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Farmer Groups: Why We Love Them, Why We Do Them and Why They Fail

From the ISET Economist news (http://www.iset.ge/news/?p=3056)
By Tim Stewart

As Georgia embarks on an ambitious program to develop farmer organizations, it is worth considering both the positive and negative lessons from the experience of similar initiatives, both in Georgia and elsewhere in the developing/transition context. The piece by Tim Stewart, originally published on www.springfieldcentre.com, identifies some of the main reasons for the failure of start-up farmer organizations. The challenge for Georgia is to learn from these mistakes in planning and implementation, and ensure improved coordination among the many cooks involved (the newly created Agency for the Development of Agricultural Cooperatives, the Ministry of Agriculture, international donors, NGOs, and farmer associations).  

A village in the Zestafoni area. It is a picturesque landscape, but the farms are not operating very efficiently. (Photo: Nikoloz Pkhakadze)

Someone once told me that I couldn’t be a real agriculturalist until I had at least one failed chicken project under my belt, illustrating both their ubiquity and propensity to flop. The same can be said of projects that seek to establish farmer groups (farmer organisations, cooperatives etc.) and for much the same reasons – although I believe we should learn from failure, not repeat patterns that lead to it.

Conventional programmes working in agricultural markets often include a component of forming and supporting farmer groups in their various guises. Their justification for this is the perceived benefits to small farmers that can accrue from economies of scale of production (assets, labour and inputs), marketing (reduced transaction costs and bigger volumes) and voice (representation to government etc.). My concern is that farmer group formation and support is frequently a waste of effort and money because they overwhelmingly fail, and there is little honest recognition of, let alone learning from, that awkward reality.

Literature drawn mainly from projects supports farmer group formation and strengthening as a panacea for agricultural advancement, and often backs up the case for intense external resourcing. It suggests that farmers in groups are more likely to adopt technologies than those who aren’t, or are more likely to grow project-supported crops. Proponents also highlight their significance to the supply of inputs into food production and of food to the market. Indeed, the FAO estimates that nearly 40% of Brazil’s agricultural GDP is produced through cooperatives while in Europe, 60% of agricultural produce and 50% of inputs are marketed through one.

However a glance at the 2012 “Exploring the Cooperative Economy” report from the World Cooperative Monitor, reveals an almost total cooperative vacuum in Africa and, to a lesser degree, Asia. More directly, in my work I am frequently confronted with the reality of failed farmer groups that evaporate once the project ends, with unused equipment rusting in the corner of a field, an image, which has become a cliché of dysfunctional development in the popular press. And for many people engaged in development, farmer groups are a byword for failure.

Yet as far as I can establish (and I have searched), there have been few honest and objective ex-post reviews of farmer group formation components of projects to look at failure and the reasons for failure. (If I’m wrong and there are real data on groups’ success and sustainability, please send it to me!) Failures, if reported, are attributed to external “unforeseen challenges” and written up as “lessons learned”. Farmers groups have become a prime example of the development industry’s “emperor’s new clothes syndrome”, where official views are positive and glowing and formal research and evidence are at odds with what we know to be common (naked!) reality. So, in that context, I would argue that farmer group formation is a poor way to improve the lot of farmers positively and sustainably. How much more money needs to be spent; how many more pet Farmer Field School projects do we need to implement; how many more constitutions do we need to write; how many MOUs do we need to sign or how many ‘Farming as a Business’ trainings do we need to subject farmers to, before we understand that this form of development is not working?

The factors leading to the failure of farmer groups (rapid decline post-project) are numerous, but broadly they fail because they were formed for the wrong reasons, by the wrong people and/or in the wrong way.

THE WRONG REASONS TO FORM FARMER GROUPS

Agencies often form farmer groups because it helps them – the agency – achieve economies of scale of delivering services, assets or grants to them. In addition some may feel more comfortable ethically with the transfer of expensive assets or technical assistance to a group rather than an individual. The ethos of communal ownership to cosiness of the collective is pervasive in certain quarters of the development industry, even in the face of the common observation of poorly managed group-owned assets. Farmer group membership is also too often a pre-condition for farmers to receive giveaways from agencies. Groups therefore become entities built on artificial incentives created by agencies wanting an easy repository for their resources and buying short-term transitory impact.

