Step 1 – Understand needs and capacities: Cooperative leaders and partners should assess members’ productive capacity and potential demand for services, and the cooperative’s capacity to deliver effective services (see Box 4). Data and analyses shed light on members’ capacity to carry out on-farm production. Analysis allows for the grouping of members by resources, capacities, and needs. At this stage it is important to reflect on the strengths and limitations of the current advisory service programme: What are its strongest elements? What are its weakest elements? Who is left out? How to increase financial sustainability and how to address particular needs through partnerships with other service providers – businesses, NGOs, government agencies, consultants
BOX 4: FARMING HOUSEHOLDS WITH DIFFERENTIATED NEEDS
The coffee cooperative Soppexcca in Nicaragua provides services to roughly 500 members. Data on livelihood strategies and assets were used to classify members into three groups. Group 1 depended heavily on off-farm income and had relatively small coffee plantations. Group 2 depended heavily on farm income, but also had relatively small coffee plantations. Group 3 stood out for its relatively large coffee plantations. On average, group 3 had roughly 5 times the coffee production compared to groups 1 and 2. While the other groups depended heavily on coffee for their income, group 1 earned most of its income off-farm – leaving little time for coffee production. By understanding the different needs and circumstances of their members, cooperatives are able to adjust their service offering to diverse clientele, differentiated by gender and age, and achieve increased impact and efficiency.
Source: Donovan and Poole (2014) (2)
Step 2 – Characterise the local service offering: What services are offered in the surrounding area and what are the strengths of these services in light of members’ needs? Services may be offered by government agencies, local NGOs, buyers, and processors, as well as by well-established sister cooperatives and local consultants and businesses. Relevant information can be obtained through focus group discussions and key informant interviews – the key to success is a sufficiently deep and critical assessment of service offers in terms of specificity, quality, coverage, and costs; and a strategic view on capacity building needs and long-term partnerships for meeting identified needs from Step 1.
Step 3 – Develop strategy: The strategy identifies which provider provides what services to the different types of members. This requires alignment of strategies between the cooperative and various service providers – a challenging step for which external facilitation may be needed. This is a crucial element for achieving more impactful and self-sustained services in a given area. The strategy should also detail short- and long-term options for recovering the cost of cooperative-provided services, and sources of financial support at different stages of the process. Finally, the strategy should address major gaps in knowledge, include plans for monitoring the effectiveness of services, and present a learning agenda to guide future interactions among stakeholders. There is no blueprint to strategy design – creative thinking and a willingness to experiment are needed.
Step 4 – Reflect, learn, and adapt: Cooperative leaders, members, and external supporters should review progress on implementation of the programme and identify options for improvement. Possible refinements cover services offered, to whom the services are offered, how the services are delivered, what their impact is, and the extent to which costs are recovered. Two aspects are fundamental for the group to advance the advisory programme: a willingness to be self-critical about service design and delivery, and sufficient and up-to-date information on the effects and associated perceptions of the programme on members. In addition to service design, stakeholder learning should encompass bottlenecks encountered along the path to achieving progressive cost recovery from members, and options for adjusting strategies to achieve greater sustainability in service provision.
External co-funding will often be necessary for implementation of steps 1 and 2, with a clear phasing out strategy from the very beginning to allow cooperatives to graduate towards steps 3 and 4 based on business consolidation, improved services, and progressive impact and cost recovery
BOX 5: INNOVATIONS IN SERVICE DESIGN
To facilitate the use of production inputs by members, the Cooperative Agricole Sabarikagny du Haut Sassandra (CASAHS) in Cote d’Ivoire designed a credit programme around its purchases of cocoa using its own funds (held back from cocoa sales). Loans were delivered in the form of inputs, not cash. The cooperative also provided staff to assist with proper application of the inputs. This also helped to ensure that farmers did not resell the inputs. By 2013, 95 out of the 179 registered members had subscribed to the credit programme and 35 had actually asked and benefited from the arrangement for a total amount of around US$29,000. A similar programme was designed to promote maize production. In response to a members’ needs assessment, the cocoa cooperative supported members to diversify into maize production.
Source: CASAHS (2013) (3)