Understanding rural co-operative resilience

By: Alexander Borda-Rodriguez, Hazel Johnson, Linda Shaw, Sara Vicari
Funding Body - Leverhulme Trust
Funding amount - £113,257/-
Funding period - Monday 01 October 2012 to Monday 30 September 2013

The research project explores whether and in what ways co-operatives are resilient social and economic organisations. By investigating the distinctive nature of the co-operative model, the project aims to provide insights on limiting and enabling factors that might be required for the development of resilience at the level of co-operatives.

The project focuses on Malawi where co-operatives are re-emerging and gradually becoming a force for development. With more than 400 registered co-operatives in the country, the project will explore in detail three case studies, 1) Mzuzu Coffee Planters Co-operative Union, 2) Comsip Co-operative Union and 3) Timber Millers Co-operative Union.

The research project aims to understand whether and how co-operative resilience is based on:

  1. the values and principles shared by co-operators – whether and how they support trust-building, social inclusion, equity and cohesion, as well as growth of members and income;
  2. the development of collective capacities and skill areas;
  3. the development of expanded market networks, leading to the capacity to innovate.

These aspects will be researched through a series of sub-questions, using interviews, focus group discussions, examining co-operative records such as accounts, technical documents and publications, as well as observing events and meetings. A range of informants will be approached, from villages, unions, government, buyers of produce, and support organisations.

Fieldwork in Malawi, research findings and dissemination.

Dr Alexander Borda-Rodriguez, Research Associate at the Open University and Dr Sara Vicari, Research Associate at the Co-operative College have carried out fieldwork in Malawi between February 7 and March 25.

The fieldwork aimed to achieve both: investigate challenges, limitations and the potential/strengths of the Malawian co-operative movement, and establish the extent to which these factors are conducive to co-operative resilience. The fieldwork was designed on the basis of the theoretical framework produced by Sara and Alex in the first quarter of the project, published in the Innovation, Knowledge and Development working paper series  in mid-February.

The fieldwork focused on four case studies 1) Mzuzu Coffee Planters Co-operative Union , 2) Timber Millers Co-operative Union , 3) COMSIP  (Community Savings and Investment Promotion) Co-operative Union, 4) MUSCCO  (Malawian Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives). These four case studies are the largest co-operative unions in Malawi.
During the fieldwork, Alex and Sara spent the first week in the capital city, interviewing key informants from the Department of Co-operatives (Ministry of Industry and Trade); international institutions and development agencies (FAO, Land O’ Lakes and JICA); externally-funded national projects (JICA’s ‘One Village One Product Project’, World Bank/IFAD’s ‘Irrigation Rural Livelihoods & Agricultural Development’ project, and the Scottish government-funded ‘Supporting Co-operatives in Malawi’ project, run by the UK Co-operative College) and national development associations (Farmers Union of Malawi and the National Association of Smallholder Farmers).

Between February 17 and March 22, Alex and Sara stayed in Mzuzu, in the northern region of the country, and in Lilongwe, carrying out focus groups and interviews with members, board members and managers of both unions and affiliated primary co-operatives. The fieldwork would have not been possible without the  support of John Mulangeni (project co-ordinator of the ‘Supporting co-operatives in Malawi’) and Annie Nyirenda and Mudith Chisiye, project officers for the Northern and Central regions.

The fieldwork was successful, participants at all levels were able to reflect and critically assess the performance of their respective co-operatives as well as the overall co-operative movement in the country. Fieldwork data was grouped in five categories 1) membership, 2) networks, 3) collective skills, 4) innovation and 5) role of government.  The fieldwork data provided insights to understand how the Malawian co-operative movement has been able to move forward while facing challenges and limitations since its inception back in the early 1900’s.

Fieldwork data is in the process of being analysed. Some preliminary findings show that the role of women is fundamentally important for co-operative resilience. Co-operative unions are promoting the participation of women as they have proven to be early adopters of technology, committed, loyal and more effective at handling scarce financial resources. Other findings illustrate how co-operatives are diversifying their sources of income in order to depend less on donors. This process has resulted in the development of innovative strategies such as organic production, fair trade certification, crop diversification and promotion of youth and women. Preliminary findings have been presented at the ‘Cooperatives During Crisis and Post-Crisis Period’ conference that took place between June 12th – 15th 2013 at the European University Cyprus. Consolidated research findings will also be presented at the ‘6th Annual Conference for the Academy of Innovation and Entrepreneurship ’ at Oxford University between August 29th – 30th.

For information about the Open University and Co-operative College research project ‘Understanding co-operative resilience. The case of Malawi’, please contact Dr Alexander Borda-Rodriguez  at A.Borda-Rodriguez@open.ac.uk and Dr Sara Vicari at sara.vicari@co-op.ac.uk.

