Monday, February 6, 2012

Why you should care about co-operatives

Are you a member of a co-operative? 
Yes? No? Not sure? 
(I am curious! Leave a comment. :)

Photo from Ocean Spray media library, 'cause cranberry bogs are awesome
Did you know...

...that Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Natrel milk, and Camino chocolate are all produced by co-operatives?

...that Canada has one of the highest per capita credit union memberships in the world? According to the World Council of Credit Unions, 46.2 per cent of the economically active population are members of a credit union or caisse populaire

...that Alphonse Desjardins founded the first North American caisse populaire/credit union in 1901 in Lévis, Quebec?

...that 35% of the world's maple syrup is produced by co-operatives in Quebec?

...that the United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives?

Even if the extent of your co-op savvy is limited to a vague understanding that you have to "become a member" in order to shop at Mountain Equipment "Co-op", fear not! I was in the same boat a few months ago, so in the spirit of the International Year of Co-operatives (and of my co-op-related internship), I thought I'd share some of the knowledge I've since gained.

First, the basics: 
What is a co-operative?
Google comes up with this succinct definition, which seems as good as any to me:
A farm, business, or other organization that is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits.

What does that mean in practice? Well, let's look at...

How co-operatives differ from other businesses.

Why the co-operative movement might be the answer to the Occupy movement.

"I'm sold!", you say, "This co-operative thing sounds pretty cool."

Great! Some of the easy ways to support co-operatives include:
  1. Joining consumer co-operatives for the products and services you need. Some examples:
    • Retail co-ops, e.g. Mountain Equipment Co-op.
    • Insurance co-ops, e.g. The Co-operators.
    • Credit unions, e.g. Desjardins, Vancity (biggest credit union outside Quebec). 
    • Housing co-ops, car sharing co-ops, child care co-ops, funeral co-ops (very big in Quebec), and more! 
    • Local food co-ops are popular these days, and often a good example of what's called a multi-stakeholder co-operative (a co-op which includes members from several groups - consumers, producers, or workers).
  2. Shopping for products produced by producer co-operatives (owned by independent producers or entrepreneurs who market their products and services and/or purchase their supplies and equipment through the co-op) or worker co-operatives (enterprises where the employees are the members and owners).
    • Some examples of producer co-ops:
      • Agricultural co-operatives, e.g. Agropur (Canada's biggest dairy co-operative, with brands like Québon, Sealtest, Natrel, and Yoplait).
      • Artist/artisan co-operatives, e.g. Canadian Arctic Producers (marketing arm of Arctic Co-operatives Limited; markets and distributes Inuit and Dene artwork to shops and galleries around the world).
    • Some examples of worker co-ops:
I know I'll definitely be keeping a sharper eye out for co-operative products and services when I get home (I felt so left out when the Canadian coaches visiting last week all whipped out their credit union member cards!).

How does this all relate to what I'm doing in Malawi?
My internship is funded by the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA), one of the two national associations for Canadian co-operatives. The other is the Conseil canadien de la coopération et de la mutualité (CCCM) - as you might guess, the primary difference is linguistic. 

CCA has sent me over to work for the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives (MUSCCO), which is the central organization for all credit unions in Malawi (they call them Savings and Credit Co-operatives, or SACCOs, out here). In other words, not only am I out of my depth on this whole co-operative thing, I also need to learn all about banking! 

Stay tuned, and in a future post, I'll talk more about the role of SACCOs in Malawi. (In the meantime, Canadians reading this should go enjoy a cup of Camino hot chocolate for me!)

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