Felix Meier zu Selhausen
In many Sub-Saharan African economies, women face greater barriers than men in accessing markets to sell their agricultural produce (at reasonable prices) and to access capital to raise farm productivity and incomes. These barriers often limit women’s ability to move from subsistence agriculture to more profitable, higher value chains. Against this background, participation in collective action through agricultural marketing cooperatives has been promoted as one promising strategy for women to overcome gender-specific market imperfections. Cooperatives pool smallholder farmers’ produce and link them to international and domestic markets to achieve economies of scale and negotiate better prices. Although gender is held as a key determinant of people’s ability to participate in collective action, a deeper understanding of the determinants of women’s participation in cooperatives is still missing. This study offers a first pass at analyzing the determinants of: (1) women’s membership in cooperative producer groups and (2) women’s intensity of participation within this collective action institution.
The data for this analysis was collected using a structured survey of 421 female cooperative members drawn from twenty-six producer groups and 210 randomly selected nonmember smallholders from the same treatment area in 2012. The cooperative under study, Bukonzo Joint Cooperative, is a coffee cooperative located along the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains in Western Uganda. The cooperative was founded in 1999 and by 2012 came to organize 2,200 smallholder farmers into seventy-four producer groups that benefit from international coffee marketing, microfinance, and agricultural extension services.
Women’s participation in cooperatives. First, this study explored the factors that motivated women’s initial cooperative membership using multivariate regression analysis. The results highlight the importance of women’s access to and control over land for participating in collective action. However, polygamy and various retrospective measures of women’s agency over their marriage timing and partner choice are not significantly different between members and nonmembers, which implies that the initial conditions under which women’s marriages took place are dynamic and do not necessarily impede future participation in collective action. It rather highlights that marriage-related institutions of land access remain an important obstacle for women’s participation in collective action. Also, cooperative members were more likely to have attended agricultural trainings prior to membership, suggesting that voluntary trainings within the community may be one strategy to recruit new women members.
Women’s intensity of participation. Second, the study investigated what determined women members’ ability to participate within their cooperative. Women’s participation intensity is measured through their degree of participation in collective coffee marketing and shared capital contributions to the cooperative. Unlike previous studies that emphasized group characteristics, this study points to women’s intrahousehold decision-making agency and spousal cooperation as essential aspects of women’s ability to actively participate in collective action. When spouses pooled their incomes, women were more likely to participate in collective coffee marketing and increasingly committed to share capital. Similarly, joint land ownership in the cooperative increased the likelhood of selling household coffee through the cooperative. This mechanism is reinforced by the fact that husband’s co-membership in the cooperative enhanced the cooperative’s marketing prospects. In addition, women with greater decision-making agency concerning household expenditures showed a greater ability also to financially commit themselves to their cooperative, which may further strengthen women’s agency at home.
Policy recommendations. The findings imply that gender inequalities at the household level matter for women’s participation in collective action. Therefore, cooperatives that address members’ intrahousehold gender relations have the potential to enhance both women’s (degree of) participation in collective action and the effectiveness of the cooperative itself. Because cooperatives are community-based and build on members’ trust, they present unique entry points for strategic programs that strengthen both women members’ capacities in agricultural production and marketing as well as challenging intrahousehold gender inequalities, which, in turn, can increase women’s participation in collective action. Integrating both wives and their husbands into farmer groups and actively promoting women’s (and joint) formal land titles yield enormous potential to enhance both the effectiveness of the cooperative and to improve women’s intrahousehold agency and future land security.