Working to build up Malawi’s co-op movement

Dr Amanda Benson from the Co-operative College on the development of a national sector body

Over the last six years, we have been working with the co-operative movement in Malawi to develop a national apex body, known as the Malawi Federation of Co-operatives (MAFECO).

Working with a number of partners, at the Co-operative College we have utilised our vast experience of supporting co-operatives in Malawi, firstly through our Supporting Co-operatives in Malawi project (2012-2015) funded by the Scottish government, and more recently through our CEPEESM project (2015-2018).

On our recent visit to Malawi we met with the Malawi government’s registrar of co-operatives, Wisikesi Mkombezi, and his team to discuss the ongoing development of the country’s co-operative movement.

According to Mr Mkombezi, there are great changes taking place in the regulation of co-operatives; the Malawian government has ambitious plans to double the numbers of co-op members, driven in part from the top by ministers who attended  the National Agricultural Fair and were impressed with how well co-ops have been performing, especially in rural areas.

“Every politician is talking about co-operatives, especially when they have visited co-ops and have seen how they are changing people’s lives,” he says. “Then they see them as a vehicle to change people’s lives for the better.” However, he is aware that the co-operative movement needs to be independent and not hampered by politics, and acknowledges that one of its strengths is that it does work independently.

However, this message of independence also needs to be received by members of the co-ops: that they are the owners and decision-makers behind the co-op movement, and that it is not controlled by government; there is sometimes a misconception that co-operatives are another wing of the government. Mr Mkombezi emphasises that even MAFECO is member-based, and the co-op movement can put who they want at the head of the board: it’s in their power to act.

“But you can’t force a concept on the people,” he adds. “First they must understand what a co-operative is.”

However, co-operatives are still used as a tool by the government. Their popularity has in resulted in a boost of support in using co-operatives to build primary industry, and has united the efforts of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism, the Ministry of Water, Agriculture, Irrigation and Water and the Ministry of Finance to drive the rural industrialisation of Malawi.

Mr Mkombezi acknowledges that one challenge facing the movement is resources. Co-ops have been singled out as a critical tool for Malawi’s development, but they are very under-resourced – and the resources that are available are spread out between lots of different organisations.

John Mulangeni, our project manager in Malawi, said that one of the issues for the movement, and for joined-up approaches, is that there is no centralised point that holds data on co-operatives in the same way that data is collected on other enterprises (such as figures on membership, capital, how do they manage their post-harvest production activities etc).

Related: Where state and co-operation meet – case study from Malawi

The ministry staff work in a very centralised way and this presents challenges when reaching out to the more rural areas. Mr Mulangeni believes the co-op movement in Malawi could learn a lot from the Tanzanian model, which is developing and moving forwards, especially as Malawi is currently updating its 1998 Co-operative Act.

The draft Co-operative Bill is being debated and it is expected to be passed by the end of this financial year.

The government’s policy is to promote co-ops, and while they still support other associations, they do emphasise that the preferred organisation is a co-operative one. A great recent example of this is the help that was given to a leather association. This enabled them to create a design studio, but also encouraged them to become a co-operative too. They certainly don’t hide their preference for organisations to be co-operatives to access support.

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