Helping rural co-ops

Agriculture remains the main source of employment and income in rural areas, where the majority of the world’s poor and hungry people live. Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme, explains how, through its Purchase for Progress initiative, the organisation supports smallholder farmers, whose pooled resources provide them more buying and negotiating power.

Helping rural co-ops
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What is the UN World Food Programme (WFP)?
The WFP is the world’s largest hunger fighting agency. In 2011, for example, the WFP bought more than 2,4 million tons of food valued at about US$1,2 billion (about R10 billion) to feed more than 90 million hungry people worldwide. Almost two-thirds of these purchases were made in developing countries. We mostly buy from suppliers through a competitive process to ensure that the money from donors such as Italy buys as much food as possible. But in recent years, we’ve been trying new ways to buy food to see whether our large buying footprint can benefit rural farmers.

This brings us to your Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative, launched in 2008. What is its aim?
P4P helps smallholder farmers achieve better yields, reduce their losses after harvest, improve the quality of their crops and sell to reliable buyers for a fair price.

Ertharin Cousin

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How is this achieved?
Through P4P, co-operatives receive support from WFP and more than 200 partner organisations. We help them to create or improve storage facilities and handle their grain after harvest. Co-op members also receive training in literacy and business management – aspects such as how to strengthen their organisation, keep records and negotiate with potential buyers.
For example, Angela Marko Malle, a member of a P4P co-op in Tanzania says the benefits go beyond the extra money she’s earning. Thanks to the training sessions, she’s learnt how to increase quality, to store her maize properly, avoid post-harvest losses, and to keep records and work together with the other members of her group.

According to the 2010-2011 State of Food and Agriculture Report, women make up, on average, 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. Would it be right to say they’re very important to P4P?
Indeed. To increase the well-being of women engaged in smallholder farming, P4P is working with women-only co-operatives and
is encouraging mixed co-operatives to bring in more women, especially in leadership positions. WFP and its partners also support activities with the potential to enhance women’s access to markets and make sure they have control over the income they generate. These activities include buying crops traditionally grown and marketed by women, as well as creating opportunities for women’s employment in the food handling and processing sector.

Can these co-ops meet the commercial market’s demand for high quality products?
Yes. One of the lessons P4P has learnt is that co-operatives can supply high quality food provided there’s an investment in their capacity and they have an assured market. Once farmers understand that better quality equals more money, and they receive the right training, they’re quick to improve the quality of their product. The higher quality product has a multiplying effect by providing better nutrition for their own families.

This is feedback from Valentín Alfaro, a smallholder from El Salvador: “We did not have machines that would help us to clean our grains, nor anyone that could teach us what to do to achieve a good quality product to sell. WFP has created new opportunities and new contacts so that we can compete fairly, both men and women, and in this way with better production we have a better future.”

How many co-ops take part in P4P?
Today, more than 800 co-operatives in 20 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia take part in P4P, with a total membership of more than 1 million smallholders. More than 350 co-operatives have so far signed contracts with WFP to deliver almost 190 000t of food. The great majority of the co-operatives are grassroots and community-based farmers’ organisations.

These groups had little or no experience with collective marketing prior to P4P, limited infrastructure and limited links to formal credit sources. With the support of our partners, WFP is working towards enabling these co-operatives to become autonomous market players able to sell good quality produce, make a profit and lift their members out of poverty. There is much promise. WFP will continue to seek out and leverage opportunities such as P4P in the fight against hunger.