Mburia: My long career in the cooperative movement


In his lifetime, Symon Mburia has taken a leading role in transforming the co-operative movement in the country. He has taken part in drafting and formulating major polices governing the co-operative movement, and also ensuring that the co-operative movement is managed professionally through his leadership in the newly formed Kenya Society of Professional Co-operators (KSPC) which is an industry-led initiative to promote professionalism, co-operative philosophy and practice in the co-operative movement.
Mburia, who currently acts as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Kenya Society of Professional Co-operators (KSPC, talked to ROY HEZRON on his lifetime career in the co-operative movement and more about the newly formed KSPC.

Who is Symon Mburia?
I am a career co-operator working for the State Department for Cooperatives (SDC) as an Assistant Commissioner for Co-operative Development. Currently, however, I have been deployed by SDC to support the capacity of KSPC as Acting Chief Executive Officer.

I joined Government service in 1993 and posted in the then Tharaka Nithi District. Later I worked in Meru, Mwingi (currently a sub county in Kitui), Embu and thereafter Nairobi (National Government) where am still based.
I played a major role in the transformation of Meru South Union, banking section, into a rural Savings and Credit Co-operative and thereafter Meru Union into various entities (Capital Sacco, Meru Dairy, Meru Coffee Union and Meru Multipurpose Cooperative).
This was meant to safeguard members’ funds and also ensure profitability. I also pride myself in having been a leader in a team that revived and turned around Embu Farmers SACCO (Currently Nawiri).
I was also involved in the development of the Concept, promotion and Launch of the first Diaspora Cooperatives in Atlanta- United States (US Diaspora Sacco) and United Kingdom (Kenya-UK Diaspora SACCOs).

Give us a feel of how your education travails entail.

I hold A Bachelor of Commerce (Hons) from the University of Nairobi, MSc Entrepreneurship from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and a Certificate in Public Policy from Strathmore University Business School.
I also have undergone training on Multi-stakeholder Processes and Social Learning at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and Rural and Community Development training programmes in Israel, Thailand and Malaysia.
For those who are hearing KSPC for the first time, what is it and briefly how did it start and where is it currently?
The National Co-operative Policy identifies professionalism as a concern that requires to be addressed to ensure sustainable growth of co-operatives. Incidences of poor governance and unprofessional practices continue to be reported from some co-operatives, seriously denting the image of the entire co-operative sector.
Weak governance is characterized by ineffective leadership, micro-management of co-operative societies by the boards of directors, unethical business practices, and inadequate application of good financial management and lack of effective member participation.
Analysis of the current situation depicts a sector that has been infiltrated by all manner of “consultants”, many of whom have no basic understanding of the co-operative model, its philosophy, values and practice.
Though the Government of Kenya has developed various institutional and regulatory mechanisms to promote professionalism and good governance, which include establishment of Ethics Commission for Co-operatives (ECCOs), an industry-based remedy has been identified as a better option.
Kenya Society of Professional Co-operators (KSPC) is therefore an industry-led initiative to promote professionalism, co-operative philosophy and practice in the co-operative movement. The professional organization was registered in the year 2017 under the Registrar of Societies (Not Commissioner for Co-operatives) as a non-profit making member-based organization.
The specific Objectives of KSPC is to promote the co-operative management as a profession, register persons who meet the required professional and ethical standards and issue Certificates, establish, publish, monitor standards of professional competence and practice amongst members, and promote research in co-operative management practice and related matters.
We also publish books, periodicals, journals and articles on co-operatives, as well as provide medium of communication and exchange of professional information and Knowledge. Networking with related regional and international organizations to promote progressive professionalism in the movement is another core role.
Besides prescribing tests of competency deemed appropriate to qualify for membership and certification by the society, the body also regulates the practice, competence and professional conduct of co-operative professionals through member certification.
We also promote and protect the welfare and interest of members, inter-professional collaboration with other professional organizations through the Kenya national Qualification Authority, and carry out any other actions allowable by law or under the KSPC Act-which is not yet in place but expected to be forwarded to Parliament.

Who runs the organization?
The organization was launched in October 2018. Immediately after the launch, KSPC embarked on member recruitment drive and held its first Annual general meeting (AGM) in November 2018.
KSPC is led by a council of nine persons under the chairmanship of Prof. Esther Gicheru, OGW. Other members of the board include Mrs Teresa Mutegi (vice Chair) Richard Nyakenogo (Treasurer) and Steven Otieno (Secretary). These are the members supporting the designations: Dr. Nelson Kuria, OGW , Dr. Moses Gweyi , Mr. Vincent Marangu , Mr. Francis Kamande , and Mr. Richard Nyaanga.
Members of KSPC will among others benefit from certification and licensing, regular subsidizing of member capacity development (CDP) activities, advancement of members’ interests, knowledge sharing through publications and networking forums, and professional protection.

What achievements have you personally realised at Kenya Society of Professional Co-operators since you took over as acting Chief Executive Officer?
The main reason why the State Department for Cooperatives deployed me at the KSPC was to provide leadership and facilitate the development of basic structures and policies as well as raising the resources necessary for the growth and development of the organisation.
Remember that KSPC, being a budding organisation, had no resources to recruit personnel. Since I took over in January 2020, we have made tremendous achievements which include development of a five years’ strategic plan, and review of Certified Cooperative Professional (CCOP) examination curriculum.
With concurrence from the Kenya National Qualifications Authority (KNQA), have we established a partnership with Kenya Accountants and Secretaries Examination Board (KASNEB) to administer Certified Cooperative Professional (CCOP) Exams. Registration for the CCOP Certification programme is now open to any willing person. Once KSPC builds the required capacity then it will take up this role.
Along the way, we have developed various policies that include Member Recruitment Policy, Examination Policy Manual, and accredited various training institutions to train on the CCOP programme examinable by KASNEB. We have also developed a draft KSPC Act which is awaiting final stakeholder validation and enactment. In addition, KSPC now has various, which include the Registration Board and the Research and Curriculum Board.
Other achievements include holding AGM as required, organizing various leaders’ conferences and meetings to sensitise the movement on the existence and benefits of KSPC, carrying out various professional development activities, Webinars and workshops, and to seeking common professional approaches to common challenges.

