College helps strengthen co-operatives in Malawi

Malawi now has 681 co-ops – but the country’s growing sector still faces problems. Half of the population of this largely agricultural state lives below the poverty line,...

Malawi now has 681 co-ops – but the country’s growing sector still faces problems.

Half of the population of this largely agricultural state lives below the poverty line, and demand for co-operative training remains higher than the support available.

To address this, in 2012 the Co-operative College in the UK launched a three-year project to support Malawi’s co-ops. The initiative, made possible through a partnership with the Scottish government, was designed to increase capacity by providing training to existing and new co-ops. The project has been renewed for another three years.

In 2010, the college found that smallholder farmers were struggling on low incomes and recommended they organise into co-ops to pool resources, market themselves more effectively and gain access to credit.

The project gave training to 6,051 members of co-ops, two thirds of them women, exceeding an initial target of 2,700. The project will now continue, after the Scottish government announced last month a grant of £449,449.

This new phase will encourage young people to engage in co-ops; empower women as co-op leaders; promote sustainable farming; and create awareness of renewable energy. It will also boost co-op support organisations by strengthening the national apex and assessing the feasibility of a national co-operative college.

Project manager John Mulangeni, one of four project officers in Malawi, says the sector faces a number of challenges and opportunities.

Although Malawi’s first co-op was registered in 1947, the assets of the movement were taken over by the one-party regime which ran the country between 1964 and 1994. A new co-operative law was adopted in 1998, four years after Malawi’s first democratic election.

The current government runs a Department of Co-operative Policy, but implementation can be difficult, said Mr Mulangeni, with many co-ops based in remote locations and hampered by a lack of literacy.

Law and policy on co-ops also needs to be strengthened, he added, to tackle issues such as climate change, deforestation and HIV.

Progress is being made. The College’s training project saw the Department of Co-operative Policy working with Malawi’s three main co-operative unions: COMSIP Co-operative Union, MZUZU Coffee Planters Co-operative Union and the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives (MUSCCO) in order to link co-ops to the international market.

For instance, products from Highland Macadamia Co-operative Union in Malawi can now be bought in the UK, and some members of MZUZU have access to local and international markets.

Other co-ops were given help acquiring Fairtrade certification and building capacity, while the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives was given leadership training. Around 100 mentors have been trained, and they are now able to train other members.

But another 200 groups (over 2,000 people) are waiting for training. “The resources we have cannot match the demand,” warned Mr Mulangeni.

Another challenge for Malawi’s co-operatives is gaining access to finance. “Banks in Malawi are not very friendly towards co-ops but people are able to help each other through co-ops and bring an element of social security as well,” said Mr Mulangeni.

“They have a special fund within the co-op, which helps them cope in times of sickness or in case of a funeral. Most members are now able to send their children to school and pay fees.”

The project has a bottom-up approach, explains Linda Shaw, the College’s vice principal.

“We’re not just about building different enterprises, but a co-op movement and network,” she said, pointing to the creation of a national apex body for co-ops in Malawi.

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