Clearly then, ill-conceived or self-serving reasons are the wrong ones for forming farmer groups.

THE WRONG PEOPLE TO FORM FARMER GROUPS

Agribusinesses often face problems interfacing with small farmers because of high transaction costs, small transaction sizes, poor organisation and communications and a general lack of understanding of them. Farmers are often observed to face challenges finding markets for their products or face poor terms of trade. The absence of institutions (like groups) and services which would help them overcome these challenges (supporting group formation) is often justification enough for agencies to intervene impulsively by stepping in on behalf of small farmers – telling and selling the narrative of the “farmer being exploited by the middleman”.

The problem here is not only do agencies avoid addressing the root causes of the problem that lies beyond the farmer-trader interface, but in stepping into this space by performing “farmer group services” they undermine the possibility that it will ever be solved. Rather than solutions cemented firmly and sustainably in the market system, emerging “farmer group services” are seen as a development agency space. Thus it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: farmers are disadvantaged in markets because of weak vertical and horizontal linkages and there are no services to address this market failure: justification enough for agencies to step in and undermine the market further…

Development agencies are also the wrong people to offer farmer group services because, typically, they are poor at business:

-  They are not market based, they are subsidised and non-commercial and their success/failure isn’t dependent on a viable offer but on continued support from their donor.

-  Their incentives are therefore aligned to the agendas of the donor and their own HQ, not the market.

-  They are not cost-effective, indeed they are prohibitively expensive if the true cost of delivery is taken into account (drivers, cooks, HQ fund-raising etc.).

Development agencies are therefore the wrong people to form farmer groups because they are not long-term players in the market, undermine legitimate market players if they attempt to do so, and, put simply, are usually bad at business.

THE WRONG WAY TO FORM FARMER GROUPS

Agencies form farmer groups on the basis of an abstract, theoretical notion of potential benefits, or experience in distant contexts of limited relevance. Seldom do they ask the more grounded starting question: if groups are such an obviously “good thing”, why aren’t farmers forming groups already? Understanding the answer to this question would lead to understanding and addressing systemic problems in the market, or simply not wasting resources by attempting to do something that would be unsuccessful. The reasons that farmers don’t form groups are many, but often related to a lack of incentives or capacity.

Incentives: It may be that additional income does not accrue by aggregation, or that which is created may not be sufficient to overcome other issues such as distrust of others in financial matters. Other actors may be able to provide incentives that induce group formation such as a commodity buyer that provides inputs on credit. There may also be disincentives related to the wider political economy such as additional tax or administrative burdens to formal groups.

Capacity: There may be other obstacles to forming groups such as inefficient business registration procedures, weak advisory services, or a lack of adequately available information that would allow farmers to make an informed decision to form a group. This shouldn’t be seen as an open justification for agency intervention to address these directly for example through business services and setting up one-stop-shops for business registration etc. Rather it should lead to enquiry into who could and should be delivering these and why they are not.

The wrong way to form farmer groups is therefore to do it without understanding the central market failures that prevent farmers from forming them.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

The problem for an agriculturalist and development practitioner like myself, is that working with farmers is fun and endlessly fascinating: it’s one of the things I got into the business for! However instead of being drawn to act impulsively on behalf of the small farmer, I think agencies would serve them better by doing more of the following three things.

Firstly, go in with their eyes and minds open, conducting ex-ante market analysis rather than making unsubstantiated assumptions about what farmers need. Don’t arrive with a farmer group solution pre-prepared and engineer an analysis to justify this. Establish the reasons that farmers are not cohesive, what incentives are shaping their behaviour and what capacities may be lacking. Get a valid answer to the key question: why isn’t the market system working?

Secondly, build and don’t undermine. Guided by the above analysis, work with relevant, long-term market players (private and public) to address the issues underlying farmers’ poor performance and low incomes.

Thirdly, be honest about and learn from failure. This is not especially difficult or time consuming to do, but I suspect is a place where many fear to tread.

