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Learning Through Cooperative Knowledge Sharing Platforms in Rwanda

While driving through the rolling hills of Rwanda, it’s easy to see agriculture weaved across the landscape  coffee fields, bananas trees, dairy farms. Behind each of these is an important statistic: In Rwanda, over half of the workforce are members of cooperatives. Cooperatives are a key economic imperative for Rwanda because of their power to pull communities out of poverty.

Land O’Lakes International Development has been working in Rwanda in cooperative development programs since 2007, and in early 2017, we saw the need for greater collaboration and knowledge sharing. Regular, collaborative gatherings for all cooperative organizations and stakeholders to share and learn from each other were not common.

As part of the USAID Cooperative Development Program Activity 3 (CD3), Land O’Lakes formed the Cooperative Learning Platform (CLP) in 2017  the only public-private platform in Rwanda that brings disparate types of organizations together to focus specifically on cooperative development matters.

The CLP is made up of NGOs, private-sector partners, universities like University of Lay Adventists Kigali (UNILAK), private institutions like the National Cooperatives Confederation of Rwanda (NCCR) and public institutions such as Rwanda Cooperative Association (RCA) and MINICOM. Meetings are held quarterly to share information and learning from across the cooperative sector. It works to increase cooperatives’ direct access to knowledge and resources and also acts as a channel for every organization involved in cooperatives in Rwanda to share related issues.

“When you look at Rwanda, you see that the cooperative industry cross-cuts all sectors. The way we have been able to collaborate effectively is the biggest success of the CLP,” says Gerald Ngabonziza, Executive Secretary of NCCR.

Plans are now in motion for the CLP to continue implementation under NCCR, ensuring sustainability and creating more confidence from other partners.

Cow eating on the side of a hill

Knowledge sharing to build better impact

Many agencies across Rwanda are working to empower cooperative development, but often this work happens separately, not collaboratively.

“You would find cooperatives being supported by three or four development organizations. The problem was that some organizations were duplicating the work, doing trainings that had been done only months before,” says Willy Nyirigira, CD4 Cooperative Development Manager. “By sharing what we are doing together in CLP, we can bolster the impacts that will truly make a difference for the cooperative.”

In addition to providing ongoing support to cooperative educational and training opportunities, the CLP is proud of a few recent achievements. In 2018, they hosted a Cooperative Leadership Event with the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council and Oxfam, where agriculture leaders discussed policy and cooperative best practices  and a Financial Services Symposium for farmers to discuss financial access opportunities.

Perhaps most importantly, the CLP is making sure it is advancing the voice of the farmer – on a public and private level.

When a new cooperative policy was being formed in the country last year, the CLP was able to gather input from key cooperative players and bring that forward. Now that the policy has been passed, CLP members are looking at initiating a country level awareness campaign so that farmers and members at every level know what the policy means for them.

“When CLP was born, it wasn’t created for that purpose, but when the policy came out, we didn’t want to talk about it, we wanted to do something,” says Willy. “The CLP is highly regarded by farmers, organizations and the government.”

“The Cooperative Learning Platform generally just came at the right time for our country,” says Gerald. “It is an example of how Rwandans sit down, we come to an agreement and we act. That’s the Rwandan way.”

Lessons learned now being applied to another context

In 2018, Land O’Lakes International Development started a new cooperative development project, the Cooperative Development Activity 4 (CD4). Work continues in Rwanda, and the project now has a new footprint in Malawi. Using the model and lessons from CLP in Rwanda, the program is planning to initiate a similar knowledge sharing platform in Malawi. First steps will be to bring all the players together and build out a plan customized to Malawi’s unique context.

“Our plan is to share processes and learnings from Rwanda with our colleagues in Malawi, and they will adjust based on the country context,” says Willy. “They will also visit Rwanda and see our approach. We want to avoid the same mistakes we learned the first time and to create something that will last in Malawi, as we’ve seen CLP start to take hold in Rwanda.”

Land O’Lakes International Development believes in the economic power of cooperatives, that farmers and agribusinesses can come together to do more. Through cooperative development, farmers, business owners and governments can strengthen strategies and structures to thrive. Our deep work in this area stems from our affiliate, Land O’Lakes, Inc. a U.S.-based Fortune 200 farmer-owned cooperative.