The Co-operative College is continuing its work in Malawi helping to strengthen the country’s co-operative sector. Earlier this year, the organisation received a grant from the Scottish government which will enable it to continue its project in Malawi for another three years. For the second phase of the project, the College will focus on increasing the participation of women and young people in co-operatives.
Other issues on the agenda are developing an apex body for co-operatives and increasing their environmental sustainability by looking at setting up renewable energy projects. Ruth Holtom, youth projects and co-operative learning co-ordinator at the College joined the team in Malawi, where she took part in different focus group discussions with women and young people.
“The aim was for us to listen to them and get them talking to each other and present challenges they face in their co-ops,” she said. Women taking part in the workshops said they saw co-operatives as a genuine source of livelihood, but they often lacked the confidence to stand as elected members.
Many co-ops in the country have high percentages of women members, but they seldom hold leadership roles. “If a woman stood to be chair, the fellow women in co-ops would often vote for a man instead,” said Ms Holtom.
When it comes to youth involvement, the main challenge is the fact that they perceive co-operatives as a tool for the rural poor. The co-operative economy is predominantly agricultural and young people aspire to work in urban areas.
Some youth organisations work with young people in urban areas, helping them to set up enterprises to sell craft products. The College and its team in Malawi is working with these groups to see how young people could organise themselves in a more co-operative way to increase their power.
The findings that came out of the discussions will be used to develop a structure for a training manual that will be published and rolled out to co-operatives this autumn. The manual will focus on governance, including co-operative bylaws and principles. If members are aware of bylaws and principles, this helps with representation as well, says Ms Holtom.
“It might take time to change that mind-set but there was a real willingness to move forward,” she added.