To support the Minister for International Development, Minister Sajjan, in fulfilling his mandated objectives of contributing to the global eradication of poverty, assisting those most in need, and achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals, Canada should make investments in agricultural cooperatives across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) a cornerstone of their development policy in the region. Doing so will help the government achieve one of its development policy goals of “fostering [inclusive economic] growth that works for everybody.”

Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa

The agricultural sector in SSA is unique in the world because it is the only agricultural sector that provides employment for a large and growing share of the continent’s labour force. Furthermore, growth in agricultural production in SSA is mainly a result of the cultivation of new land and increased labour, rather than improvements to production efficiency.

There has been little improvement over the last thirty years in the human or technological capital engaged in the agricultural sector. This means African farmers are not utilizing new equipment, technology, or best practices on a regular basis, rendering growth in total agricultural production on the continent sluggish and African countries net importers of food.

Furthermore, Africa is facing a major demographic challenge. The African Development Bank estimates that 10 to 12 million youth – and rising – enter the labour market each year, yet only three million formal jobs are added annually. What some economists call a demographic dividend poses major challenges for African countries, as they grapple with increasing youth unemployment rates.

Furthermore, SSA is the world’s most food insecure region: The number of people suffering acute malnutrition has risen to 123 million in 2022, or 12% of SSA’s population.  Further, climate events contributing to food insecurity, like droughts and floods, are disproportionately common in SSA. Relative to 1970-70, the frequency for droughts in SSA tripled by 2010-19.

The challenge, therefore, is threefold:

  1. to raise agricultural production in SSA;
  2. to find sustainable methods to integrate an ever-growing labour force; and,
  3. to improve the resiliency of food production in the region.

This article argues that agricultural cooperatives are well positioned to provide solutions to these challenges and should be promoted and supported by countries like Canada.

Agricultural Cooperatives

Cooperatives are democratic and member-oriented organizations. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) defines cooperatives as “association[s] of persons seeking to satisfy common needs, such as access to products or services, [or] sale of their products or services.” Further, ISED considers cooperative ownership as: “business[es] jointly owned by its members who use its products or services.”

Agricultural cooperatives are organizations owned by farmers, typically smallholders, that provide their members with a range of financial, social, and productivity benefits. Cooperatives help their members overcome collective action problems, such as negotiating higher prices for their products. They provide their members with risk-mitigation and help to improve human and farm capital. Cooperatives act as safeguards against predatory behavior from downstream buyers. Finally, they help introduce new practices and technologies to their members.

A study by Ellen Verhofstadt and Miet Maertens found that cooperative membership increased annual farm income by 40%. Further, groundnut farmers who were part of a farming cooperative in Western Sudan had on average a much higher income than non-members. Additionally, cooperative membership is associated with an increase in fertilizer adoption and use in Ethiopia and fertilizer adoption in Rwanda.

Cooperative members tend to be wealthier, have higher farm yields, and introduce and use new technology and inputs more frequently and faster than non-members. The benefits of membership go further, as we shall see below.

Cooperatives also socially empower their membership, with members of an all-female cooperative in Uganda reporting feeling socially empowered, displaying greater independence, leadership, and negotiation skills. Emilie Combaz and Claire Mcloughlin argue that greater social empowerment is fundamental to improved development outcomes. Cooperative members are more likely to meet and learn from technical experts in development, cooperative promotion, and agronomy.

Cooperative membership assists members in breaking the poverty cycle by connecting smallholders with a network of peers, and empowering them to become agents of change in their communities. Further, Cooperative members are more likely to invest in assets, income save, and invest in education for their children.  

Moving Forward: Development that Works for Everyone

Clearly, membership in agricultural cooperatives brings financial and productivity benefits, increased technology adoption rates, and social empowerment. Considering that in 2008, 7 out of every 100 people in Africa were members of cooperatives, and that figure has continued to grow since, Canada should make investment in agricultural cooperatives a cornerstone of their development policy in SSA.

Canada should widen its criteria to reflect the realities on the ground and look to provide assistance to all cooperatives, regardless of gender or sexuality provided they adhere to its feminist foreign development policy principles. For example, the Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), makes limited mention of cooperatives: “[Canada] will support women-led agricultural businesses, including local women’s cooperatives and associations.”

Focusing solely on women’s cooperatives ignores the majority of agricultural cooperatives on the continent; it fails to consider the fact that men provide about 60% of the total labour in agriculture. Feminism does not mean to ignore or to marginalize men, but rather to lift everyone up. Feminism is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Canada needs to widen its criteria to reflect the realities on the ground, and look to provide assistance to all cooperatives, regardless of gender or sexuality provided they adhere to FIAP’s feminist principles. Canada needs to begin supporting agricultural cooperatives that are effective, inclusive, and egalitarian. Cooperatives that do not include the poorest farmers, many of whom are women, tend to aggravate existing inequalities and fail to achieve positive development outcomes for all members.

To be eligible for funding from FIAP, cooperatives must provide evidence proving that inclusivity, diversity, equity, and accessibility are key cooperative organizational pillars. They must prove that the cooperative is open, inclusive, tolerant, and egalitarian. They can do this by providing governance information and electoral records.  

These steps would permit Global Affairs Canada officials to judge if cooperatives are inclusive and equitable. If found inclusive and equitable, investments in these organizations will help Canada achieve its development goals. Canada must prioritize support for agricultural cooperatives, to alleviate strains on Africa’s labour market, improve food production, and bring good jobs to rural areas.

Henry Adlam is a graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He is pursuing a MA in International Affairs, with a specialization in international development policy. His research interests lie in the political economy of primary commodity industries (from oil to bananas) and global innovation policy. He is a Policy Analyst at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, where he helps support Canadian innovators get their innovations to market. He can be found on LinkedIn, or haunting Ottawa’s coffeeshops.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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