Working together in a cooperative has many advantages for farmers. Collating their harvested crops means they can sell in bulk, demand better prices and have greater bargaining powers with buyers. The cooperative can make use of the broad experience and skills of its members. Those with knowledge of marketing, for example, can promote the cooperative’s products, while others can share cultivation and harvesting techniques. Pooling resources also creates the opportunity to buy expensive equipment, such as food-processing and packaging machinery. Many cooperatives now also invest in communications technology to help train farmers, find new markets, improve management processes and deliver information services to their members.
Coprokazan, a cooperative based in southern Mali, started using ICTs in 2006. Since then, production and profits have more than doubled. With just three computers in their main office, they have built a website to promote their products, contacted new buyers using e-mail, and streamlined their administration procedures so that they can take on and effectively manage more members.
The cooperative, mostly made up of female shea butter producers, also has a video camera and a few digital photo cameras. They use these to produce training materials to help members improve production and packaging processes. As well as increasing their income, the women of Coprokazan saw that economic development gave them more autonomy and equality with men, who traditionally control household finances.
Improving quality to increase income is an important goal for the Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca (CEPCO), in Mexico. Their inspectors use an open-source application installed on cell phones to gather data from members’ farms. DigitalICS replaces the old handwritten forms previously used, and makes the process of collecting information more reliable and efficient. Inspectors download the data at the main cooperative office, and the software produces automatic reports for evaluators and for external fair-trade certification agencies.
Using information gathered on previous occasions, inspectors give farmers specific advice on how to increase coffee production and improve quality in the next growing season. The inspectors also use their cell phones to take photos of the crops to check on progress, and can record audio feedback from farmers. The photos and audio can be used on the website to promote the cooperative’s products to consumers, and inform them of community improvements realised from the extra income gained from the premium price paid for fair-trade goods.
In Ethiopia, a broad coalition of individuals, businesses and organisations have worked together to establish an ICT cooperative in the town of Butajira. By buying shares in the new cooperative, members raised enough money to set up a centre with 15 computers, an internet connection, printers and fax machines. The centre provides business services and computer training. Two local cooperatives, serving farmers and residents of the surrounding rural communities, are the main partners of the ICT cooperative. Combined, they have more than 7000 members, who all now have access to the centre’s services.
Cooperatives have strengthened farming communities for many generations, combining the influence of many individuals to give them greater power in the marketplace, and providing support when harvests fail. ICTs are becoming increasingly indispensible to many cooperatives, enabling them to communicate with members and offer new opportunities to small-scale farmers