Research has shown that larger cooperatives mostly do not function within the African context. As soon as the organization grows beyond the small circle of personalized relationships, problems arise related to trust, money and authority. What can explain this phenomenon?

Family solidarity
Family and kin solidarity is the quintessence of African relationships. Family is all important. That is not only the case because people like each other and have established relationships, but also because of economic reasons. Family and house have always been the primary production units. Within those families, often consisting of more generations, the older generation was always in the lead. Respect for the elderly is still very important in Africa and although egalitarian relationships do exist, they still have to adapt considerably to the traditional patriarchal framework. They cannot go beyond a certain bandwidth, as in bad times there is no other safety network than the family.

Dependency and vertical networks
This state of affairs has important consequences for entrepreneurial initiatives in general. If one’s position within the family system is low in terms of status and this person wants to start a business, he or she needs high status family members in order to access loans, licenses or enter the market. These vertical networks stretch out beyond the family as well. A member of parliament can be called upon to help a far away relative. That helps for clearing imports, licenses and lifts other barriers of entry to the market. Someone who doesn’t have the resources to return the favour due to poverty and low status, is excluded from these assets. As a consequence, these vertical networks are all important. They are not egalitarian and they are not based on trust from the clientele towards the top, but on adaptation and negotiation. Africans don’t act this way by choice, but because they cannot avoid their patrimonial networks.

Cooperatives and trust
This state of affairs leads to two central questions. Do the members of the patrimonial networks trust the leadership? Do the members trust each other? Usually in vertical networks, one cannot avoid the people at the top. People will cooperate not because of trust, but for the benefit. Also, other people in the vertical network depend on people from the top more than from each other. The person on the top of course will not tell what privileges may have been granted to some other member of the clientele system, in order to prevent another person will claim the same favours. One has to deal with this system, because it is also your protective umbrella.

After a while, the outsiders gone, the board of the cooperative starts functioning as a vertical network
Government agencies and NGOs
Surely, in Africa times are changing as they are everywhere. Government agencies and NGOs work on these issues. They try to gain the confidence of farmers and make them cooperate. But often, even Africans themselves, forget where these farmers are coming from and how they will perceive the “cooperation”. In many instances NGOs make a serious effort to gain the trust of the farmers. After a while they think that it works and so after some years the project is handed over to a cooperative doing the same and continuing what has been started.

The project introduced reliable relationships from the top to the bottom and cooperation between the farmers. However, after the project has been handed over it starts to dysfunction. That’s when white Western donors often start complaining about the lack of ownership.

By ownership they understand that the board that took over continues to take the lead in establishing trust and egalitarian relationships from the top to the bottom. But old habits don’t die easily. After a while, the outsiders gone, the board of the cooperative starts functioning as a vertical patrimonial network. It grants privileges to each other and makes use of the dependency of the farmers. As a consequence, farmers opt out. They suddenly sell their produce elsewhere, because they see an opportunity, so they feel no commitment to each other and to the cooperative. That may even be the case if the board still is reliable. It’s African business as usual: if you find a better umbrella, make use of it!

Social transformation
I know I am telling a sad story. Probably I will receive the comment that this contribution is prejudgmental and pessimistic. From my side, I want to question the setup and procedures of most development projects. One cannot bring about social change merely by introducing new procedures and new technologies.

I know I am telling a sad story. Probably I will receive the comment that this contribution is prejudgmental and pessimistic. From my side, I want to question the setup and procedures of most development projects
By introducing new technology without the introduction of new value sets and new mindsets one will put new wine in old wineskins. In order to really make progress, a more comprehensive approach is required. Egalitarian relationships and partnerships require something different. The simple fact of installing a board of a cooperative does not only require economic and technical expertise, but also a different mindset and value set in order to make it work. The economic/technical and mindset/value set need to be addressed by an integrative approach towards development. A mostly Western agency gains the trust of the farmers and establishes new procedures and implicitly assumes that ownership will be present, because everybody appears to be very cooperative. But while western agencies assume they work on the basis of egalitarian relationships, commitment and ownership, their African counterparts see a new vertical network coming in from the outside.
After two or three years when the project is finished, commitment erodes. Why? The African often doesn’t think “how can we continue this beautiful new initiative?”, but “I need a patrimonial umbrella of some kind and I have lost mine.” Yes I know, I'm being straightforward here. Please - my dear African friends - prove me wrong.

Otto Kroesen teaches cross-cultural entrepreneurship at the Delft Center for Entrepreneurship, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. He published the book Cross-cultural Entrepreneurship and Social transformation: Innovative Capacity in the Global South, Lambert, Saarbrücken, 331pp, available here.