Like other arrangements that make sense on the surface, African agriculture and rural development efforts are characterized by membership-based organizations. These range from farmer unions and diverse sizes of cooperatives to chambers of commerce. While coming together for collective bargaining purposes makes a lot of sense, members should be aware of several blind spots. After many years of existence, some African agricultural membership-based organizations are beginning to realize that success is no longer just about achieving high yields and winning prizes at agricultural shows. It is becoming more about adaptation and resilience.
That calls for more investment in actionable knowledge in order to overcome assumptions that keep popping up. For instance, a membership focus assumes farmers have the same needs. That results in too much pressure being exerted on the organization with everyone expecting it to provide all the answers. This creates a dependency syndrome where members expect the organization to look for the market, finance and meet individual requirements of each member. Besides limiting innovation, over-reliance on a membership organization reduces individual members’ creative potential. Most agricultural membership-based organizations struggle to adequately address different needs of their members. For instance, farmers at various levels of production capacity and experience receive the same short message service through the same channel, irrespective of commodity complexities.
Over-reliance on the secretariat
Agricultural membership organizations also tend to over-depend on the secretariat. There is an assumption that the secretariat has all the knowledge yet the most important knowledge and experience is dispersed among individual members. This is worsened by the fact that most farmer organizations do not adequately characterize farmers by capacity, age, gender, experience, knowledge and other important parameters which should inform targeted service delivery. As a result, information is not properly characterized to meet different needs. In terms of matching services to farming regions, there is also too much generalization of information yet members in high rainfall areas have different needs and experience from those in low rainfall areas.
Lack of growth paths
In addition, most membership based organizations do not have growth paths or weaning strategies which should see members graduating into some kind of upward social mobility. New members need different knowledge and capacity from the old members. There should be a knowledge-driven graduation mechanism. Membership should not just be subscription based. In the absence of clear focus, most farmer unions have limited knowledge sharing platforms that take into account members’ different stages. Consequently, many farmers waste time in training programmes that are not relevant to their context.
Potential role in aggregating commodities
The most important role that can be fulfilled by agricultural-based membership organizations is aggregating diverse commodities and looking for markets to support economies of scale. That should be the basis of organized production and meeting supply requirements of different specific markets. When properly organized, farmer unions should be able to quickly see commodity over-supply, shortages and gluts in their members. They should also be able to build business models together with financial institutions in ways that reveal appropriate collateral. Business models should be the ones constituting collateral as opposed to individual assets. Farmer unions should also assist in national data and evidence collection through profiling each member adequately. If 70% of farmers are members of farmer unions, information on production, household consumption, sales and surplus for the market should be readily available. Simple tools for collecting data should be introduced as part of knowledge management.
Combining a membership drive with market-driven models that take into account food security could be the right approach in the new economy. Ultimately, membership organizations should be able to open local, regional and international markets. Rather than leaving everything to local authorities, farmer unions should mobilize resources for building market infrastructure that can benefit their members. That is how a warehouse receipt system can become easy to establish, with members gaining capacity to set up business models for particular commodities. Farmer unions should also be able to support commodity exchanges between their members in different regions – livestock from Gwanda with Potatoes from Nyanga.
Challenges with the proliferation of farmer unions
In Zimbabwe and other developing countries, the proliferation of farmer unions has destroyed the natural culture of communities of practice. Due to poor characterization, different classes of farmers are found in all farmer unions where benefits are not properly customized. This is mimicking the break down between retailing and wholesaling that has become common place over the past decades. Ideally, there should be a transition mechanism that allows members to graduate from one farmer organization to another or from one chamber of commerce to another at a higher level. That way, clustering becomes easy. It is counter-productive to have four or five farmer unions scrambling for members in one community. Given that members in the same community often have the same characteristics, existence of many farmer unions creates silos. In such situations, a membership focus fragments commodities and makes it difficult to aggregate commodities for the market. It also fuels disorganized production and information asymmetry. Farmer unions should work together in consolidating curricular informed by reliable farmer characterization.
Towards appropriate funding models
When agricultural membership organizations are properly organized, it should be possible to come up with appropriate funding models where funders work directly with farmer organizations in a revolving fund scheme with local banks as fund managers. Rather than the current scenario where individual farmers hassle with banks to access finance, farmer organizations should become guarantors whose role is to vet and recommend their members for funding. In the absence of diverse ways of characterizing farmers and articulating value, financial institutions fail to see the folly of using a farmer’s house worth $100 000 as collateral when the farmer only wants to plant a hectare with inputs worth less than $5000. A business plan should be enough to unlock finance as opposed to irrelevant requirements. Membership based organizations should enable financial institutions to experiment with diverse progressive models.
Turning agricultural shows into marketing shows
If African agricultural membership organizations were really strong, they would turn national agricultural shows into marketing events as opposed to events where big businesses show their hitech machinery whose price is beyond smallholder farmers. Rather than being a mere window showing what countries are producing, agricultural shows should be marketing shows for diverse buyers who can place orders. Show-casing is not enough without focusing on marketable products, volumes, capacity to supply and price negotiations where diverse buyers can bid for commodities. It does not help to show agricultural commodities when the majority of farmers are stuck with commodities and do not have money in their pockets.
African smallholder farmers have a lot of unanswered questions. Each community has lived with more questions than answers for decades. There are also numerous partial answers which do not provide a complete picture. Data can assist in pointing out trends and minimize cases where potential investors and value chain actors get lost in the weeds. To avoid the scourge of unsolicited messages, agricultural knowledge has to be demand-driven. A lot of farmer statistics and profiles should be collected and consolidated in order to improve characterization.
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