In many African countries, farmers, traders and ordinary people are often encouraged to form groups as a way of pooling their resources towards achieving their individual goals. Group formation is sometimes introduced as a condition for receiving support from financial institutions and development partners. The underlying assumption is that groups can solve what people can’t solve at individual levels. From an economic and theoretical point of view, creating farmer groups and group lending schemes makes a lot of sense.
However, the promotion of groups as a way of achieving socioeconomic development doesn’t seem to be based on empirical evidence comparing outcomes from groups with outcomes from individual efforts over a long period of time. Most efforts in this direction are based on anecdotes indicating how particular groups are producing crops, chickens, dairy milk and processing some agricultural commodities collectively. On the other hand, there is also information on how individual farmers are doing well to a point of hosting field days where most people come to learn from one person.
eMKambo recently conducted a survey among smallholder farmers and traders to try and get answers to the above question. Below are some of the findings:
Most organisations promoting groups in rural areas do not ask deep socio-economic-political questions around group formation. While it makes sense to form a women’s group, men and relatives who are not part of the group often have more influence in decisions that are made in the women’s group. For instance, decisions by a woman to acquire or sell agricultural commodities have to be filtered through the husband who probably knows nothing about governance issues that bind a group to which his wife belongs. In this case, training the women’s group alone will not bear expected fruits without taking into account the social context. Rather than focusing on group members, it is important to find out who else makes decisions that affect groups.
A group that comprises people with different economic resources and capacities will not function as a group but a collection of individuals with different ways of attacking same issues. They can only pretend to be a group based on convenience, for instance, if promoters like NGOs are visiting a project where the notion of group work has been introduced as a critical part of the project.
There is a point beyond which groups cease to be groups. A number of agriculture traders in the people’s market can briefly come together to buy commodities in bulk and when it comes to selling, its each man for himself. In the case of traders, different performance levels and different commodity lines present challenges to initiatives like group lending. Group collateral and repayments tend to constrain one business that wants to run with the stick. Another dimension is reluctance among some group members to assume group burdens. A group can provide comfort to some laggards who may decide to be uncooperative knowing that the group has champions who may cover up for the sake of maintaining the image of the group.
Some groups are inflexible to emergencies which often crop up in many households. As a result, a group member cannot wait for two weeks to fulfil an order when s/he has a pressing issue that can be solved through selling agricultural commodities quickly.
Just as farmers in the same context produce different results, in most irrigation schemes you find that farmers who planted maize the same day using the same inputs can produce different volumes and quality. This is due to individual creativity which is sometimes very difficult to express in a group. Development partners have to identify these differences which make others stand out even in the face of challenges. Leadership training on governance and other issues may not solve some of these issues because they are an intrinsic part of being human. In most cases, such hidden issues create disharmony in families and communities to a point where a project ends up creating more problems than it is trying to solve.
A number of groups in rural areas are tied to projects with a three year or five year lifespan such that when the project comes to an end, the group also packs its bags. New development partners coming into the same community form new groups. A private company that brings contract farming into the same community forms yet another group.
In a number of rural areas, group formation is not demand-driven but a vision of whoever is forming those groups. Group marketing of commodities is often not demand-driven either and this is revealed at the market. Development partners would rather understand how people are selling commodities first before encouraging group marketing. Often the role of individuals like agro-dealers who bulk up commodities is not considered with so much energy devoted to coercing farmers to focus on niche markets in urban areas. Unfortunately, these niche markets are choosy and don’t take the bulk of commodities.
The natural inclination for farmers is selling their own commodities at individual level. They can come together to buy inputs as a group but production and marketing can then proceed at individual level. A rural market where individual farmers can bring their own commodities for sale to buyers who come to that market seems a more realistic option than getting farmers to pool their commodities together, fetch transport and get their commodities to an urban market 300 kilometres away. The concept of Nhimbe (Shona) and Amalima (isiNdebele) was based on individual creativity where people helped each other to weed or harvest but the owner would decide what to do with the commodities at individual household level.
Some of the questions surfaced by eMKambo include:
- When we form groups, how do one’s personal networks come into the group? There is a danger of a farmer or trader losing his/her own personal networks built over years.
- What should come first a farmer group or the market? The market should inform the formation of farmer groups in terms of volume of commodities in demand, timing, capacity, seasonality (calendar, etc.) It is not a contract but a market that informs farmers what to bring to the market. Most commodities from farmer groups do not meet market standards and expectations. Either the group produces commodities of poor quality, wrong varieties or they produce more than what the market requires at a given time. Group consignments tend to carry diverse expectations which the market cannot level at group but individual level. According to most of the farmers who spoke to eMKambo, it is difficult to represent another person’s commodity because some individuals think they can creatively articulate the value of their commodity better because they know it intimately. Group mistrust and the need for one to negotiate for his/her own commodity causes each individual farmer to want to come to the market rather than sending a few representatives.
The market creates more personal relationships than group relationships. Individual farmers create strong personal relationships through face to face interactions. People bond more at individual/personal level than groups do. They also want to represent themselves and cultivate future relationships and this can’t happen when somebody represents you.
Tying the loose ends
Groups should focus on production for consistent supply. At the moment it is common to find a whole group producing beans at once and selling the produce at once. A balanced market-driven approach to production should encourage farmers to produce in a staggered manner as individuals such that the same commodity gets into the market sequentially over an extended period. In this case, it is not a group but a supply chain. The market has a way of shifting the focus from people to commodities. The question should be how many commodities and in what volumes are agricultural commodities coming from a community not how many farmers. Agricultural markets are full of fast moving dynamics which most groups can’t cope with such that it ultimately becomes a domain for individual creativity and flexibility. Although the market may seem disorganized, farmers, traders, consumers and other actors are connected in ways that allow them to leverage opportunities as they emerge.
Farmers and traders are always struggling with their contexts at individual levels. Promoting groups, no matter how well intentioned, may actually hold back progress and natural ways of learning and adapting if we don’t pay attention to individual talents and aspirations. The quality of a group depends on the quality of individuals in the group. By empowering individuals to make sense of their context, we are enriching groups into which these individuals may find themselves. Individual learning is more powerful because it is demand-driven as opposed to group training which is often supply-driven and may not motivate individuals to learn for themselves.
This question regarding individual versus group efforts can be extended to corporate levels where mergers make a lot of business sense theoretically and analytically but practice can be a nightmare. Otherwise, Zimbabwe’s 21 banks could have easily merged into six or seven banks to maximize resources and efficiencies. As soccer lovers know, it is not just about Barcelona as a group of players but also about Messi as an individual talisman. While promoting groups at whatever level, let’s not under-rate individual effort and passion which, in most cases, gets things done. While the Shona have a proverb which says: Chara chimwe hachitsvanyi inda (one finger cannot kill lice), they also have a reverse proverb which says: Mbeva zhinji hadzina marise (Too many rats don’t produce anything). There are many such proverbs in various African languages. Real success will probably come from balancing different worldviews and proverbs.
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