How co-operatives work for women in Africa

In Africa, as elsewhere, inequalities persist between women and men in terms of access to and control over social, political and economic resources and opportunities for participation.

In Africa, as elsewhere, inequalities persist between women and men in terms of access to and control over social, political and economic resources and opportunities for participation.

In employment, women are found more often than men in informal and precarious work, with particularly pronounced imbalances in some sectors. With regard to agriculture, women are estimated to produce up to 80% of the food in Africa. Yet, when it comes to agricultural inputs and services, the share going to women is meagre: they receive only 7% of agricultural extension services, less than 10% of the credit offered to small-scale farmers, and own only 1% of the land.

In this context, women are often found concentrated in subsistence agriculture and unpaid farm work, and excluded from more lucrative agricultural opportunities such as cash crop production.

The critical importance of closing such gender gaps – which are not only contrary to the full realization of women’s human rights, but also a fundamental obstacle to poverty reduction – is widely recognized. The latest report on the State of Food and Agriculture of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows, for instance, that if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30%, raising total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4%, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17%.2

Regardless of the sector they belong to or the types of cooperative they represent – whether agricultural, consumer, financial, social or worker among others – cooperatives are generally considered powerful vehicles of social inclusion and political and economic empowerment of their members.

Because of the values on which cooperatives are based, including equality and equity, solidarity, social responsibility, and caring for others, and principles that they embody – voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, member education, and concern for the community – their mandate places cooperatives in a unique position to ensure and promote gender equality.

Moreover, as cooperatives are group-based ventures, members benefit by joining forces with others. Apart from being able to access economies of scale as providers of services or products or as consumers, participating in a cooperative as a member, elected leader or manager also brings with it enhanced status, social capital and voice.

In agriculture, by enabling women and men farmers, or women only, to come together for purposes of acquiring inputs, production services, and the marketing of their produce, agricultural cooperatives enhance productive capacity and give access to markets to those – such as women small holders – who when operating individually would not be able to benefit from these opportunities due for instance to a low purchasing power, a lack of productive assets, or cultural barriers. While women’s presence in agricultural cooperatives in Africa is limited (due among others to land ownership patterns, the division of roles and types of jobs in agriculture), women are increasingly choosing to organize cooperatively in agriculture, and there is solid evidence that cooperative membership enhances productivity, incomes and the quality of life for both the members as well as the community at wide.

In terms of rural finance, women’s access to formal financial institutions is often lower than men’s, and financial cooperatives thus offer a much-needed response to their financial needs. Many communities are responding to these constraints by setting up financial cooperatives composed of women, or developing the services of existing providers to cater specifically to women’s needs. Why do financial cooperatives and in particular SACCOs work for women? Among other reasons, though SACCOs vary in nature, they are by definition controlled by the (women) members who are the owners of the SACCO. They also tend to be more accessible than other financial institutions as they are usually locality-based, have less intimidating procedures than other financial institutions, and often offer more suitable loan conditions, enabling women to access saving and loan services for the benefit of their business, or for educational, health or social development purposes.

As concerns social protection, in addition to financial cooperatives helping members to protect themselves against adversity and enabling them to invest in social needs, the growth of various types of social service cooperatives – such as for instance elderly or childcare cooperatives – is a promising development for women as providers and recipients of these much-needed services. These cooperatives enable them to shift, in what is largely a female-dominated sector, from carrying out vulnerable work to decent jobs, and freeing them of care burdens.

In terms of representation and voice, cooperatives – regardless of their type or sector of work – are uniquely positioned to strengthen participation by virtue of their values and principles. Cooperative membership brings with it not only economic benefits, but also voice. Women are being supported via member education to acquire confidence and skills for meaningful participation and, thanks to the democratic governance principle, are able to influence the cooperative’s affairs.

Despite the advantages of the model, in the majority of African countries, women remain under-represented as both employees, members and in particular leaders of cooperatives. For instance, COOPAFRICA research reveals that in Ethiopia, only 18% of cooperative members are women and, and in Uganda, a 55-cooperative survey covering Area Cooperative Enterprises (ACEs) showed that women constitute 33% of board members, 13% of chairpersons, and 12% of managers. Achieving active and equal participation of women – for instance, being able to access benefits such as technical services or education as members, or being able to influence decision-making and shape the cooperative’s agenda as leaders – which is not revealed by statistics, is an even greater challenge.

The reasons for the persisting gender inequality are numerous and complex, and include, among others factors, basic structural and socio-cultural issues. These include inequalities in access to resources, education and training, unequal division of labour between women and men as well as stereotyped conceptions on their respective roles – many of which are beyond the control of the cooperative movement and which also affect women’s work in other sectors. Legal constraints5 stemming from cooperative law or, as is more of frequently the case, related legislation (property, land and inheritance rights) or cooperative by-laws also have a hindering effect on women’s ability to join and actively take part in cooperatives.

The cooperative movement has recognized that ensuring gender equality is not just the right thing to do, in terms of respecting rights and the cooperative principles, but also makes good business sense given that investing in women has high returns at both the level of the individual enterprise as well as at the macro level in terms of poverty reduction and development. Accordingly responses to address these challenges are being formulated within the movement at different levels to ensure that both women and men can contribute to and benefit from cooperative development.

ILO Recommendation No. 193 (2002) on the Promotion of Cooperatives explicitly states that “special consideration should be given to increasing women’s participation in the cooperative movement at all levels, particularly at management and leadership levels”.6 At the regional level, the in line with the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) global gender equality policy, ICA Africa formulated a Gender Strategy Framework which was adopted by the ICA Africa Regional Assembly in 2008. Likewise, at the national level, a number of apex organizations as well secondary level cooperative organizations are designing and implementing policies to ensure gender-equitable participation in cooperatives, both through measures to achieve a more balanced representation in mixed-sex cooperatives as well as through assistance to women’s cooperative ventures.

Cooperatives are taking action to enhance women’s participation. Through funding from the ILO CoopAFRICA – UN Joint Programme Challenge Fund, United Peasants of Tanzania (UPT) embarked on a project to strengthen an agricultural cooperative, Muungano AMCOS, in Southern Tanzania by improving its governance system and attracting new members, especially poor women.

The project focused on training the leadership on cooperative management; awareness raising on gender equality and on the benefits of joining a cooperative; and the subsidization of the fees and shares of interested potential women members. The members, who engage in cashew nut farming and processing, were also trained in good agricultural practices and provided with agricultural inputs, such as spray pumps, to improve their productivity.

According to the independent evaluation of the project, it resulted in a 46% increase in women’s membership, bringing women’s share in the cooperative from 8% to 24%. A change of mind set among men was also recorded, with men showing a greater willingness to encourage and support women to join cooperatives. In terms of productivity, the cooperative experienced an increase in the collection of crops from 434,300 kgs to 768,872 kgs. The price of cashew nuts also rose from 1,405 TSH per kg to 2,160 THS per kg, with a positive income impact for members.

This is just one of many examples that shows co-operatives are making a difference across the world. For more information on CoopAFRICA, visit: