How cooperative model is prioritizing smallholder farmers towards the right to food

Amos Muange shows off pawpaws at his farm in Makueni, Kenya. Photo by Catherine Waking'a

Jonathan Kioko, Programme Director at We Effect East Africa, makes his contribution in the Standard newspaper, Kenya, on how the cooperative model is prioritizing smallholder farmers towards the right to food by building resilience.

We Effect’s cooperative model towards small-scale farmers

Co-operatives play a critical role in achieving sustainable development mainly because of their twin comparative advantages namely; huge numbers of members and having most of the people belonging to at least one cooperative. This allows for the accessibility of members and participation in development. Cooperatives are the easiest drivers of socio-economic transformation in communities as they catalyse rural development initiatives, commercialize various value chains, enhance food security and create employment opportunities for the youth who continue to face high levels of unemployment. Since independence, the cooperative movement has and continues to positively impact the lives and livelihoods of millions of Kenyans. However, the full potential of the sector is far from being exploited.

We Effect is at the heart of this movement. The catalytic effect ensures the right to food and particularly puts forward the interests of smallholder farmers in the food system placing them centre stage regionally and globally. Similarly, We Effect continues to strive towards having strong housing cooperatives through which, and with support from other actors, will contribute to the realization of the right to adequate housing by low-income members of our communities.

We prioritize working with cooperatives and member-based organizations that share cooperative values and commit to upholding the rights-based approach in their operations. We work in partnership with cooperatives, member-based organizations, and other forms of civil society organizations to enhance their governance, sustainability, and accountability for long-term and sustainable change.

Well-governed cooperatives enhance confidence in their members and thus more volumes continue to be realized in producer cooperatives, better prices are realized due to increased bargaining power and in turn, better returns to their members. This mitigates low returns to smallholder communities. Previously We Effect mainly supported cash crop-focused cooperatives. However, with the startling and inevitable food crisis as the global population continues to balloon, we are currently prioritizing strengthening the food system and further securing the place of smallholder producer cooperatives in the system.

Our support to cooperatives and other member-based organizations aims to enhance food production and increase communities’ resilience to ensure sustainable livelihoods for their members and communities even in times of shock. This will be done by ensuring an inclusive approach, including women, youth, and other marginalized groups who are usually left out along the way, left out completely, or only play a smaller role in the value chain. The intention is inclusivity, as such; no one will be left behind as envisioned by agenda 2030.

Further, with the climate change menace ravaging our region, we intend to advance interventions that ensure climate justice and also address corruption at various levels of the food system. With a well-aligned food system that takes into account the interests of smallholder farmers, we shall not only realize a just food system but also, sustainable livelihoods for all members of our communities and significantly deal with the levels of poverty.  Under sustainable rural development, we support smallholder farmers to fit into the global food systems. We realize that key players in agriculture are currently the elderly and we desire to integrate youth into agriculture.

What is the significance of agricultural cooperatives on the well-being of small-scale farmers?

Member-based organizations, including cooperatives, will continue to be at the heart of smallholder farmers’ success in agriculture. Cooperatives help farmers to organize, mobilize and move towards a common goal.  Cooperatives also have the mandate to voice the interests of their members toward decision-makers and other actors in the agricultural sector. Farmers who work together in cooperatives guided by cooperative principles enhance their capacities by accessing agricultural services, information, market linkages, and entrepreneurship.

With leadership from the cooperatives, delivery of technical support and inputs for their members is coordinated and this results in increased production for individual smallholder farmers and, ultimately, in the aggregated produce of the cooperative. Noteworthy is the fact that when the cooperative receives good returns and is well managed, the farmers also receive good returns, and their trust in the cooperative continues to be enhanced.  The socio-economic status of members also grows. For instance,, new farming technologies can be promoted through cooperatives to enhance food production.

Cooperatives can be exemplified as a stone with the ability to simultaneously kill two birds. This is because it both influences the economic development of smallholder farmers and is also a big voice used to communicate to various actors or make decisions on issues that affect them as a community.

