Cooperating out of poverty: Cooperative reform in Tanzania

African cooperatives are recreating themselves through member empowerment and increased commercial viability. British journalist Andrew Bibby reports from the United Republic of Tanzania where cooperatives are adopting a new approach to sustainability.

MAMSERA, Tanzania – In the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, the single-storey building housing the Mamsera Rural Cooperative Society is at the heart of community life in this coffee-growing village. Here, villagers bring their harvest of coffee beans to be weighed and graded and then taken down the unmade road to the town of Moshi, where the coffee auctions take place.

Inside the coop's office, Mr Camili Mariki, the assistant secretary, points to his mobile phone which, he explains, keeps him in touch with current coffee prices at the market. It enables him and his colleagues to try to ensure that the village's coffee beans are taken to market at the best possible time. Typically, coffee will fetch between 1,500 and 2,000 Tanzanian shillings a kilo (around US$1.50), though the coop has on occasion received more than US$2 a kilo. Current prices are chalked up each day on the large blackboard outside the coop building for all to see.

Mamsera's cooperative has about 1,100 members who meet once a year, usually in March or April, to discuss the budget for the year ahead and to agree the mark-up the coop will take to cover its overheads. The day-to-day management is delegated to an elected nine-person Board, who in turn oversee the work of the five employees.

"We're standing on our own feet," says Mr Mariki with pride, adding that the coop has built up over 30 million shillings ($28,000) in bank deposits. The strength of the enterprise means that Mamsera's coop can expand its horizons: one idea currently being discussed is to sell coffee direct to the European market, eliminating some of the costs involved in selling through Moshi. The coop has already learned that it has to be ready to adapt. Coffee production has declined in recent years, and to compensate the coop has diversified its activities by beginning a small-scale brick manufacture business. The coop also operates two local shops as well as acting as agent for agricultural fertilizers, pesticides and seeds.

A model of reform

It's a success story which unfortunately is not universally the case in Tanzania. "Some neighbouring cooperative societies have nearly collapsed," Mr Mariki says, pointing to the financial problems they have suffered from being over-dependent on a single primary crop.

Tanzania's cooperatives have a long and proud history which goes back to the early 1930s. In the first decade of independence, the movement was particularly strong, with a complex structure of primary coops, secondary coop organizations and a national cooperative bank. Since then, however, the story has been less happy. For a period, coops became a tool for top-down governmental policies and were effectively integrated into state structures. By the time trade liberalization was introduced in the 1990s, the cooperative movement had become unresponsive to its members' needs and was unprepared for competition from the private sector.

A turning point came in the year 2000, when a special Commission was established by the then Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa to investigate what could be done to rejuvenate the country's cooperative sector. The Commission was blunt in its critique of the movement, which it said suffered from a lack of capital, unwieldy structures and problems with poor leadership, misappropriation and theft.

Since then, a series of concerted steps have been taken to overcome this legacy. New coop legislation, which among other things aims to strengthen member participation and democracy, was passed in 2003, whilst last year the government approved an overarching initiative, the Cooperative Reform and Modernization Programme (CRMP). Designed with assistance from the ILO, the CRMP has, in its own words, the objective of a "comprehensive transformation of Cooperatives, to become organizations which are member owned and controlled, competitive, viable, sustainable and with capacity for fulfilling members' economic and social needs". Member empowerment and commercial viability are seen as the two central themes of this reform agenda.

Whilst Mamsera's example demonstrates the advantages which agricultural coops can bring in rural areas, manufacturing coops are also a feature of urban areas of Tanzania. In Dar es Salaam, for example, Dasico (Dar es Salaam Small Industries Cooperative) is a thriving venture, currently with 398 members, which engages in a range of activities including carpentry, metalwork, paper bag manufacture and welding. Dasico members have access to health facilities in the workplace and the coop provides insurance protection against sickness and death.

