Co-operative marketing

Farmers around the world use some form of co-operative marketing to sell their fresh fruit and vegetables.

In South Africa, we have numerous examples of farmers supplying a central packhouse (they often have an interest in it too) which then markets their fruit under a single brand. In the avocado sector alone I can think of two or three prominent brands that draw their fruit from a wide selection of farmer-suppliers.

The vegetable sector too has several big brands, but none of these, as far as I’m aware, draw additional supplies from other farmers to supplement their own production. Building a well-known brand is achieved through several factors, one of which is having a huge supply of product. Achieving consistent quality of this product from a variety of suppliers is one of the greatest challenges of having a central packing and marketing facility.

Popular option
Co-ops, as most of us understand them in South Africa, are a popular option for farmers and one frequently promoted by government. It is common knowledge that small-scale farmers face many constraints in the production and marketing of their products, and forming a co-op would seem to be the ideal solution. But is it? The potential for success, or failure, rests entirely on the shoulders of the members. And there’s the rub – the human factor.

The system itself is fine in theory, but greed, laziness and other human failings can derail the best of intentions in a co-op. I’ve seen it happen. Politics rears its ugly head, personal ambitions take precedence and internal strife abounds. Any of these can cause havoc.

No commitment
By all means form a marketing co-op, but understand that to make it work you’ll need strong leadership and total commitment from members. All too often, once the first manager and committee are elected everyone else sits back and lets ‘them’ get on with it. It’s a recipe for disaster.

In the SA context politics interferes much more than it should. A co-op member once told me she intended resigning because the chairperson was a leading member of one or other political faction.  It’s easy to sit in a meeting, become enthusiastic, and say “aye”. Making that co-op work is another matter entirely.