Co-operative societies play a critical role in job creation and socio-economic development of any country but the way co-operatives are perceived and managed in Zambia creates an impression that they are just ordinary social clubs where anyone can join for any purpose and leave at any time.
The way successful governments have also been facilitating and supporting co-operatives in this country is another thorn in one's flesh.
In short, co-operatives in Zambia seem to have no purpose, therefore, most successful governments seem to have no genuine interest to facilitate and support effective and successful co-operative movement in the country.
As a result, membership to such associations is open to anyone at any time without any conditions.
Such perception and management of co-operatives have led to a situation where co-operatives seem to have no positive contribution to agricultural business, job creation and socio-economic development of this country.
To prove this point, it was strange to see this year's World Co-operative Day commemoration's activities in only a few districts on Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) without such an event being well-publicised and commemorated in other districts in the country.
The purpose of this article is to remind all interest groups, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock as well as the Patriotic Front (PF) government of the importance of co-operative societies in agricultural business, job creation and sustainable socio-economic development processes and in poverty alleviation strategies.
Although co-operative societies are more pronounced in the agricultural sector, co-operatives can be in any sector where interest groups in each sector form such co-operatives with a view to promote their business interests.
The other time this writer learnt of co-operative activities was when the PF government gave some funds to some co-operative societies where each was given K3 million.
One wondered how such co-operative societies were going to use such amounts of money considering that most of them have been dormant for too long; and that in the process, most of these societies have high levels of poverty with few or no workers.
Most co-operative societies in this country have few or no assets at all.
One glaring thing in Zambia's co-operative societies is that most of the existing co-operative societies are created on political and, therefore, on partisan lines.
During the former Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD)'s administration, such co-operative societies were used to siphon the subsidised fertiliser support programme (FSP) now Farm Input support programme (FISP) from government to MMD cadres and, therefore, for personal commercial interests; leaving the targeted beneficiaries of such subsidised farm input support programme in a limbo.
This type of co-operative societies have been seasonal in their operations. Their operations were basically selling fertilisers at the time of distributing subsidised fertiliser and seed. This is why they were called 'fertiliser co-operatives'.
Co-operative societies are supposed to be organisations for specific interest groups who want to put their resources together in order to promote their interests. co-operative societies are supposed to buy farm inputs such as fertilisers, seeds and agricultural chemicals; and sell them to their members at affordable prices.
Therefore, specific co-operative members in specific business ventures and localities are supposed to put their resources together, thereby creating a pool of resources to buy what individual farmers regularly need in their farming businesses; but cannot buy considering prices, volumes and transport costs. Such products are supposed to be sold to their members.
Each co-operative society is supposed to be a business venture that stocks products and services which its members regularly want in their personal businesses.
Members of a specific co-operative society are supposed to buy their requirements from their own co-operative society; and are issued with receipts which they use to claim bonuses at the end of every year where such conditions apply.
Co-operative societies are also supposed to buy farm produce from their members at the right time and at economic prices.
Co-operative societies are also supposed to promote effective and sustainable methods of farming such as organic and conservation farming.
With vibrant co-operative societies throughout the country, urban and rural small-scale farmers can have their farm produce bought at economic prices at the right time; making most farmers raise incomes. Co-operative societies are also supposed to be supplying the much-needed veterinary medicine to their members throughout the country. Most rural and urban farmers have livestock now.
Veterinary services can not only create good jobs but can contribute to making farming business profitable.
Zambia has a lot of raw materials which if processed into final products can contribute to satisfying local food requirements; and the surplus can be exported to neighbouring countries and beyond.
Co-operative societies can establish farm produce processing plants in their localities.
Maize, groundnuts, soya beans, sunflower, fruits, etc are supposed to be processed where they are grown. Such an approach to agricultural business can contribute to job creation, increase incomes among local community members and in the process reduce poverty levels not only in the local communities but also in the whole country.
Co-operative societies can facilitate effective and profitable agricultural business in rural areas.
This can in the process contribute to improving living standards of rural people.
To do all such, co-operative societies employ workers in different fields such as marketing, accounts, procurement and stores, co-operative society management, transport, etc. In a free market economy, co-operative business development officers and public relations practitioners can also be employed in these co-operative societies.
Through facilitating effective and profitable agricultural business, these co-operatives can contribute to job creation and reduce high poverty levels, especially in rural areas.
But in Zambia, few co-operatives have members who have put their resources together to promote their business interest. Most people join co-operative movement to access subsidised farm inputs to re-sell such inputs at high prices.
Almost all agricultural co-operative societies are fertiliser co-operatives and political in nature.
They surface only when it is time for distributing subsidised farm inputs.
After distribution of farm inputs, such fertiliser co-operative societies disappear until the next subsidised fertiliser distribution time.
And during the former MMD government, almost all members of most such fertiliser co-operatives were civil servants with a few other members who were mostly influential leaders and cadres of the MMD. Almost all agricultural co-operative societies including ZCF looked to the former MMD government for funding their operations. Will such an approach to co-operative movement continue?
As a result, most of the so-called co-operative society members in Zambia are poor and with no direction on how they can profitably run their farming business; since most farm inputs come through other interest commercial or political groups. Such farm inputs also come mostly at wrong times but at high and unaffordable prices to the majority of rural poor farmers.
Therefore, the wrong perception co-operative movement and mishandling of what constitutes a co-operative society has led to poor management of such co-operatives leading such societies to not benefiting their members and in the process not playing any meaningful role in agricultural business, job creation and sustainable national economic development processes in the country.
As defence minister, Geoffrey Mwamba noted during the 87th Zambia Agricultural and Commercial Show, agriculture is the only sustainable way of making a living in Zambia. Therefore, the PF government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and LIvestock should facilitate formation of genuine co-operative societies; and with genuine members with common business interests in each local community throughout the country.
PF government, through agriculture ministry, should avoid the approach the former MMD government was using in facilitating and supporting co-operative movement if such a movement is to serve its purpose; and in the process contribute to job creation and contribute to poverty alleviation not only to its members but also to the nation as a whole.
Agricultural marketing and co-operatives officers and agricultural extension workers play a critical role not only in agricultural co-operative societies but also in the much talked about crop diversification.
But with a lot of political interference in the past, such workers were mere spectators or just receiving orders to where subsidised farm inputs were going; whether such inputs were going to targeted citizens or not. There can be no crop diversification if co-operative societies don't supply right quantities of relevant farm inputs to local farmers; and buy farm produce at the right time at economic prices.
As vice-president, Guy Scot observed during the 87th Zambia Agricultural and Commercial Show, in addition to contribution from commercial farmers, Zambia, through the agricultural co-operative societies, can help fill the Southern African Development Community (SADC) food basket gap which has been created by South Africa not supplying maize to SADC countries if such co-operatives in Zambia are well-facilitated to grow in a viable manner.
Such co-operative societies can facilitate production of high quality maize, buy such maize from their members; and sell the produce to some hungry SADC countries.
Government should also find the relationship between co-operative movement and FISP in order to make agricultural subsidies relevant to genuinely vulnerable farmers; and to the development of these countries.
Agricultural sector can be a genuine and sustainable backbone of the national economy only if there is a vibrant co-operative movement in a country.
-The author was trained in general agriculture and in co-operative society management.
He worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives under National Agricultural Information Services for more than 10 years as an agricultural information officer. For comments and ideas, contact: