African agriculture needs young farmers and strong cooperatives

Pierre van Hedel, director of Rabobank Foundation, believes that well-run farming cooperatives and young farmers can help Africa to produce more food across the continent. The Rabobank Foundation supports small African farms in establishing cooperatives to strengthen the position of the farmers.

Small family farms with no more than a few hectares of land supply the bulk of the food to the more than one billion people who inhabit the African continent. Van Hedel states that more professional operations and small investments on these farms can make a significant difference. The output can be increased substantially by improved care for crops and animals, good quality of sowing seeds and fertilisers and superior storage facilities to preserve the quality of harvested rice, cassava or cocoa.

Setting up cooperatives

The Rabobank Foundation – which is funded primarily through the contributions of local Rabobanks in the Netherlands – has long held that cooperatives of various kinds offer new opportunities for farmers and strengthen their position. African farmers who join forces in cooperatives can collectively purchase sowing seeds, fertiliser and animals, as well as fund the cost of soil investigations and sharing their knowhow. In addition, they can also use cooperatives to improve their position in terms of the sale of products such as coffee, rice, cassava, cocoa and milk. Establishing savings and loan cooperatives will help farmers to provide a part of the required funding themselves. And collectively the farmers have improved access to external funding. Often Rabobank Foundation is also willing to take the first risk.
The Rabobank Foundation provides advice mainly across the eastern and western parts of the continent, as well as providing support in strengthening farmers’ cooperatives and backing these efforts financially. The Foundation reaches a total of 1.2 million farmers across the continent. According to Pierre van Hedel, ‘The advantages for members of these cooperatives are improved knowhow, more market opportunities, higher incomes and better opportunities for the future. I like to think of our efforts in Africa as a replication of what we once did in the Netherlands and at which we have become experts.’

‘The advantages for members of the cooperatives are improved knowhow, more market opportunities, higher incomes and better opportunities for the future.’

Pierre van Hedel, director of Rabobank Foundation

Strong and reliable cooperatives

However, these collective efforts alone will not suffice in giving African agriculture and food supply the push it needs. Pierre van Hedel feels that supporting farmers’ cooperatives by making sure they are run properly is one of the priorities when it comes to further developing African farming. ‘The key is effective governance: how do you ensure that cooperative boards are properly trained and that their members are reliable and have the expertise required? How do you continue to involve members and make sure business interests and arrangements are prioritised over family connections? Moreover, how can a cooperative be transparent about who is involved in what, where, and how?’. Van Hedel cites the example of a cooperative where a truck was not used to safely and efficiently transport the rice produced by the farmers affiliated with the cooperative, but rather to get the director of the cooperative from A to B. Besides costing money, this also prevented the members from making any genuine progress in terms of quality and sales.

Limited interest among young people

Cooperatives can play a key role in encouraging young Africans to become farmers. Van Hedel estimates that the average age of farmers currently hovers between 50 and 55. ‘Young people find the idea of selling mobile phones in large cities much more modern and appealing, but that market is already pretty much saturated. There should be more incentive for the younger generations to pursue a career in farming, and this requires that they can purchase and sell their products through a cooperative. There also must be sufficient land for their farm and the farm should generate sufficient income. If their farms are slightly larger, they can substitute machines for manual labour and start using more modern technologies, including more accurate weather forecasts, superior sowing seeds and cattle species, and soil investigation. These kinds of improvements require funding. Rabobank Foundation can support, but we also advice farmers to set up savings and loan cooperatives.’

Improving their market position

According to Van Hedel, there is essentially a world of opportunities out there for African farmers. Improving the position of small family farms will make a difference beyond the local food supply alone. ‘If family farms have the access, knowhow and funding needed to improve seeds or fertiliser, for example, they can also enhance the quantity and quality of their output. Once farmers begin joining their supplies, major buyers will start doing business with them. A single sack of coffee beans is not going to be of any use to these larger buyers, but they will be interested in purchasing larger batches produced on a cooperative basis. However, this does require that farmers agree on the terms of the quality of these products, and this quality must be monitored as well. In fact, cooperatives can play a key role in this process. Thanks to Rabobank’s ties with major international food companies, we are able to connect to farming cooperatives across Africa.’