Cooperatives fill this gap through collective marketing. Individually, farmers produce and sell low volumes of products which often fetch low prices. By jointly selling farm products, smallholder farmers negotiate better prices and services, empowering farmers.

How can East Africa increase their odds of a successful rural transformation through farmer’s cooperatives?

In the East African region where We Effect works, cooperatives could act as the springboard for rural transformation. The historical background of cooperatives is not a glorious one. Most of them collapsed in the 80s during the liberalization of markets, while some experienced cases of mismanagement. As a result, rebuilding cooperatives in the region has been challenging. However, enough smallholder farmers seem to be embracing the idea and only require a small push in the right direction. This will ultimately help transform the rural economy in our region.

Strengthening the participation of smallholder farmers in agricultural value chains, strengthening the governance of cooperatives, and building their capacities in agribusiness will be a good first step towards poverty eradication. Other technical capacities such as post-harvest handling practices, value addition, and risk mitigation measures, including crop and animal insurance, will also need to be stepped up.

Governments and civil societies support farmers’ organizations, cooperatives, and commodity associations that are already playing a crucial role to address the right to food, at the production level is critical.

Working with cooperatives is the key to rural transformations. They play a significant self-help role in rural and informal settlements; particularly where private businesses hesitate to venture and the government does not provide basic services.

Smallholder farmers, many of them women, account for a significant proportion of food production. Moreover, they do this near the people who need food the most. These women, and millions of other smallholder farmers, deserve stronger support in their fight against hunger. The inclusivity principle will be very key for sustainable rural development to be realized.

Comment on the ongoing drought and famine in the horn of Africa

For the past two years, delayed rainfall has greatly affected our smallholder farmers, especially in some of the regions where we have resilience interventions such as Machakos, Makueni, and other drought-stricken counties in the country. Climate change is largely to blame. It is a wake-up call that urgent action is needed to mitigate the impact of climate change and build resilience among smallholder farmers.

The drought has significantly affected most farmers who are still relying on rain-fed agriculture. We Effect is prioritizing climate change adaptation and resilience measures, by working with partners to ensure consistent disaster risk management and practice of sustainable agricultural land use management methods that mitigate the impacts of climate change among farming communities. Action needs to include other risk mitigation measures such as crop and livestock insurance as the impact observed previously can be dire.

In this regard, We Effect has partnered with financial service providers and insurance companies in East Africa to sensitize communities on the value of micro-insurance, as well as the need to develop affordable insurance products, and to establish effective distribution channels among partner organizations. Some pilot programs have been undertaken with significant successes registered.

The future on the fight on food security and safety?

Climate change affects small-scale farmers economically and contributes substantially to food insecurity. They lose crops and animals through flooding, drought, pest, and disease manifestation. Insurance products are available to shield farmers against such adverse climatic effects and improve their resilience. Partnerships with Co-operatives are also an avenue for insurance distribution to smallholder farmers which cushion them should crops fail or their animals die. Through Co-operatives, they can also get advances from the unions to pay insurance premiums.

Smallholder farmers are key to food security in Kenya. Through co-operatives, we are optimistic we will see an increased focus on sustainable agriculture and food production. Government support will increase food security and give more people the opportunity to earn an income. With structured support, we believe that smallholder farmers can provide food for themselves, supply to urban areas, and also create meaningful employment for the local people. This will only be possible where an enabling environment is created by the government such as availing water for irrigation, extension services, and certified farm inputs. It is possible to produce enough for ourselves and process the surplus for export.

We Effect emphasizes the importance of domestic food production to guarantee food security as a first step. Without a stable domestic agricultural sector, the various dimensions of food security, such as availability and access, are very hard to achieve. Smallholder farmers are encouraged to practice modern farming methods resilient to climate change, and insurance should back up these practices.

Through research, sensitization, and appropriate extension services, farmers will access and plant more resistant crop varieties and reduce risks; hence viable business ventures which attract more insurers due to reduced risks. Top on the list is the adoption of organic agriculture and agroecological practices, rain harvesting techniques, and sustainable land use management practices, among others. Smallholder farmers and cooperatives are the answer to sustainable rural development.

Written by

Jonathan Kioko