Strengthening the co-operative identity at the Cooperative World Congress

'With the ICA coming together as a source of inter-co-operation, we can give great hope to the world by changing the reality of how we run business'

How can the co-operative identity be made a competitive advantage in the global market? This was the key question that kicked off a series of sessions taking place on day two of the World Cooperative Congress. A plenary, panel discussion and five parallel sessions brought together speakers from across the world to explore how to strengthen the co-op identity.

The opening plenary began with a speech by Idoia Mendia, deputy lehendakari [governor] of the Basque Autonomous Region, who highlighted the close relationship between co-operatives and the Basque government.

“Our identity connects profoundly with the co-operative identity,” she said.

Iñigo Albizuri Landazabal, director of public affairs at Mondragon Corporation and president of CICOPA, highlighted the support Mondragon received from the Basque government and the Spanish government, adding that co-operatives also enjoyed a supportive legislative environment.

Ms Mendia said that the Basque government has always promoted co-ops, adding that co-operatives were “not just a community of values but of real economic alternatives” – and a natural ally for policies that create economic value and are cohesive, both in the Basque country and worldwide.

She said the Basque government sees co-ops as an important actor in building a better future and meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals within “a context of major transformation, which has been accelerated by the pandemic”.

These themes were then taken into a panel discussion, where Ms Mendia and Mr Landazabal were joined by Jang Seung-kwon from Sungkonghoe University in the Republic of Korea, Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative’s (IFFCO) Tarun Bhargava, and Sylandi Brown, marketing and communications specialist for Middle Georgia Electric Membership Co-op in the United States.

Panellists discussed a number of challenges facing co-ops, including digital transformation, climate change, rural depopulation, infrastructure connectivity, securing talent and inclusion.

However, some of these challenges have also presented opportunities for co-ops, such as IFFCO’s use of digital tools in response to the pandemic.

Minister Mendia emphasised the resilience of co-operative enterprises, which, she said, have a better capacity to adapt because their structure enables them to maintain jobs and shift workers from one co-operative to another during times of crisis. 

“In this crisis they showed a huge capacity of transformation,” she said, adding that some had switched to producing PPE. “The values are key to their response,” she added.

Panellists also agreed that there is a direct link between the co-operative identity and innovation, as well as a need to balance innovation with the protection of co-operative values. 

Mr Landazabal emphasised that new times needed new solutions, but “it is really important that we maintain the same values”. Prof Jang agreed, arguing that the co-operative identity needed to preserve its core elements whilst also innovating and changing.

Related: Exploring the co-operative identity through research and legislation

Prof Jang highlighted that co-operative values and principles actually led to members’ participation in economic activities.

“You need loyal customers, members and employees who really believe in the values of the organisation,” he said.

Prof Jang explained that a recent study conducted with his students found that what members valued the most showed what consumer co-operatives did best.

Speaking in the same session, Sylandi Brown talked about how co-operatives were there to meet the needs of members. At her co-op, this was done by providing broadband services, something members had asked for.

“We now have a fresh perspective of how we can incorporate the co-operative identity within this new service,” she said.

Sylandi Brown, Middle Georgia EMC (©ICA)

After the panel discussion, five parallel sessions took place exploring how co-ops can strengthen their identity by taking advantage of the digital age, supporting ethical value chains, having a strong entrepreneurial network, meeting future capital needs and supporting entrepreneurial innovation.

One of these sessions explored how existing co-ops can leverage technology that is currently emerging, as well as looking at new forms of technology as opportunities for the development of new co-ops. In the discussion, parallels were drawn between the principles of co-operation and some of the philosophies which drive new digital enterprises, such as voluntarism, collaboration, autonomy and independence.  The session’s facilitator, Dr. Saji Gopinath, said that these principles “have a striking similarity with the principles of co-operation, which makes co-operatives the ideal model for the new age enterprise”. 

The sixth co-operative principle of co-operation among co-ops was raised by a number of speakers in this conversation, including Maria Rita Valencia Molina from Coomeva in Colombia, who said: “co-operatives are a great global network. If we can maximise that network through technology, we can produce extraordinary results in terms of co-operation between co-operatives.”