What are the secrets behind the success/achievements?
Bringing up a new organisation has got its challenges, but teamwork, support from various individuals, organisations and the cooperative movement was invaluable towards surpassing these challenges. My main approach to ensure success was to work very closely with the Board of Directors to tap their knowledge and experience.
Finally, my vast knowledge and experience with the cooperative movement and the networks that I have established since 1993 was a major strength.

What challenges have you encountered and how did you handle them?
The biggest challenge was Covid-19 pandemic. You can observe its on already established organisations and imagine those effects on an organisation that was undergoing formative phases like KSPC. I may not want to classify inadequate resources as a challenge since that one is countered in our membership strengths.

What are the immediate planned activities / priorities by the society moving forward?
At KSPC we operate with an annual workplan as a tactical basis of implementing our general strategy which also feeds into our budget. Once the audit is complete we are duty bound to present the same in the Annual General Meeting.
KSPC will hold the board elections during the AGM. We also plan to convene three leaders’ conferences in three regions. Quarterly member development activities will also be held which will earn members the necessary CDPs for growth through their participation. In October we have organised to host the first Regional Cooperative Impact Conference.

Have you offered any benchmarking platform for cooperative movement and leaders to date?
One of the mandates of KSPC is professional development for our members. This mandate is driven through the Cooperative Academy which is the capacity development wing of KSPC. The academy identifies issues of common interest to our members and seeks a common approach to address them.
KSPC engaged in several member development activities in the just concluded year. We had a leaders’ conference for the Nairobi region at the beginning of the year. Later we organised a compliance workshop to address issues regarding compliance with UFAA regulations and lastly closed the year with a round table talk on tactics to address mental health in our respective workplaces as professionals.

What is the society’s plan in the next five years from now?
KSPC is guided by a strategic plan targeting the realisation of our vision. We envision to enhance member and student recruitment and professional services, establish sound governance and sustainable human resource capacity, build sustainable financial resource base, brand KSPC and enhance its visibility, formulate and operationalize legal instruments, establish KSPC Examination Board, develop physical and ICT infrastructure, promote research, innovation and publication for dissemination of professional knowledge; outreach to strategic partners, and strengthen KSPC Cooperative Academy.

What are your feelings about the cooperative movement in Kenya?
To address this question exhaustively would require specific comments for each cooperative sector, that is, agriculture, finance, Housing, consumer, etcetera, but let me be general.
In terms of growth and development, the financial sector (Saccos, Cooperative Bank, CIC Ltd and KUSCCO) are doing well. Other sectors like agriculture and housing report mixed performance.
Generally, I feel that for the last 10 years, Co-operatives have taken certain actions and policies that may haunt them in the coming future or change completely the face, character and philosophy of cooperatives.
The idea of opening the common bond to allow a wide spectrum of members is already being felt with loan default rates rising. To mitigate this, Cooperatives have resorted to requiring other forms of collateral other than group guarantees. The loan recovery methods are also becoming harsher by use of debt collectors and auctioneers.
If we reflect back the reasons why cooperatives came up in the first place is because other financiers were using these same methods and in essence disenfranchising the poor and vulnerable.
There is a craze within the financial sector to pay the highest dividends possible. The original model for Saccos was to provide credit at the lowest cost. Initially it was controlled by the commissioner at 1 percent per month on reducing balance, just to meet administrative costs.
In case of any residue, the same was distributed to the members. When the 1 percent interest charged resulted in huge surpluses, the management practice would be to reduce the interest to some optimal level where it balanced off the administrative expenses.
Any form of capital investments was purely financed through share subscriptions. The push for super dividends today demand for raising of interest rates to raise revenues.
In a nutshell Saccos are attracting special investors pushing out ordinary members who started the Saccos.
In the agricultural sector, especially coffee, the policy idea of delinking a member from the cooperatives seems not to work. Circumventing the management of the cooperative society in service provision to the member will just not do.
How do you balance between family and work?
I target to maximise on the weekdays to reserve weekends, especially Sundays. I recall a colleague once advised me that in order to avoid family conflicts, I should desist from carrying office work to the house. I have always tried to follow this advice although sometimes it becomes difficult.
Who is your role model in the co-operative sector?
During my 28 years working career as a cooperative practitioner, I have interacted with many people. During my youth my character was shaped by Mr. Mbogori Njeru, who was my senior in the then Meru South District but today retired in Embu County.
Later in my career the Late Hon (Dr) Joseph William Nthigah Nyagah and Dr. Nelson Kuria became the main source of my inspiration. These gentlemen had one thing in common; they religiously believed in the power of co-operatives in transforming lives of Kenyans and continued to selflessly practice the same.
How do you utilise your free time?
Most of my free time is spent with my family. However, I take time to promote my local church activities at St. Francis of Assisi, Gitwe Catholic Church in Kutus, especially the choir in which I am their patron. We have recently recorded and released an album.
Iam also the chair of the Church Development Committee. I also coordinate the Catholic Men Association (CMA) activities in the church. Outside church activities I have organised my fellow men in my rural village into an investment group through which we undertake personal and group investments.
In addition, I dedicate time on education whereby I serve as the chair of the Board of Management of Gitwe Secondary School. I ensure I participate in my rural community social activities. Lastly am writing a book on the cooperative movement which I hope to publish soon.

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