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A week with Malawi’s cooperative leaders

October 21, 2016

Grassroots by nature, agricultural cooperatives make up a complex landscape in Africa. As their roles develop along with African economies, there is a lot of room to learn: for the leaders of cooperatives to learn new management skills, and for the rest of the world to learn about the work they do. A recent Cooperative Leadership Event saw 120 cooperatives and farmer organisations take on both sides of this learning process in Malawi. As the second such event to take place, it was only the start of something bigger for a continent of cooperatives.

From 26 to 30 September, the event brought 175 people daily to Lilongwe's Malawi Institute of Management. The leaders and managers of the 120 cooperatives and farmer organisations shared tables with MSc and PhD students from multiple Malawian universities, as well as representatives of NGOs, donors, international organisations, farmer unions, private companies, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Trade.

They were invited by a similarly broad-based group of organising partners: 16 institutions in all, including CTA, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the US Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and Oxfam International.

Lessons for leaders

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What brought everyone together was something every cooperative – no matter how cooperative it is – needs: leadership. The event offered leadership and management training, based on a programme originally designed by the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership at the University of Missouri. The university has been offering a cooperative education programme for the leaders and managers of agricultural cooperatives in the USA for some 40 years.

"Today, all major agricultural cooperatives consider this as a compulsory training programme for their leaders and managers," says Gian Nicola Francesconi, CTA's Senior Technical Advisor on Cooperative Agribusiness Development. "The content and methodology of this programme was adapted to the African context on the basis of 13 years of field research carried out by the CGIAR in Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, Tanzania, Mauritania and Uganda."

The life of a cooperative

Central to this course is the Cooperative Life Cycle Framework, a tool that helps leaders understand the whole business 'life cycle' of their organisations and anticipate the problems that cooperatives face as they move through it. The second day of the week was an exploration of this framework. Francesconi presented five lectures incorporating theory and real-life stories of cooperatives facing challenges at different stages. On the following day, leaders and managers created drawings of their own organisations' life cycles. The individual charts were then analysed in groups.

Francesconi has seen how this process can bring greater clarity to leadership. "It is helpful to envision the main dynamics and trends associated with the evolution of agricultural cooperatives and farmer organisations," he says. "Such a vision helps leaders design their organisations to anticipate and evade change- and time-induced divergences of opinion among their own members, as well as to stay competitive in the marketplace."

Understanding Malawi's organisations

The event was also an opportunity to build something else: a picture of what Malawian cooperatives look like. Such a large gathering of the country's cooperatives and farmer organisations proved to be a fruitful source of data on their governance structures, management capacity and business performance.

On the first day, the leaders and managers filled out an entry test to assess their own starting knowledge; they repeated the test on the last day to ascertain how the week's activities built on this. Additionally, in groups with co-facilitators and student assistants they completed a 20-page questionnaire that delved into the structure, conduct, performance and environment of their organisations.

It wasn't only through questionnaires, however, that the leaders communicated their individual perspectives and ideas. An open day was also given over to meetings and discussions between these participants and the other key stakeholders and decision-makers from the public and private sectors.

The next generation of cooperatives

All of this will shape the next steps in the larger initiative known as Enhancing Cooperatives Development (EDC), which is led by CTA. In doing so, it will contribute to the development of a new generation of market-driven and value-adding agricultural cooperatives in Africa.

EDC plans to organise nine Cooperative Leadership Events in different sub-Saharan African countries between 2016 and 2019 – with more perhaps to follow. The event in Malawi was the second, with the first happening in May 2016 in Uganda.

The data generated from the events will guide the EDC's overall mission by forming a dataset on African agri-cooperatives and farmer organisations. It will allow for a diagnostic analysis of Malawi's organisations, which can be compared with similar data from other African countries. The results will be combined with financial investments to promote and facilitate the development of public–private partnerships.

What comes next?

The Lilongwe event may have more immediate outcomes for Malawi itself. It concluded with a discussion between two selected cooperative leaders, the Minister of Trade, the CEO of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM) and a representative of the Minister of Agriculture. This final meeting of minds produced three resolutions:

1) The Minister of Trade committed to involve key partners from the event in jointly producing a new cooperative legislation and policy, as well as a new cooperative bank for Malawi.
2) The cooperative leaders and managers asked the Minister to work together with CLE and the other partners to establish Centres of Excellence for cooperative education.
3) EDC committed to support the private Agricultural Commodity Exchange for Africa (ACE) and the public United States African Development Foundation (USADF) in improving and evaluating the impact of their investments to help Malawian cooperatives.

On top of all of this, the participants had one other request: to see more events like September's. "The farmers and the government would like us to keep organising a Cooperative Leadership Event in Malawi every year," reports Francesconi. "We are considering this option."

Find out more

Find out how CTA is Enhancing Development through Cooperatives
Read a Policy Note on Agricultural Cooperatives in Africa

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