My argument is not that farmer groups cannot be beneficial to farmers. Rather, by adopting a systemic approach aimed at fostering the conditions for self-organisation among market players, agencies have a far better chance of supporting small farmers – which may or may not involve farmer groups.

OTHER NEWS
12/11/2021
Sharing of Agricultural Education, Extension Experience with Azerbaijanis Colleagues

The Journalism Resource Centre (JRC), in partnership with the Society of Women for Rational Development in Azerbaijan (WARD), hosted a study visit of media and educational institution representatives of Azerbaijan.

Agri-journalism students and lecturers at Caucasus International University shared agricultural journalism teaching practices. In Kakheti, they visited the farm of Beka Gonashvili, Head of the Georgian Shepherds Association, farmer, and entrepreneur.  They also visited Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking to see their Jara honey and wine production and the dairy Leanka in Dedeplitskaro.  The importance of education and information for farmers and producers and their cooperation with agricultural media was emphasized.

Beka Gonashvili emphasized the importance of providing quality information to farmers and producers. He is both a blogger and a farmer, so he is regularly publishing useful agriculture-related posts. The female owner of Leanka dairy talked about how the enterprise is ensuring the quality and how media is playing a significant role in this. At Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking Company particpants saw wine and Jara honey production and their export and how the Georgian Beekeepers Union is advocating the interests of honey sector representatives and supporting the awareness raising of beekeepers, such as through the national information campaign - Do’s and Don’ts of Antibiotic Use. Participants also watched a report about Jara Honey by Al Jazeera and Jara the Movie.

‘We will all together will work well for expansion the teaching of agricultural Journalism in Azerbaijan’ – Natia Kuprashvili, the Head of the JRC.

The Society Women for Rational Development (WARD) in partnership with the JRC is going to prepare a course of agricultural communication based on the study visit and share it with educational institutions in Azerbaijan.

Please see the related links: a textbook of Constructive Agricultural Journalism and video lessons added to this textbook.

02/12/2021
BageBee Beekeeping Regional Center Welcomes Jara

In November 2021 Jara hives took their place at the Beekeeping Regional Center, BageBee in Tbilisi for demonstration and educational purposes with the help of the Jara Beekeepers Association (JBA). The center is highly motivated to integrate Jara teaching in its beekeeping vocational programme now being developed under the project Modernization of Vocational Education and Training (VET) System Related to Agriculture - Work-based Learning. Last week, the JBA presented Jara honey to a wider audience at the Autumn Beekeeping Fair/Event, organized by the BageBee center, which was also attended by the Georgian Beekeepers Union (GBU) board members. Mutual cooperation between the GBU and the center is ongoing. The executive director of the GBU was invited to give a speech at the event and the director of the center was invited to the GBU Weekly Facebook Live meeting to present the center to the GBU member beekeepers.

Beekeeping Regional Center BageBee opened in Tbilisi in July 2021. The idea is to support the rural/urban connectivity, sustainable agriculture, and the vision of Tbilisi as a Green City.Key principles of the centre are environmental appreciation, sustainable resource use and inclusive growth. The BageBee center was built and equipped by the Czech Development Agency in the framework of the project Sustainable Development of Beekeeping in Georgia with a partnership of People in Need, Georgia, Association Agora and Tbilisi City Hall.

08/10/2020
Ensuring Animal Movement Route Sustainability

Animal Movement Route (AMR) stakeholders are working together to make an AMR Sustainable Development Roadmap, which will include an action plan and future management scheme. This idea came as a result of the AMR stakeholders meeting on October 8th, 2021. The First Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, the Head of the National Agency for Sustainable Land Management & Land Usage Monitoring, representatives of the National Food Agency, the National Agency of the State Property, Shepherds Association of Georgia, Georgian Farmers Association, FAO National Animal Identification Registration and Traceability programme (NAITS) and Land O’Lakes participated in the meeting and discussed the future development, management and sustainability of the AMR.

 “To solve the complex problems connected to the land and management of the route we still need some help from the ALCP. Together we did seven Veterinary Safety Points and water points on the route. Now it is time to have a concrete vision and plan on the future development,’ – the Deputy Minister said.

