As part of NCBA CLUSA’s U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Farmer-to-Farmer Program, two U.S. cooperators recently supported the start-up of a new vanilla cooperative in Madagascar and trained 218 farmers on the cooperative business model.
Pamela Karg, a member and past president of the Cooperative Communicators Association (CCA) and veteran Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer, provided basic cooperative business training and helped mobilize farmers from six villages. Although the current government of Madagascar is ramping up efforts to promote cooperatives as viable business entities that can grow the economy and empower their members through increased incomes and access to services, Madagascar—like many other African countries—must shed its socialist past when cooperatives served as tools of the state to exert control.
Given this context, Karg focused heavily on the cooperative principles of open and voluntary membership and democratic member control. Her trainings stressed that the new cooperative should be user-owned and user-controlled, with benefits going back to the members. Karg guided discussions about forming basic bylaws and the cooperative’s structure, but it was the farmers who made the final decisions, including the decision that one third of the representatives from each village must be women.
With famers mobilized and village representatives elected and trained, Karg handed off the baton to Adam Schwartz, Founder and Principal of consulting firm The Cooperative Way and board member of CDS Consulting Co-op. Schwartz, a first-time Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer, facilitated the inaugural general meeting. The farmers decided to name their cooperative Mirary Soa, which means “well wishes” in Malagasy. Based on Schwartz’s recommendations for the officer positions needed on a board of directors, the farmers elected a president, vice-president, treasurer, assistant treasurer, secretary and assistant secretary. The cooperative is already showing its commitment to gender equality, as three of the six elected officers are women.
Schwartz provided more in-depth management and leadership training for the board members and officers and helped Mirary Soa finalize its board committees. The cooperative decided to form three committees for financial management, quality improvement, and livelihood improvement with the hopes of tackling some of the most pervasive challenges for Madagascar’s vanilla farmers, including theft, premature harvesting and the predatory business practices of middlemen.
Both Karg’s and Schwartz’s training sessions were very interactive, using games, demonstrations and role playing activities to effectively convey foundational cooperative business concepts and the cooperative principles. Schwartz also shared cooperatively produced snacks, such as Welch’s fruit roll ups and Equal Exchange chocolates. Equal Exchange products highlight their farmers by including photos and personal success stories, so this gave Mirary Soa farmers the opportunity to see examples of how cooperatives in the U.S. market and package their products and how farmers in other countries benefit from membership in cooperatives.
It’s clear that this volunteer experience has deepened Schwartz’s commitment to the cooperative movement. At a recent visit to the NCBA CLUSA office he said, “I believe the co-op model is the best business model on earth, and I wanted to test it in another culture. Now, I believe in it more than ever.” The cooperative business model and the principles of cooperation transcend culture and geography, even in remote villages in Madagascar.
Although this Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA)-led Farmer-to-Farmer project is coming to a close with only two volunteer assignments remaining, NCBA CLUSA will continue working with Mirary Soa Cooperative through its East Africa Trade and Investment Hub grant.
If you are interested in volunteering with NCBA CLUSA on another Farmer-to-Farmer project, check out NCBA CLUSA’s volunteer webpage.