Gregory Roberts | A cooperative route for Jamaican agriculture
Interestingly, calls have been made for Jamaica to model the success that Rwanda gained by utilising agriculture as a springboard for growth and development. While there are insurmountable differences Jamaica and Rwanda – population size, access to large markets across the border, as well as some of the most fertile soils on the globe, there is one thing that Jamaica can adopt with relative ease, a cooperative approach to problems.
There has been a direct and concerted effort to develop agricultural cooperatives in Rwanda. While Jamaica is using a ‘mother-farm’ approach with mixed results, they have been using a cooperative approach with small farmers working together. The results are there to see. Rwanda has been able to produce enough to feed itself, and export to the millions in neighbouring countries, and using this to spur commendable economic growth.
Jamaica has a rich history of cooperative action. Cooperative action speaks to people banding together to find solutions to common problems. Among the common problems faced by farmers are the need for crop insurance, access to finance and costs of inputs, such as fertiliser. The strictly profit-oriented approach to solving these problems has not worked, and will always be inefficient and overly expensive.
Bankers, many of whom do not understand how to assess and mitigate agricultural risks, will always fail at it. Their consistent response to challenges of agricultural financing is to restrict access to capital and demand that government underwrite loans to farmers. I, for one, am not of the view that everything that goes wrong ‘is government fault’. Some things government can lead on; others, they can only point to the direction by the use of various policy instruments. But, there is another way, a cooperative way.
Jamaica needs genuine cooperatives and cooperators. Credit unions, which are financial cooperatives, are often run like main street commercial banks by executives and managers who cut their teeth in the banking sector. There is no programme of training that would help them to assess risk from a cooperative viewpoint and to develop the relationships that will help to mitigate against risks.
Non-financial cooperatives are few in Jamaica and are rarely run properly. Why is this so? In agriculture, there are many farmers groups, but few move on to be registered as cooperatives. There is the complaint that the process and requirement of registration are onerous. Business advisors know nothing of cooperatives and fail to see them as businesses, which carry a number of obvious advantages.
One of the advantages of a registered cooperative is that it has access to a global network of cooperatives that are ready and willing to help. At the time of writing, there is a cooperative in India that is producing concentrated liquid fertiliser of every formulated nutrient ratio. A farmer in South Manchester or Guys Hill needs less than a soda bottle of this liquid, which when mixed in a drum of water can fertilise one acre of Irish potato. This cooperative is duty bound to offer this product to other cooperatives. And it is being done - agricultural cooperatives in Brazil are being supplied to replace the loss of fertilisers from Russia and Ukraine.
In production, financing and marketing of agricultural produce, working together, can work. It seems that even with all hands on deck, we still need to find the best way to organise ourselves. I wish to proffer the cooperative way.
- Gregory Roberts, PhD, is a UK-based foodpreneur and consultant; he is also convenor and chair of UK-based organisation The Knowledge Justice Network. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.