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The power of co-operatives

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‘To know and not to act is not to know’. This Chinese proverb relates to the predicament in which Lesotho finds itself presently. Lesotho has failed to learn from its mistakes and experiences.

Despite numerous Ministry of Economic Planning’s Five-Year National Development Plans, Lesotho hovers in the doldrums of poverty. Successful innovation depends on developing and integrating new knowledge in the innovation process.

Pointing fingers does not lead to solutions. Lesotho must focus its energies on developing endeavours that advance the livelihoods of its citizenry. For example, a government adviser suggests that Lesotho must establish a development bank.

The development bank would enable Basotho to participate in driving new investments. But we all know that Lesotho had development banks before, the likes of Lesotho Bank and Agricultural Bank. The government he advises shut down both banks.

Here, I want to pursue an idea that I brought up in the article of 18 – 24 August 2022 titled: ‘Pushing a community-based economy.’ I suggested that communities consider establishing agricultural cooperatives (co-ops) as a way toward economic emancipation.

This article reiterates the same approach. Lesotho must conquer the triple tragedy of hunger, poverty and unemployment by reverting to the basics.

Lesotho’s economic solutions lie with Basotho’s traditional communal farming practices.

So, co-ops are a solution to Lesotho’s food security crisis and can ensure that Basotho Prosper. They will ensure food and employment security for the communities they will serve. I will provide a deeper understanding of how Basotho may benefit from co-ops.

According to a local scholar, Mbata, about 13% of land in Lesotho is arable. However, Mbata asserts that during the 1920s, Lesotho’s food production began declining till 1930 when the country became a net importer of food grains.

Urbanisation and migrant labour came at acost to farming in Lesotho. Today, capable men leave their fields and flock to Maseru urban in search of work. The closure of mines in South Africa worsened the already awkward predicament.

Unemployment grew. In the meantime, people continue to migrate to cities leaving their fields unattended.

I will use the importation of pork to highlight Lesotho’s food shortage plight. Big retail businesses do not buy pork from Basotho piggery farmers because there is no hygienic slaughtering facility.

Moreover, the farmers do not possess the farming management technological know-how. Therefore, these shortcomings compromise the quality of local pork.

Lesotho’s annual pork import was 7 133 tonnes in 2020. According to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, the imports were worth US$3.1 million. There is a need to reform agriculture and food production in Lesotho.

First, I will discuss the principle that grounds cooperatives; namely crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is not a new concept to Basotho.

Basotho, who have one goal come together to form groups like burial societies, stokvels and cooperatives. Organisations such as churches or schools use concerts as functions for raising funds.

In 2006 the Oxford English Dictionary coined this new term, ‘crowdfunding’. ‘Crowdfunding’ is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising money from a large number of people who each contribute a relatively small amount, typically via the internet.

Musicians, filmmakers and artistes successfully raised funds and fostered awareness through this initiative. Crowdfunding established the Lesotho Bank. It enables the masses to raise funds as a collective. As an individual, these people would not raise enough funds. Crowdfunding may work as a revenue stream for the individual.

Two Basotho proverbs echo this phenomenon. One proverb reads, ‘lets’oele le beta poho,’ meaning: working together gives a group power to get the job done quickly. The other reads: ‘ntja-peli ha e hloloe ke sebata’, meaning: two or more people conquer impossible situations.

This article focuses on a certain form of crowdfunding, agricultural cooperatives. Co-ops facilitate business access for ordinary field owners, and small-scale farmers make inputs that could promote their development.

For example, while individual smallholder farmers may not access bank funding, co-ops may enable them to bargain as a collective. In so doing, the farmers access facilities they would otherwise not be able to. Co-ops help reduce dependence on foreign investment.

Sikwela, Fuyane and Mushunje assessed the probability for South African agricultural cooperatives to engage in collective marketing activities over time, given market and institutional characteristics.

They observed that smallholder farmers benefit from market-oriented agriculture when they get support from various institutions and operate in organised groups such as co-ops.

Market access is critical to smallholder farming.

Market access improves productivity of subsistence agriculture.

First, it alleviates food deficiency at the household level of the rural population. Secondly, it improves the incomes of farmers. Co-ops’ collective action reduces transaction costs and boosts the bargaining power of farmers concerning markets.