In addition, Sheep Dipping Guidelines for Private Sheep Dips developed by the programme following Environmental, Health and Safety Assessments of three private sheep dips are ready to be approved by the National Food Agency. The guidelines provide simple operational and safety instructions for private sheep dip owners to mitigate potential environmental and health harm that can be caused by the sheep dipping process.

29/10/2021
J is for Jara

Jara took an honorable place in the Tourism Alphabet of Ajara, a new campaign implemented by the Department of Tourism and Resorts of Ajara AR. The idea is to link all 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet with attractions, locations, food, and activities worth visiting during the whole year. Jara was selected for the letter J.

Letter J will take tourists to Medzibna Village, Keda, where tourists will feel immersed with Jara hives hidden in nature.

'Jara honey is a unique product, it adds cultural value to our region, so it should be a well-packaged tourism product. So far, nothing has been done by the Department of Tourism to promote Jara, travel agencies and guides do not know much about the product, so linking J with Jara will be the first step toward to Jara promotion and awareness raise from our side' -Tinatin Zoidze, chairwoman of the Department of Tourism and Resorts of Ajara.

To boost the promotion, the Department of Tourism and Resorts of Ajara also developed a short video about Jara that will be advertised through their Facebook pageVisit Batumi, tourism information centers and media channels.

05/10/2021
Bulk, Brand and Niche - Georgian Honey Export Begins to Flow

Rebounding in spite of the pandemic, export markets for Georgian honey are beginning to flow and the volume of honey is growing rapidly. In the first eight months of 2021, 117 tonnes of honey were exported to eleven countries; France, Bulgaria, USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Five times more than the  21.7 tonnes of honey, exported to six countries in 2020.

A major recent development has been the establishment of a contract for wholesale bulk honey between Api Geo Ltd in Samtredia and Naturalim France Miel a large honey company in France. In September, forty-three tonnes of honey was shipped to France. A second order is now being prepared for shipment. Strict testing in France and Germany and a new factory and equipment capable of homogenizing 20t of honey at a time mean that the company is the first in Georgia to able to reliably service such a market.

This is just a start; we hope to export at least 100 tonnes of Georgian honey to France this year. We want to supply from smaller-scale beekeepers which will help them with selling their honey, which has been a problem for years in Georgia.’ - Gia Ioseliani, Founder of Api Geo Ltd.

September was also a fortunate month for Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking (KTW) producers of the Nena Honey brand which includes the first Bio-certified Jara honey in Georgia.  The company has just shipped a second large order of six types of Nena honey to Hong Kong, including chestnut, blossom, alpine, linden, Jara and honey with nuts including Bio Jara honey. Nena Bio Jara honey is also on its way to Doha, Qatar. Overall, since January 2021, the company has increased the volume of honey exported by 110%, compared to 2020, to markets in Canada, USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Azerbaijan and Qatar. 

Bio certification of Jara honey in Ajara is receiving considerable governmental backing.

We are proud that export markets for bio-certified Jara honey are growing and now it is being exported to countries like Japan, the USA, and Canada. We started to support Bio-certification of the Jara Beekeepers Association in 2021 to continue to supply diverse export markets for such a flagship product.’ - Giorgi Surmanidze, Minister of Agriculture of Ajara.  

The Jara Beekeepers Association is consolidating its entry into the Japanese market in partnership with MF Company Ltd. In September they exported honey to be shown at an exhibition in Tokyo in October, after which the next order will be placed.

Japanese consumers are loving Jara honey, some of them told us that it helps them with stomach problems. We believe that this exhibition in Tokyo will open up new opportunities for the Jara Beekeepers Association.’ - William Pratt, Co-founder of MF Company Ltd.  

24/08/2021
Fourth Georgian Milk Mark (GMM) Dairy Exports to the USA

Dairy Enterprise Leanka Ltd from Kakheti region sent 837 kg different types of cheese (Sulguni, Smoked Sulguni, Georgian cheese) via the exporter company Geoproduct Ltd for sale in New York and Philadelphia, USA. The dairy is a member of the Georgian Milk Mark the quality assurance label for Georgian natural milk and its products bare the GMM. The company expects further increased orders in the near future.


