On Tuesday this week, Kenya witnessed the launch of the new multi-million-dollar five-year Co-operative Leadership Engagement Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) programme of Global Communities funded by USAid.
Governor Kivutha Kibwana of Makueni, Mary Mungai of the State Department of Co-operatives, US Embassy officials, and other dignitaries gathered at the Co-operative University of Kenya for the launch.
But what is the state of co-operatives in Kenya? Does membership in a co-operative make a difference in our Kenyan context? Do cooperatives get too much attention? Are cooperatives safe to join and safeguard member interests? Are perceptions about cooperatives only for lower income trades?
These salient questions hung in the air throughout the launch and annual co-operatives conference.
The Government of Kenya invests heavily in uplifting the cooperative sector and supports 2,990 official cooperatives. But much of Africa does not value or emphasise cooperatives, such as in Zimbabwe. Who is correct?
Chairperson of FundiTech Service Cooperative, George Okari, indicated during the session that institutions that were once meant to strengthen the cooperative sector, such as Cooperative Bank, have since seemed to upscale focusing on non-cooperative member clients.
Mr Okari also stated that many institutions talk about creating innovation hubs focused on co-operative development but fail to act in rolling out such labs.
Kristin Wilcox, the CLEAR Chief of Party, highlights in her research around the world that many people join co-operatives due to social linkages just as much and often more than the economic benefits.
Meanwhile Daniel Marube, the CEO of the Co-operative Association of Kenya, laments that the prevailing opinion in the country is that co-operatives are the domain of low-income groups and not as desirable for middle class and upper class.
However, Ashley Holst of the research group OCDC Cooperative Development based in Washington, D.C, announced results from a new study in Kenya that surveyed 2,022 cooperative members and non-members. The findings show that Kenyan co-operative members hold higher average annual incomes than national statistics and compared to non-members.
But it also found that Kenyans believe the economic benefits and perceptions of co-operatives are clear despite social indicators of membership not proving statistically significant.
Many co-operatives do not provide social programmes or members are not aware that such programmes exist. Sadly, their study also uncovered a severe underrepresentation of women in co-operatives across the nation.
Research by Tanguy Bernard, Stefan Dercon, and Alemayehu Taffesse found in Ethiopia that their citizens in rural areas felt that no matter what they do they cannot get ahead. Does rural Kenya also suffer from such fatalistic opinions? Do co-operatives help boost aspirations in such instances?
Research released last year by USIU-Africa found that Kenyans strongly desired fairness in organisations as one of the strongest drivers of their participation in member-based entities.
Co-operatives by their nature as a one-member equals one-vote model instead of the corporation model of investment indicated by proportional shares leads to some of the fairest economic structures in the world. Will Kenyans in the middle class and upper income categories also flock to form service and innovative cooperatives to bolster their economic and social well-being? Time will tell as Kenya struggles to equally share the wealth from a decade of rapid economic growth with all citizens.
The divergent difference in research and results along with wide gaps in the literature necessitate further in-depth scientific studies on the cooperative sector in Kenya. The CLEAR programme seeks to research such gaps but much more research across the academic, civil society, and corporate sectors is also needed to investigate potential causes, effects, and transformations of these trends.