative about their experiences. These interviews could be conducted in the field or in the studio. You might begin with questions such as:
    • Why did they join the co-operative? What were the problems they were facing that they hoped to address through joining a co-op?
    • What benefits does the co-operative provide for them – including economic, social and perhaps even political benefits?
    • What do they particularly like about membership in the co-operative? What things could work better in the co-operative?
    • How are they required to participate in the co-operative?
  • Interview an expert on agricultural co-operatives from the government, from an NGO, or from a farmers’ organization. Questions might include:
    • What kinds of farming or rural problems do co-operatives effectively address?
    • What advice do you have for farmers who are interested in joining a co-operative?
    • Do co-operatives have specific benefits for women farmers?
    • How can co-op members ensure that leaders (and others) conduct the business of the co-operative fairly and avoid corruption?
  • Produce a call-in or text-in program. Invite an expert on agricultural co-operatives or local members of a co-operative to the studio, and ask them to make a presentation about the co-operative. Then invite callers to call or text questions on issues such as how the co-operative operates, the benefits, the costs, and how to join a co-operative.
  • Produce 4-6 radio spots on the benefits of co-operatives, or the steps required to create an agricultural co-op. Each spot could start with the same “punchy” lead line and discuss one important element, including:
    • How co-operatives can increase farmers’ incomes;
    • How co-operatives can reduce the cost of farming inputs;
    • How co-operatives can increase access to credit;
    • How to run a co-operative to minimize corruption; or
    • The seven principles of co-operatives (see above).
  • Host or chair a roundtable discussion on agricultural co-operatives in your community. Invite various representatives, including progressive farmers, civic and traditional leaders, agricultural entrepreneurs, leaders or members of women’s groups, extension workers, and representatives of NGOs. If the discussion lacks excitement or entertainment, you could play “devil’s advocate” by pointing out some of the problems that have occurred with individual co-operatives.
  • Interview members of nearby (or distant) communities that have successfully addressed problems by establishing or joining an agricultural co-op. Follow up with a call-in or text-in program which considers whether this solution would work for farmers in your community.
  • Hold a contest: Invite listeners to submit poems or songs about agricultural co-ops and offer a prize to the best ones. Broadcast all the good submissions on-air.

4. Further resources on agricultural co-ops

Some of your most useful resources will be members of local agricultural co-operatives. These people, especially long-time members but also new members, can offer insight into how co-ops work, and can refer you to others with interesting perspectives on co-operatives. As well, you can consult the following organizations, radio programs, online/print documents, and videos.

Resource organizations focusing on agricultural co-operatives


Resource programs and documents

Radio programs:

  • A vegetable-growing cooperative. AGFAX, May 2008.

Internet / print documents:

  • Cooperative Facility for Africa, 2010. Project Design Manual: A Step-by-Step Tool to Support the Development of Cooperatives and Other Forms of Self-Help Organization.  Cooperative Facility for Africa/International Labour Organization.
  • Cooperative Facility for Africa. Working Papers
  • Department for International Development (DFID), 2005. How to Leverage the Co-operative Movement for Poverty Reduction. DFID Growth and Investment Group. How to note, May 2005.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 1998. Agricultural Cooperative Development: A Manual for Trainers.
  • Green, Adam Robert, 2010. Pulling together.
  • Koopmans, Reitse, 2006. Comment créer une cooperative/Starting a cooperative. Agrodok No. 38. CTA.
  • Majurin, Eva, March 2010. Promising Practices: How cooperatives work for working women in Africa. The Cooperative Facility for Africa/International Labour Organization.
  • Swedish Cooperative Centre Regional Office for East Africa, 2010. Leading Change in Cooperatives and Member Based Organizations in East Africa: Findings of a study on leadership and leadership development.
  • The World Bank, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2009. Gender in agriculture sourcebook, especially Thematic Note 4: Gender, Self-Help Groups and Farmer Organizations in the Agriculture Sector, pages 63-70.



  • Contributed by: Vijay Cuddeford, managing editor, Farm Radio International
  • Reviewed by: John JulianDirector, International Communications & Policy, Canadian Co-operative Association.