Presentations & Events

Conference: 4th CIRIEC International Research Conference on Social Economy, 24 - 26 October 2013

Website: http://www.ciriec-ua-conference.org/

Title of presentation: Co-operative movement in Malawi: challenges and prospects

Abstract: African co-operatives have experienced a renaissance since the 1990s. While facing a number of limitations and constraints, they are increasingly improving the well-being of the members. This paper seeks to establish 1) the extent to which co-operatives are resilient socio-economic organisations and 2) what factors are conducive to the development of their resilience. These questions are explored in the context of the Malawian co-operative movement which has been barely studied. This paper is the first to analyse four of the biggest co-operative unions in the country. The analyses is guided by a ‘framework for co-operative resilience’ developed by the authors. The paper argues that co-operative resilience is a long term processes that requires a high degree of reflexive behaviour and commitment of members, managers, leaders, inclusion of women and the establishment of strategic national and international partnerships.


Research finding dissemination event in Malawi September 4th 2013

The research project team has held a research findings dissemination event on September 4th 2013 at the Segecoa Golden peacock Hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi. Attendees included representatives from the government, co-operative leaders, co-operative union managers, co-operative members and representatives from organisations that work with Malawian co-operatives. The event culminated with the elaboration of an action plan towards the establishment of the first co-operative apex organisation in the country. Photos of the event can be found here


Conference: Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Inclusive and Sustainable Development, 29-30 August 2013.

Website: http://www.tmd-oxford.org/content/aie-2013-conference-outcomes-now-online

Title of presentation: Coffee co-operatives in Malawi: building resilience through innovation

 Abstract: The paper is the first study of coffee co-operatives in Malawi, it explores how the largest coffee co-operative in Malawi has developed a resilient co-operative model able to enact innovation and improve the livelihoods of farmers. The innovations discussed in this paper include: sustainable technologies, development of market niches, women inclusion and business diversification. The paper argues that resilience and innovation are processes that can be developed in the context of the co-operative model. It also explores how this model promotes self-reliance, reflexivity and inclusion which in turn enable farmers to develop adaptive capacities.


Co-operatives United Expo, Manchester, October 2012

The research project was presented in the workshop “A good news story: co-operatives in Uganda”, which took place on 31 October 2012, in conjunction with the Co-operatives United Expo, an international event held in Manchester which brought together 10,000 co-operators from all around the world.The workshop was organised by the UK Co-operative College and the Open University together with the Uganda Co-operative Alliance.The research project was presented by Alexander Borda-Rodriguez and Sara Vicari. The other speakers were: Mr. Nimrod Wambette – Outgoing Chairman of the Uganda Co-operative Alliance (UCA) Board of Directors; Ms. Elizabeth Nsimadara – UCA Treasurer.


Cooperatives During Crisis and Post-Crisis Period, The European University Cyprus, June 2013

Alexander Borda-Rodriguez and Sara Vicari presented two papers at the conference that took place between June 12th – 15th 2013 at the European University Cyprus. The paper abstracts are as follows:

Understanding Rural Co-operative Resilience

This working paper is an output of the research project ‘Understanding Rural Co-operative Resilience: a pilot study’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust from October 2012 to September2013. The project is a partnership between the Open University and the Co-operative College UK, and the working paper is co-authored by a research associate at each institution. Theresearch project explores whether and in what ways co-operatives are resilient social andeconomic organisations.By investigating the distinctive nature of the co-operative model, the project aims to provide insights on limiting and enabling factors that might be required for the development of resilience at the level of co-operatives. This working paper includes a general review of the literature as well as literature on the specific case of Uganda, which has experienced a co-operative revival and has been engaging with new models of co-operative organisation

 The Malawian Co-operative Movement: Insights for Resilience

 After decades of mismanagement and government interference, co-operatives in developing countries are experiencing a renaissance more evidently in Sub-Saharan Africa. This paper explores the Malawian country from which very little is known in terms of its co-operative movement. We aim to fill this gap in the literature by analysing four of the most important co-operative unions in the country. By exploring factors such as value based membership, collective skills, co-operative networks and relations with government and donors this article establish the extent to which Malawian co-operatives can be regarded as resilient organisations. The findings outline both: 1) key challenges and limitations faced by co-operatives and 2) how co-operatives have developed a significant degree of self-reflection which has resulted in the development of innovative strategies to move forward while addressing challenges and limitations.


Alexander Borda-Rodriguez (OU)

Email: Alexander Borda-Rodriguez (The Open University)

Sara Vicari (Co-operative College)

Email:Sara Vicari (Co Op)

A.Borda-Rodriguez & S.Vicari, Cooperative Resiliance, Cyprus 2013

Thanks to everyone in DPP, you inspired me in many ways that were and will always be a reminder of how fantastic a friendly working environment and team work is even in tough times. I can never thank you enough

Vuyo Mjimba