Smallholder farmers are subsistence farmers. Subsistence farming is predominant in Lesotho.

Cooperatives, being a collective group, have the potential to penetrate high-value markets or better-paying markets to improve their living standards. Co-ops are the best way of converting employees and buyers into business owners through shareholding.

The concept of ‘cooperatives’ is not new to Basotho. Records show that co-ops existed in Lesotho by 1931.

However, they experienced avalanches of managerial problems. There was no regulatory framework for their operations.

By 1933, co-ops thrived through promotion and information sharing. In 2019, Lesotho had 99 co-ops with 9 092 members and 320 employees.

But Noko blames the demise of the co-op movement in Lesotho on the lack of supportive legislation and excessive regulation.

First, let us understand the legislative imperatives of co-ops in Lesotho.

Although 1947 saw the enactment of their formal registration, the Cooperative Society Act of 2000 and the Cooperatives Societies (Amendment) Act of 2014 unified the legal regime for different kinds of co-ops.

The Cooperatives Societies Act, 2000 describes Cooperative Societies as private business organisations of exceptional nature. Cooperatives register under this act and operate according to their listed principles and practices (Sic).

Lesotho participates in International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) initiatives. Accordingly, ICA brings together co-op organisations worldwide. It promotes and enhances collaborations in regions.

The Cooperative College actively participated in these initiatives. But its closure is an example of Lesotho scoring its own goals against itself.

ICA defines cooperatives as autonomous associations of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled model. Gordon-Nembhard explains that members of co-ops meet their needs and earn returns on their investments.

Hence, co-ops fill market failures ignored by private businesses and governments ignore. These gaps include affordable housing, healthy organic food, credit and banking services.

Co-ops are similar to Anderson’s communities in that they are oriented toward solving their problems. Co-ops aggregate communities’ resources and capital into economic units overcoming historical barriers to development.

Co-ops increase economic activities in communities. For instance, they contribute to the national fiscus through taxes and job creation.

Noko analysed Lesotho’s legal framework for co-ops in 2021. According to Noko, co-ops do not feature in Lesotho’s Constitution. Nonetheless, the constitution provides for and protects citizens’ rights to free association.

Noko’s analysis concluded that the cooperative movement experienced setbacks for many years because of unsupportive legislation and excessive regulation. He suggested areas that need urgent attention by legislation if cooperatives are to flourish in Lesotho.

On the other hand, a supportive regulation may allow their development. Here, I can cite two examples. King and Ortmann reported that the South African government committed to providing a supportive legal environment for co-ops.

Again, according to Gordon-Nembhard, the USA’s co-ops enjoy enabling conditions. Federal and state agencies support co-op development.

As a result, co-op start-up costs are low. Non-governmental financial institutions like co-op banks provide low-cost loans to co-ops. These banks function to assist co-op organisations.

Agricultural co-ops are critical to economic empowerment and poverty eradication. Studies in the developing world show that co-op societies play an important role in developing and enhancing the economic conditions for the unemployed educated youth.

Co-ops are critical in developing and improving economic conditions for unemployed educated youth by providing work. So, they help level the playing field for the privileged ‘haves’ and the underprivileged.

They are crucial in promoting economic and social development, creating employment and generating income. In doing so, they will economically empower the marginalised poor and eradicate poverty.

In the article: ‘Pushing a community-based economy’, I interrogated Anderson’s definition of a community. Anderson says a community is the ability to pull resources and power to produce and distribute consumption in a way that creates goods and wealth under its control.

But, Gordon-Nembhard showed that communities’ co-ops combine consumers with owners and sellers in democratic structures. So, co-ops are collective problem solvers. Their purpose is to meet members’ needs and enable them to earn returns on investments. In other words, co-ops will empower communities to develop independent sustainable economies.

Alternatively, co-ops are businesses where some or all the employees are owners.

Members produce and, or sell different goods and services and share profits. Worker members play direct roles in decision-making. For instance, workers participate in setting hours of operation and decide membership eligibility criteria.

The two South African studies on co-ops made profound findings. They found that co-ops supported by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have a longer life span than government-controlled co-ops. Gordon-Nembhard reported similar results in the US.