More significant, perhaps, is the network of credit unions, known in Tanzania as Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies, SACCOs. There are about 1,400 registered SACCOs, ranging from community-based initiatives recruiting members working in the informal economy to workplace-based SACCOs. One of these is Posta na Simu, Tanzania's largest coop, which provides savings and loans services to employees of Tanzania Telecommunication Company, Tanzania Postal Company, the Postal Bank and the Communication Regulation Authority. Posta na Simu is also aware of the need for coops to adapt to changing times: with widespread redundancies a current feature of the telecoms sector, the SACCO is changing its approach so that, among other things, it can assist members who want to set up their own businesses.

Seeds of change

Implementing the Cooperative Reform and Modernization Programme, which is intended to run from 2005-2015, is an ambitious task which has already attracted some Tanzanian government funding but which will probably also require donor finance if it is to be successful. A start has been made, however, at the grassroots, in moves which aim to reinvigorate the democratic principles of cooperation.

Each coop in selected regions of the country has recently been required to call a special general meeting of members at which new Board elections take place. Candidates for these leadership positions submit themselves to their coop in an election process which is carefully monitored by Tanzania's Registrar of Cooperatives and his staff. Would-be leaders who have been associated previously with maladministration or corruption, or who possess insufficient experience and skills, are ineligible to stand.

The election process has yet to be extended to coops throughout the whole of Tanzania.

Still, Dr Anacleti Kashuliza, Registrar of Cooperatives, says the elections have acted as a clear signal both to old-guard leaders and to coop members themselves that the old ways are changing. He describes the atmosphere at one lively election meeting held recently for a coop in the Shinyanga region as typical: "1,000 coop members turned up to elect the leadership. You feel, there's something happening here," he says.

African Centres of Competence

Tanzania's cooperative reform programme reflects a wider process of reform internationally as cooperatives recreate themselves for new economic realities. Many countries have taken the opportunity in recent years to modernize the legislative structures under which cooperatives operate.

In a recent initiative the ILO has joined with the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) to launch Cooperating Out Of Poverty, the Global Co-operative Campaign Against Poverty. This step, the result of an ongoing partnership between the ILO and the ICA, aims to highlight the role which cooperatives can play in poverty reduction programmes.

In April 2006 cooperative leaders from ten African countries met in Nairobi to discuss the setting up of an Africa-wide cooperative facility, CoopAFRICA. Organized by the ICA Regional Office for Africa, it brought together representatives from across the African continent, cooperative development projects, and the ILO.

"To the surprise of many", said Jürgen Schwettmann, formerly of the ILO's Cooperative Branch, "the majority of participants were of the view that the central problem affecting cooperative development in Africa was not 'lack of resources' or 'external factors', but rather internal constraints such as the lack of organizational capacity, poor governance and insufficient voice and representation. In other words, the lack of member empowerment in its broadest sense, and at all levels, was the single most important factor."

CoopAFRICA will therefore concentrate on objectives at five levels: at the local level, to improve capacity building, strengthen the cooperative culture while observing local rules and traditions, and establish evaluation, monitoring and performance measuring systems; at the "meso" level, to strengthen organizational capacities and governance; at the national level, to strengthen the representation and voice of cooperative leaders; at the continental level, to improve organization and leadership; and at the international level, to strengthen member commitment.

In order to help it monitor progress towards these goals, CoopAFRICA has identified "centres of competence" in 15 different African countries, with each African sub-region represented in the first phase by three countries. Later on, participants agreed, CoopAFRICA should cover the entire African continent.

The ILO's Promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation, No. 193, agreed in 2002, is one of the instruments providing a global framework for reform, with its call for governments and social partners to support the development of strong, financially viable and autonomous cooperatives.

The ILO's Bureau for Workers' Activities and its Cooperative Branch have also spearheaded a unique collaboration between cooperative organizations and trade unions, through the SYNDICOOP project. This initiative has been operating in four east African countries, in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda as well as Tanzania, with the aim of improving the working and living conditions of unprotected workers in the informal economy. In Tanzania, SYNDICOOP (which brings in both the Tanzania Federation of Cooperatives and the Trade Unions' Congress of Tanzania) has helped establish a number of new credit unions (SACCOs) which draw their membership from informal economy workers.