The UK’s Co-operative College is assisting Malawi to increase participation of women and young people in co-operatives. The College has been working in Malawi for the past three years on a project that aimed to build capacity by providing training to existing and new co-operatives.
In February the organisation received a grant from the Scottish government, which will enable it to continue its project in Malawi for another three years. As part of the second phase of the project, the College will focus on youth and women’s engagement in co-ops, as well as on making sure that co-ops are environmentally sustainable and developing an apex body for the country’s co-operative sector.
Ruth Holton, youth projects and co-operative learning co-ordinator at the College has recently travelled to Malawi where she worked with the team scoping out different barriers facing women and young people in co-ops. Ms Holton took part in different focus group discussions looking at the issues faced by women and young people such as cultural barriers. “The aim was for us to listen to then and get them talking to each other and present challenges they face in their co-ops”, she explained.
Women taking part in the workshops said they saw co-operatives as a genuine real source of livelihood but often lacked the confidence to stand as elected members.
“If a woman stood to be chair the fellow women in co-ops would often vote for the man instead”, said Ruth Holton.
When it comes to youth involvement, co-ops face a cultural barrier. Many young people perceive co-ops as a tool for the rural poor. “Aspiring young entrepreneurs don’t see co-operatives as an option, even though they could earn more by getting involved in, for example, Macadamia co-operatives”.
The co-operative movement in Malawi continues to be largely agricultural. Some organisations are already working with young people in urban areas, helping them to sell crafts products. The College and its team in Malawi is working these to see how young people could organise themselves in a more co-operative way to increase their power.
“It might take time to change that mind-set but there was a real willingness to move forward”, said Ruth Holton. The findings that came out of the discussions will be used to develop a structure for a training manual that will be published and rolled out to co-operatives this autumn. The manual will focus on governance including co-operative bylaws and principles. If members are aware of bylaws and principles, this helps with representation as well, says Ms Holton.
“There’s a real willingness and enthusiasm for co-ops”, she concluded.