Cooperatives rock! Wait a minute, as a Kenyan who grew up in Kenya, I hesitate… a bit. Given, it was a sad state of affairs for cooperatives in Kenya and larger East Africa, as we grew up. In the late 90’s the dairy cooperative industry in Kenya, for example collapsed, taking with it millions of farmer’s shillings and crushing their dreams, their family’s futures, their life worth investments. Farmers were left at the mercies of middle-men; known best for their knack of taking the products and not paying, or inconsistencies in collection of the products. It has taken a long time for farmers in the dairy sector to regain their confidence in cooperatives.
Today is a new dawn. As we celebrate UN Day of Cooperatives, we also celebrate a new revolution in dairy cooperative development that is taking shape in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. This is a revolution championed by Heifer International through its East Africa Dairy Development Project (EADD) and embraced by farmers in selected districts of the three countries. The project funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the inspiring initiatives turning around the lives of over 176 000 farmers who are spread out in 68 innovative, value-added cooperatives partnering with EADD in the three countries. Farmers like Eliud Wanderi, 35, who today milks over 100 litres of milk from five Friesian dairy cows and makes a $900 every month. Five years ago, Eliud had one cow that produced 5 litres of milk at its best. On average, today, he supplies 110 litres of milk daily to the Mweiga Cooperative Society and neighbouring schools. Eliud is just one of the 2,275 members of Mweiga Cooperative Society in Kieni West, Nyeri County, Central province of Kenya who are making millions of shillings by pooling their efforts.
Agnes Mulindwa, a mother of five from Uganda, testifies to the improvement of her life since joining a cooperative that partners with EADD. “I recently built a new three-bedroom house, and my income has grown.” Stories like these can be heard throughout most of the project areas. Both Agnes and Eliud echo the feelings of their fellow farmers that the EADD hub model, which empowers and adds value to cooperatives, has enabled them access to extension services, markets and knowledge in animal husbandry. Such services had remained inaccessible to many small holder farmers previously.
This is how the revolution begins; cooperatives like Mweiga in Kenya are given a new lease on life, or Bubusi in Uganda are strengthened by partnering with EADD. EADD facilitates them to develop milk collection centers -some with chilling facilities- that hold milk for pickup by commercial dairy processors and traders. These cooperative businesses have created market opportunities by negotiating for better contracts with formal sector processors and traders. As a result, they have earned more than $58 million in milk sales over a three-year period. Linked to 15 affiliated savings and credit cooperatives, the farmers had made dairy related investments worth more than $5 million from 2008 to 2011. In addition, the cooperatives provide comprehensive input and advisory services to farmers, including financial services, feed and fodder, extension services, health insurance for members and animal health services.
The farmers have proven that with concerted efforts, cooperatives are indeed a crucial means for poverty alleviation in Africa and other developing countries. They are milking for profits, building wealth and fostering robust health for their families as they take care of their environment. As a result of interventions, formerly quiet villages are now abuzz with economic activities as early as 2:00 a.m., as farmers awake to their milk production businesses. Women like Agnes are able to sell their milk at all times, thus provide food, school fees and clothing for their families. Young men like Eliud have found alternative source of employment through their dairy businesses, carving out a brighter future for their children; and no longer idle in towns. In fact, EADD, the success of the cooperative and the opportunities created have inspired the EADD project to roll out a strategy to further engage youth in the East Africa dairy value chain, be it in feed production, transport or value addition of milk. The beauty of it is that the value-added cooperatives create a chain reaction of economic activities in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Increasingly, farmers within these cooperatives are accessing credit from banks to improve their farms or invest in other ventures, unlike before when commercial banks were very reluctant to lend to farmers, as they were perceived to engage in farming as a way of life and not as a business.
We would then confidently say, even in an East African setting, that value-added cooperatives truly rock!