She also found out that community co-ops stay longer. According to her study, community ownership of co-ops promotes community growth.

Consequently, I propose a co-ops model that brings farmers and business owners together. They will collectively buy goods and services that would otherwise be too costly for an individual business owner to buy alone.

Thus, they will eliminate the middleman. Co-op businesses serve members’ marketing, processing and purchasing needs.

I propose forming a co-op model comprising three subsidiaries. The first arm will be the farmers’ co-op.

The primary purpose of the farmers’ co-op will be food production. To achieve this function, the Farmers Co-op will need to undertake the production, marketing and processing of agricultural products.

The farmers’ co-op will seek to produce crop and meat products. Their goals will include supplying meat produce that meets world standards in terms of slaughtering and quality control.

The long-term goal of the farmers’ co-op will be to cut food imports into Lesotho.

Presently many fields lie fallow, with able people migrating to towns looking for jobs. Farmers’ co-ops must invite the owners of these fields to join. Simultaneously, they must negotiate with the owners to have their fields surveyed to establish their surface areas.

The co-op with the field owners must cultivate all the fields. For the fields whose owners cannot till, the co-op must negotiate contracts for block farming. Farmers’ co-op will arrange favourable prices directly with the food market, cutting the middleman.

With time, the farmers’ co-op will acquire, let, sell or otherwise supply requisites necessary for farming operations.

It will ensure that members of the co-op and communities will benefit from its activities. Members must benefit from all proceeds of the food supply chain.

The second arm will be the food co-op. It will focus on providing local, organic, free-range, natural and healthy foods to all the members and surrounding communities. Subsequently, the food co-op will be the sole supplier of food products produced and processed by our farmer members.

In this way, they will eliminate the middleman in the food supply chain and give members affordable fresh food direct from the farm.

The food co-op will include food processing. For instance, the food co-op will process pork meat into polony, ham, etc. The food co-op must work directly with the farmers for their products.

The third and last arm of the co-op model will focus on capacity building and human development. I call this arm the Academy.

The Academy will provide academic and training services for the co-op. The Academy will offer training and short-courses in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and the Ministry of Education and Training.

So I suggest the co-op model run under the stewardship of an elected board. The co-op membership must be open to people over the age of 18-years. People must apply for membership. The 2000 Act mandates that the minimum number of members in a co-op is ten.

Moreover, the co-op must agree on joining and membership fees. Members have the right to do business with or through the co-op.

Each member carries one vote in the co-op. The co-op shares will all be of the same class, ranking and nominal value. Members may apply for additional shares from the co-op.

In summary, this article scans the agricultural demise of Lesotho and suggests an approach to follow. I cite the pork import to concretise Lesotho’s food shortage plight. Lesotho is a net importer of grain crops.

I argue for a community-level approach. The solution to Lesotho’s economic problem lies with Basotho and its communal farming tradition. Accordingly, I propose that communities must establish cooperative enterprises.

Co-ops have existed in Lesotho from the second decade of the 20th century. However, they experienced numerous setbacks. These includes unsupportive legislature and excessive regulation.

Evidence from other countries show that supportive legislation enables greater co-op development.

These studies reveal that community-owned cooperatives are successful. They help ordinary people access banking services. Also, they help communities grow. At the same time, co-op members will participate in the economy and lead quality lives.

Thus, I propose establishing a three-pronged co-op model. The first is the farmers’ co-op.

This co-op’s primary task is fresh food production. They ensure that communities benefit from their activities.

The second arm is the food co-op. The food co-op shall negotiate prices directly with farmers.

So the co-op will generate affordable prices for the communities they serve by eliminating the middleman from the supply chain. Also, they will process the meat into other products.

The third and last arm is the Academy. The Academy will be responsible for human development and cutting-edge information sharing.

They will ensure that the co-op model remains on top of innovations in the food production industry.

In conclusion, our ailing economy adversely impacts economic development aggravating the triple tragedy of hunger, poverty and unemployment.

Thus, many citizens cannot participate in economic activities. Moreover, the low agricultural production and excessive food import exacerbate the awkward predicament. Community-owned cooperatives are an obvious solution. The country’s economic redemption lies firmly with Basotho communities.

Dr Tholang Maqutu

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Insight

We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Insight

Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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