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Starting a Co-op Journey to Build a Shea Movement in Okere

Cooperative societies have traditionally been used as vehicle for facilitating rural reforms and agrarian transformations world over. In Uganda, cooperative movements brought together different stakeholders to pursue their own interest and work together as a collective force to be responsible for shaping their own destinies. However, with coming into force of the Washington Consensus' Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the World Bank in the 1980s, Cooperatives were weakened and to date, they remain a relic of the past economic glories - albeit some initiatives by the government to resuscitate them.

One of the most significant role played by cooperative societies is value-chain development of various agricultural enterprises. In Uganda, for instance, Kibinge Coffee Cooperative has played a key role in improving coffee farm productivity, cleaning and processing the coffee beans and turning them into high end commercial products. It is on this basis, that the farmers in Okere village in Northern Uganda have come together to cooperate to build a shea movement through Okere Shea Cooperative Society.

Okere Shea Cooperative Society aims to bring together 500 community members (80% of whom will be women) as a collective effort to build a movement around the protection of shea trees and enabling the rural community in Okere to harness the socio-economic benefits of the natural resource. The Coop will thus incentivize and empower the people of Okere, especially the women to not only become better custodians of shea trees be also be strategically positioned to tap into the multiple benefits of shea butter.

The inaugural meeting to start-up Okere Shea Cooeprative Society was held on Friday 11th Sept 2020 at Okere Community Centre and 120 community members were in attendance. The objective of the meeting was to introduce members to the concept of a cooperative society and enable them to appreciate it. The meeting also acted as a unique opportunity for the members to register to join the coop and also elect the interim leadership team to steer the coop into the right direction.

The inaugural meeting was facilitated by Charles Opio who heads the Commercial Department of Otuke District Local Government. Mr. Opio commended the community members for not only attending the meeting but also for expressing their interest to work together to harness the full potential of shea trees which is a natural resource in Okere. He took participants to the cooperative values which among others include honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

Charles Opio, Otuke District Commercial Officer

Whilst members have shown much enthusiasm to join the cooperative from the start, Mr. Opio also warned the farmers that managing a cooperative society is a complex affair which requires a leadership team which is accountable to the members and innovative enough to adopt leadership and management styles which work for greater good of the members.

“I have supported many Cooperatives to start-up their work but there is almost no cooperative society to be proud of in Otuke” Opio regrettably said. “But, I am willing and happy to do whatever it takes to make sure that Okere Shea Cooperative lives to see a brighter sun soon” he concluded on a promissory note.

During the meeting, a new interim team led by the Chairman, Treasurer, Secretary and two advisors. Mary Ochen, one of the strong women in Okere and a fierce campaigner against the cutting down of shea trees was elected as the in interim Chairperson of the cooperative; Mary Achen another renowned shea butter local producer was voted as the treasurer whilst Aker Patrick who is the Chairperson of the local VSLA group was elected to serve as the interim secretary. Akello Rose and Awoyi Moses were nominated as members to serve in committee of the interim leadership.

Elected leaders having a reflection shortly after the meeting

Mr. Ojok Okello, the CEO of Okere City and patron/interim Chair of the Okere Shea Coop board applauded the members for coming together as a collective to tap into the Shea natural resource for “our collective betterment”. “In fact, the Coop should be a unique opportunity to enable us conserve our environment and serve our community at the same time”. “Therefore, the cooperative will enable us to sustainably thrive if we embrace it and be relentless in our pursuits to make it work” Ojok further noted. Conclusively, he emphasised that Okere Shea Cooperative Society will give the community the opportunity to collect more shea nuts and add more value to it bringing it better economic benefits to the members and the community at large.

To conclude the meeting, it was imperative that members understood and have a fervent appreciation of some of the cooperative principles. Thus, through a participatory process, members reflected on some of aspects discussed below;

i. Membership to Okere Shea Coop will be voluntary and open to all people of Okere and neighbouring village regardless of gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination as long as they are willing to accept the responsibilities of membership.

ii. Okere Shea Cooperative shall strive to be a democratic and member controlled organization by having its members actively participate in setting its policies and making decisions. At the Coop, the leaders serving as elected representatives are will be mandated to be accountable to the membership. Similarly, Okere Shea Coop members shall have equal voting rights (one member, one vote).

iii. The economic participation of each of all members of Okere Shea Cooperative Society shall be supreme. Members of the cooperative shall contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. At least part of that capital will usually be the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing Okere Shea Coop, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

iv. Okere Shea Cooperative shall remain autonomous and continuously remain a self-help organisation controlled by their members. If coop enters into agreements with other organisations, including governments, NGOs, venture capitalists or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.

v. Okere Shea Cooperative shall prioritise Education and Training while at the same addressing Information needs of the members. The Cooperative shall provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of co-operation. The training and educational needs shall cover crucial aspects such as nature conservation and environmental protection, gender, human and women’s right’s among others.

vi. The ultimate aim of Okere Shea Cooperative shall be to work towards ensuring sustainable community development in Okere and beyond.

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