Inter-co-operation was also a key theme in the second parallel session, which focused on ethical supply chains. Anne Chappaz, from the International Trade Centre shared insights on their recent efforts with the International Cooperative Alliance to upscale co-op to co-op trade. 

Related: Examining the Cooperative Identity – what came out of Congress

Ms Chappaz highlighted a number of benefits that occur when co-ops are part of value chains, and the role that the co-operative identity plays when it comes to consumers, saying “in this world  of impact investing, global corporate social responsibility and woke consumers, these ‘beyond efficiency’ elements do create competitive advantage for all the actors in the value chain. So doing good is also good for business, and when co-ops create linkages across the chain, that additional value they can create is even stronger.”

Conversations around co-op identity moved to workers in the third session on entrepreneurial networks, where a number of examples of co-operative developments around the world were shared. Mirai Chatterjee, chair of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Cooperative Federation, India, described how her federation built an entrepreneurial network to provide business development and capacity building for women’s co-operatives.

“If we are going to strengthen our entrepreneurial network then capacity building is critical,” she said, explaining that SEWA is providing organic farming training to women farmers. During the pandemic, SEWA set up a new online marketplace for women’s products, which is already doing well and generating a surplus.

“The biggest challenge of all is reaching workers and having them join as entrepreneurs in our co-operative movement because they are scattered geographically and we are divided by castes, cultural differences and so on,”
she said.

“Citizens have understood that mutuality and solidarity is the way forward – we need to promote the co-operative identity more widely.”

The next parallel session focused on meeting future capital needs, where delegates discussed how different co-operative enterprises meet their financing requirements. The chair of the session, Gerardo Almaguer, president and CEO of Développement international Desjardins, introduced the conversation by saying it was a particular challenge to access finance during the pandemic and this was essential for co-operatives to innovate, be resilient, grow and succeed during this challenging time. 

Reporting back from this session was managing director of Inpulse Investment Management, Bruno Dunkel, who said that the panellists in his session made a call for new access to dedicated funding, as well as for capacity building and technical assistance for co-ops, in order to meet challenges when it comes to innovation, digital transformation and developing resilient production systems.

Mr Dunkel communicated what he called a very strong and clear message for more and better co-operation within the co-operative sector, as well as a second message from the session, that funding can come from outside the co-operative sector in order to move away from today’s challenges towards long-term and sustainable development. 

The fifth parallel session, on supporting entrepreneurial innovation, explored the challenge co-ops face of operating as both associations and enterprises, and how they can embody co-operative values and principles whilst continuing to innovate in a changing world.

A number of examples of co-operative innovation were shared by the speakers, including Jose Mari Luzarraga, a co-founder of Mondragon Team Academy (MTA), who  described how MTA is reimagining entrepreneurial education in universities. “We do not have students, they are not ‘the future’, they are actually people proving that together, they can transform the world by innovating and creating solutions for humanity,” he said.

He added: “I do believe that with the ICA coming together as a source of inter-co-operation, we can give great hope to the world by changing the reality of how we run business”.

Reflections were also made on the delivery of Congress itself, with the session’s chair Dr Chanho Choi, senior consultant at the Korea Institute for Cooperative Development, reminding delegates that “for the first time in the ICA history, we are hosting a hybrid Congress, with an online and offline offering. This is itself very innovative.” 

Speaking in the plenary, Iñigo Albizuri Landazabal pointed to Congress as an opportunity for different types of co-operatives to share experiences of how co-ops can be innovative, adaptable and resilient. Mr Landazabal suggested that to make the co-operative identity a competitive advantage, co-ops must better communicate what they do, educate members and the public at large, support the development of new co-operatives and invest in research.

“In the Basque Country we have more than 40 researchers on the topic of co-operatives, we have so many thinkers examining the co-operative model. It’s important to have a tool so that the voice and statistics on co-operatives are heard all around the world.”

Quoting José María Arizmendiarrieta, the founder of Mondragon, he argued that “the ideas are worth nothing if you cannot put them in practice,” adding, “this congress is a good starting point to put them into practice.”

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