How Do You Approach Working with Farmer Groups and Cooperatives?
In May, Agrilinks asked featured experts from Land O’Lakes, MEAS, World Vision and World Cocoa Foundation to boil down how they approach working with farmer groups/cooperatives. They shared a few steps and principles each. Share how these apply to your own projects and programs in the comments section below!
From Greg Grothe, Land O’Lakes:
- Learn by listening first and get to know the group—the farmers, leaders in the group. Understand their history, purpose and vision for the future.
- Perform basic due diligence—like one would in choosing any partner. Ask good questions both from within and from the outside. Ask the farmer group to do the same of you. It's best if done two ways.
- Agree on how to best work together, put this in writing and make sure it gets communicated (and help ensure there is some transparency across the group).
- Execute your partnership and, while doing so, take time to re-assess what is working and what is not working—be agile and nimble to adapt when needed. Be patient, but also don’t be afraid to walk away if the partnership is not being fulfilled by both sides.
From Benjamin Mueller, MEAS:
- Processes for working with farmer groups and cooperatives need to be farmer-driven. A farmer advisory group is needed, with annual planning that addresses the problems of farmers.
- A decentralized model has to be in place, but with good channels of communication. Some issues are better addressed at different levels of scale, so decentralization should apply in extension as well as donor approaches.
- A pluralistic model built on partnerships and the sharing of information is essential. Some things like marketing the private sector do better, sometimes instruction is more effective with public sector or university experts. But finally, the new mentality of development is about finding a way to develop public-private partnerships and to avoid a siloed approach and look toward cooperation versus competition.
From Gitau Mbure, World Vision:
- Use a systems approach. Be sure to analyze and understand the complex environment and dynamic relationships that farmer groups operate in. Identify and address contextual risks and work with local actors to catalyze win-win opportunities by leveraging existing relationships.
- Build ownership. Let the farmers drive the process and make sure they realize the benefits of forming or growing their group, rather than forming one just because an NGO is pushing them to.
- Make sure the purpose and goals of forming the group are clear. Some groups are designed to last for a long time while others are temporary but in all cases, it is important to establish a clear mandate and mechanisms to monitor achievement (accountability).
- Invest in improving the management capacity of farmer groups particularly in record keeping and financial management. Groups that keep good records and account for their finances are more likely to be successful. Mismanagement of funds is perhaps the most common cause for group failure.
- Leadership is key – the success of a group depends on the commitment and capacity of elected leaders. Leaders need not just training but also coaching in areas such as strategic planning, conflict resolution, networking and negotiation which are key to growth.
From Vincent Frimpong Manu, World Cocoa Foundation:
- Ensure that the motivation for forming farmer groups is properly communicated and authorities at relevant levels are properly engaged. Historically, farmer groups were used as an avenue to get people to unionize and challenge government policies. This created a lot of suspicion of farmer groups by some governments in Africa. The phenomenon was quite rampant some decades ago. This suspicion is not completely erased and therefore important to clearly communicate the value and purpose of forming farmer groups.
- Develop a sustainability plan. Most farmer groups are facilitated by external entities like private commercial companies or NGOs. Since the organising factor is not genuinely generated by the farmers themselves, they do not tend to be the vision-bearers. Usually, their membership attraction hinges on material incentives instead of access to knowledge to improve their agricultural economic activities. This also makes the lifespan of the farmer groups’ hinge on the project lifespan as facilitated by the external entity. It is therefore important to develop a sustainability plan for and with the farmer group from the onset so that they will share in the vision and sustain the group even if the project ends.
- Build institutional capacity with the farmer groups you are engaging. Usually, farmer groups lack organizational development skills that help to engineer their operations. It is important to facilitate and guide the group to develop its governance regime, operational mechanisms, leadership skills, management systems, etc. These capacities help to gradually strengthen the group to operate even beyond project lifespan and to stand on their feet.