LATEST NEWS
Sharing of Agricultural Education, Extension Experience with Azerbaijanis Colleagues
12/11/2021
The Journalism Resource Centre (JRC), in partnership with the Society of Women for Rational Development in Azerbaijan (WARD), hosted a study visit of media and educational institution representatives of Azerbaijan. Agri-journalism students and lecturers at Caucasus International University shared agricultural journalism teaching practices. In Kakheti, they visited the farm of Beka Gonashvili, Head of the Georgian Shepherds Association, farmer, and entrepreneur.  They also visited Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking to see their Jara honey and wine production and the dairy Leanka in Dedeplitskaro.  The importance of education and information for farmers and producers and their cooperation with agricultural media was emphasized. Beka Gonashvili emphasized the importance of providing quality information to farmers and producers. He is both a blogger and a farmer, so he is regularly publishing useful agriculture-related posts. The female owner of Leanka dairy talked about how the enterprise is ensuring the quality and how media is playing a significant role in this. At Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking Company particpants saw wine and Jara honey production and their export and how the Georgian Beekeepers Union is advocating the interests of honey sector representatives and supporting the awareness raising of beekeepers, such as through the national information campaign - Do’s and Don’ts of Antibiotic Use. Participants also watched a report about Jara Honey by Al Jazeera and Jara the Movie. ‘We will all together will work well for expansion the teaching of agricultural Journalism in Azerbaijan’ – Natia Kuprashvili, the Head of the JRC. The Society Women for Rational Development (WARD) in partnership with the JRC is going to prepare a course of agricultural communication based on the study visit and share it with educational institutions in Azerbaijan. Please see the related links: a textbook of Constructive Agricultural Journalism and video lessons added to this textbook.
BageBee Beekeeping Regional Center Welcomes Jara
02/12/2021
In November 2021 Jara hives took their place at the Beekeeping Regional Center, BageBee in Tbilisi for demonstration and educational purposes with the help of the Jara Beekeepers Association (JBA). The center is highly motivated to integrate Jara teaching in its beekeeping vocational programme now being developed under the project Modernization of Vocational Education and Training (VET) System Related to Agriculture - Work-based Learning. Last week, the JBA presented Jara honey to a wider audience at the Autumn Beekeeping Fair/Event, organized by the BageBee center, which was also attended by the Georgian Beekeepers Union (GBU) board members. Mutual cooperation between the GBU and the center is ongoing. The executive director of the GBU was invited to give a speech at the event and the director of the center was invited to the GBU Weekly Facebook Live meeting to present the center to the GBU member beekeepers. Beekeeping Regional Center BageBee opened in Tbilisi in July 2021. The idea is to support the rural/urban connectivity, sustainable agriculture, and the vision of Tbilisi as a Green City.Key principles of the centre are environmental appreciation, sustainable resource use and inclusive growth. The BageBee center was built and equipped by the Czech Development Agency in the framework of the project Sustainable Development of Beekeeping in Georgia with a partnership of People in Need, Georgia, Association Agora and Tbilisi City Hall.
Ensuring Animal Movement Route Sustainability
08/10/2020
Animal Movement Route (AMR) stakeholders are working together to make an AMR Sustainable Development Roadmap, which will include an action plan and future management scheme. This idea came as a result of the AMR stakeholders meeting on October 8th, 2021. The First Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, the Head of the National Agency for Sustainable Land Management & Land Usage Monitoring, representatives of the National Food Agency, the National Agency of the State Property, Shepherds Association of Georgia, Georgian Farmers Association, FAO National Animal Identification Registration and Traceability programme (NAITS) and Land O’Lakes participated in the meeting and discussed the future development, management and sustainability of the AMR.  “To solve the complex problems connected to the land and management of the route we still need some help from the ALCP. Together we did seven Veterinary Safety Points and water points on the route. Now it is time to have a concrete vision and plan on the future development,’ – the Deputy Minister said. In addition, Sheep Dipping Guidelines for Private Sheep Dips developed by the programme following Environmental, Health and Safety Assessments of three private sheep dips are ready to be approved by the National Food Agency. The guidelines provide simple operational and safety instructions for private sheep dip owners to mitigate potential environmental and health harm that can be caused by the sheep dipping process.
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