Coops must restore sector principles to succeed, says don


Cooperatives have been urged to embrace the seven principles of the movement if they must return to the old days when they were a great success.

Prof. Esther Gicheru, Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC) at Cooperative University of Kenya (CUK), who has been in the cooperative industry for almost a half a century, has said the only way the rich sector can thrive again is to fully adhere to the 7 principles and values of cooperatives.

Speaking exclusively to Sacco Review in a recent interview, she said the Kenyan problem is that the sector forgot its own identity and started working like any other institution, unlike the practice elsewhere around the globe.

“We have to revisit our cooperative values and principles and work as unique institutions; of which we are,” said Prof. Gicheru.

The 7 principles are Voluntary and Open Membership, Democratic Member Control, Members’ Economic Participation, Autonomy and Independence, Education, Training and Information, Cooperation among Cooperatives, and Concern for Community. 

She said adhering to these principles will help to streamline activities, especially in the agricultural sector, where farmers can get advances to pay fees for their children to avoid selling produce to middlemen and brokers in desperation.

Having sat in various Agricultural boards while still at the ministry, Prof Gicheru said during that time, boards were functioning effectively and serving farmers well.

She said the 1960s cooperatives operated under the Commissioner for Co-operative Development (CCD); and so they never looked at themselves as private institutions that are owned by members.

She blames Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and liberalization of the 1990s that were meant to make cooperatives member-owned, but negatively affected Kenyan societies as they were done in a rush.

What later followed the SAPs was a breakdown of cooperatives, especially the Agricultural ones.

 “You would even find situations where many of them were sub-divided. Remember those days, coffee cooperatives used to be large. A whole of a division would have only one cooperative society and because of economies of scale, it was working very well,” said Gicheru.

“When liberalization came, the commissioner now came out as an observer as people went and sub-divided … everybody wanted to become chairman. There was no longer what we know as economies of scale,” she added.

According to the distinguished scholar, currently, the government is coming back to rehabilitate the movement, more so the dairy, coffee and even maize sub-sectors.

“Maize cooperatives in fact are no longer there. Maize is now dominated by middlemen as we speak. Now the farmers are at the mercy of those middlemen,” lamented Prof. Gicheru.

Giving her own experience while working in the then Ministry of Co-operative Development between 1976 and 1988, she said challenges of governance then were resolved through capacity building.

Prof. Gicheru worked under the Rural Credit Department, tasked with approving and giving loans to cooperatives, majority of which were agricultural.

She pointed out that giving farmers loans in kind was one way of avoiding situations where farmers take money and fail to use it for the intended purposes.

Most of her sentiments concur with Prof. Fredrick Wanyama’s in one of his papers presented at the First International Ciriec Social Economy Conference on Strengthening and Building Communities, who stated that up to the mid-1990s, a fundamental character of the Kenyan cooperative movement was its close association with the state to the point of developing a dependent relationship.

Prof. Wanyama noted that at independence, the new government viewed cooperatives as mechanisms for achieving its ends rather than those of members.  

In Prof. Wanyama’s perspective, the government had to ensure the emergence of strong, viable and efficient co-operatives by directing the formation and management of these organizations from above.

This state-controlled promotion of cooperative development was formalized by the introduction of a single legal framework for all types of cooperatives in 1966 via The Co-operative Societies Act, Cap. 490.

By Roy Hezron

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