College rescues East Africa’s rich co-op history

Co-operatives have a long history in East Africa, with some over 75 years old.

It’s a rich and fascinating heritage — but records that could be of use to future generations in helping to understand their co-operative history have been left in basements or in offices with no protection from environmental conditions and insects. 

Rebecca Forecast, Programme Assistant for Co-operatives for Development at the UK Co-operative College, travelled throughout Tanzania during January on a scoping mission funded by the British Library’s Endangered Archive Programme. The aim was to locate archival materials from co-operatives, identify their extent and assess their preservation needs.

The project was run in partnership with Moshi University College of Co-operative and Business Studies (MUCCoBS), which is planning to set up a new co-operative archive, where the relevant material will eventually be transferred and stored safely. Staff from MUCCoBS travelled with Rebecca and they were joined by College associate and archival specialist Margaret Crockett, who provided expert recommendations and training.

The scoping visit revealed the precarious state of many of the records, for which the co-operatives struggle to find space and adequate storage conditions. In some store rooms, records were scattered all over the floors, or stuffed into coffee sacks piled up to the ceilings. One co-operative even reported sightings of snakes in their storage room.

The team made some valuable discoveries: registration books and certificates signed by the colonial administration, visitors books, photographs, meeting minutes and reports. Samples of documents were then digitised to demonstrate the relevance of these forgotten records to co-operative history.

Many co-operatives and their members are not aware of the significance of their records. To help counter this, a Co-operative History Day was held at MUCCoBS, attended by members of 32 coffee-growing co-operatives belonging to the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union. This co-operative was established in 1933 and is thought to be the oldest co-operative in Africa. 

At the event, co-operators spoke of the history of their societies and the stories of several older members were recorded. The day was also covered in local newspapers.

The College will continue to work with MUCCoBS to assist in the development of their proposed co-operative archive and preserving East Africa’s co-operative heritage.

We were really pleased to be able to work with MUCCoBS and the British Library Endangered Archives programme in this way, sharing the experience of our Research and Archive teams in locating a major source of primary material. 

We know that the strong tradition of co-operation in East Africa is organically linked with the British movement, both through long-established trading links with the former CWS and the role that the College played in training students who became key co-operative leaders and in helping the establishment of MUCCoBS. 

We hope that the 2012 activities for the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives will lead to co-operatives throughout the world recognising the critical importance of safeguarding their own heritage materials for the benefit of future generations of co-operators.

• Mervyn Wilson is Principal and Chief Executive of the Co-operative College.

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