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3. Applying the resilience framework to producer co-operatives


I have introduced you to the basic idea of co-operatives, why co-operatives are considered resilient organisations particularly but not only in a context of crisis, and what some of the challenges are to resilience in the African context. I have also discussed the concept of resilience and provided you with a framework for analysing and understanding resilience – a framework that has been developed initially with the African co-operative movement in mind but which is applicable to other settings.

In this and the next section, I am going to ask you to do more independent study by applying that framework to some case studies. In the final section, I will suggest how you might use the framework in other contexts.

In this section, I want you to consider the experience of two producer co-operative unions in the country of Malawi. Borda-Rodriguez and Vicari researched these co-operative unions (and those considered in Section 4) in February and March of 2013. They have written two short case studies of these co-operative unions (as well as two savings and credit co-operative unions, which appear in Section 4).

3.1 Two cases studies

I would like you now to carry out the following activity, which I will then discuss.

Activity 5 Understanding resilience in the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Co-operative Union (MZCPCU) and the Timber Millers Co-operative Union (TMCU)

Timing: Spend about 1.5 hours on this activity.

Please read the MZCPCU case study (Case Study 1)  and the TMCU case study (Case Study 2), which you can locate by clicking on the links.

As you read each case study, using the resilience framework, make notes on:

  • The ways in which each case has demonstrated resilience.
  • The challenges that might constrain resilience in each case.
  • Any issues you would want to know more about or which might concern you in terms of future resilience.

Note: to help you order your thoughts on the evidence in the case studies, you could use a table such as the one below. When you are considering the dimension of innovation, try to identify what type of innovation or upgrading has taken place.

Co-operative X Demonstration of resilience Constraints on resilience
Collective skills
Role of government

3.1.1 Resilience and constraints in the case of MZCPCU

Here is my table for MZCPCU.

MZCPCU Demonstration of resilience Constraints on resilience

Central management team well qualified with experience of international organisations

Loyal membership based on good organisation and services to members, as well as good understanding of values and principles

Inclusion of women members and participation

Low literacy levels

Difficulties in attracting good managers to remote areas

Extreme poverty


Donor dependency

Experiencing effects of climate change

Collective skills

Provision of capacity building, training and coaching

Good organisational structures that enable good governance within the co-operatives and union, divisions of labour, skills to be built, services to be provided

Improvements in use of technologies and agricultural practices

Low managerial capacity at co-operative level

Access to international organisations and buyers

Access to Fair Trade markets

Some international organisations (e.g. Twin Trading) have helped to build farming practices and promoted women’s inclusion

Poor road networks

Unreliable telecomms.

Challenges of meeting Fair Trade standards

Reliance on donor support


Process and product upgrading: changes in technologies that improve quantity and quality of coffee beans

Chain upgrading: engagement in new value chains (tourist industry) through the guest house and coffee shop

‘Social innovation’: increasing engagement of women in production and co-operative participation

Role of government Good links with government ministries, partly as a result of donor links

Were you able to identify the different types of innovation?

You will have noticed in my table that I also used the concept of ‘social’ innovation, put in inverted commas as I haven’t mentioned it so far.

The reason is that I was trying to think about why women’s inclusion was categorised as an innovation in the case study (rather than, say, a point for a socially just and inclusive membership). I concluded that it might be seen as an innovation in the context where women might not normally be included and where women are well-placed to use the new technologies and farming practices. Inclusion is directly beneficial to women both in market terms and in terms of their social position within the co-operative.

This process could perhaps be called ‘social’ innovation in the terms that two writers on co-operatives and social enterprises (Borzaga and Bodini, 2012) conceptualise it:

  • The innovation addresses issues that might not be dealt with through the market.
  • The innovation is more about a way of organising the co-operative and the production of coffee.
  • It also has the potential to be scaled up (and therefore have wider social benefit).

Would you agree or disagree?

In general terms, with respect to resilience, I would want to know more about the relationship with the international organisations and the buyers of the coffee. This relationship seems to be having positive effects, however I was wondering if there were any downsides.

I was also thinking that it would be hard for MZCPCU to address the illiteracy and management skills gap in the primary co-operatives; this is almost a national policy issue. Would you agree or do you think this is something the co-operative union could deal with?

3.1.2 Resilience and constraints in the case of TMCU

This is my table for TMCU.

TMCU Demonstration of resilience Constraints on resilience
Membership Members working towards responsible forest management

Members have low levels of literacy

Some very remote

Members not yet imbued with co-operative values and principles

Although growing number of youth, only small per cent of women (18%)

Collective skills

TMCU provides a platform for sharing knowledge, experiences and ideas

STIL provides opportunities for training in use of machinery and furniture making

STIL training opportunities only available to some members

Self-reliant approach

Creation of STIL has enabled access to commercial credit

Developing networks with buyers in Botswana and South Africa

Not enough contact with other co-operatives

Networks still in the process of development

STIL still in infancy and not yet providing value added for members

Some members sell to middlemen rather than STIL: problem of distance and transport

Innovation Upgrading of processes and products through setting up STIL, with the aim of supplying different types of timber to different markets Lack of national standard for selling sawn timber: makes it difficult to negotiate deals with buyers
Role of government Government has provided forest concession for 15 years TMCU thinks government should also patrol forests and borders, help to provide credit (not available for co-operatives) and training

My picture of TMCU is that government support and a better regulatory environment is needed for the future. There are clearly some infrastructural needs in terms of transport of timber, and also education and training needs, including the type of social learning within co-operatives discussed in Section 2 of this unit. But this is early days for TMCU and some of the challenges are very different from those of producing and marketing coffee, particularly with respect to the regulatory environment.

I think I would want to know a bit more about the financing and governance of STIL and its potential markets.

Were there other issues that occurred to you from your own experience?

3.2 Reflecting on resilience as a process

Although it is tempting to compare the two cases, that is quite hard to do because they have very different histories, are involved in different products with different challenges, and have had different amounts of external intervention. What comes through to me from studying these cases is that a co-operative and a co-operative union cannot stand still if it is to be resilient. This may apply to all businesses (indeed it does), however co-operatives have additional organisational demands because they are member-owned and they also have different potential for being resilient organisations for the same reason.

It is, however, important to remember that resilience is a process not a state. Contexts change, technologies change, market competitors change. Assembling the collective resources that co-operatives have at their disposal offers enormous potential, but that potential also requires a number of features, as outlined in the resilience framework.

You may have additional elements to add from your own experience of working in, or with, co-operatives.


Borzaga C. and Bodini R. (2012) ‘What to make of social innovation? Towards a framework for policy development’, Euricse Working Paper, WP36|12, Italy.