Genuine Cooperative or Shady Operation?

 The NextWomen Social Entrepreneurship Theme

Cooperative is the latest word in bullsh*t bingo. Especially a “womens’ cooperative”, which is heart-tugging term for either a deep working relationship between ladies in a village who bring each other forward economically and emotionally through a common commercial venture, or the front end of a normal business that’s using buzz words to get attention.

One has to be aware, there are shark entrepreneurs who stand behind some of the so-called cooperatives and it is only by going to some and looking around, can one track a source of either external funding, or hard self labour.

I can smell it in the air.

After spending the last five years spending time from the rivers to the mountains in various agrarian settings, I’ve developed some rudimentary senses that somehow indicate authentic women’s cooperatives and inauthentic.

I see it with amenities, western toilets, jewellery, commercial oriented storytelling, hard-selling, well-versed story telling about the ‘hot’ phrases as heard from Europe or the US like “responsibility” or “fair”. In my experience, anyone working responsibly and fairly never says it, because it’s such a natural way of life.

Those under or betwixt commercial puppetry are often the charlatans using bullsh*t bingo to press the buttons of well-meaning buyers or tourists.

Like any artisan, you’ll more find the authentic heart-felt creator in any village proudly standing up for their creation presenting the craft first, and the commercials second. As a tourist, one should keep this sense abound and without being sceptical, consider all contexts when being sold. We’re used to this style with buying “antiques”, and we know to question origin and authenticity, to look at welding joints, and scratch beneath the surface. It’s with this awareness, we need to also approach modern sales and the cooperative trend. Although cooperatives is the most ancient form of commercial organisation, it’s modern reincarnation has a buzz element surrounding it.

In my experience:

An authentic developing country cooperative will be very rough, but extremely proud. They will take time answering your questions, they will really think through the answers, they are ultra proud, they will tell you all the details and they don’t answer in approximates; they answer in exact infos. They will often look to the floor, look around, they will answer the questions like matter of fact, they will use descriptive words, they will upfront tell you the problems. Even if they don’t know the answer, they will ask someone in the next room, who is the expert, for the answer. If they don’t speak your language, there will be someone who will make sure to ask the absolute expert in the topic of your question for the answer. You will leave feeling full of love.

A somewhat shady operation masking as a cooperative or womens’ support association will have a man speaking at the front, the women will be doing the labour, there will be a clear authority relationship. The ladies identified as “owning” the cooperative will be shuffling at the floor, they will be subservient to the man, the man will answer all the questions bombastically, quickly and using approximates. When you ask circular questions, they will contradict themselves and forget what they said before. They are probably extremely knowledgeable about the operation, but won’t speak from heart; more from process, from outcome. They will have buzzwords as learnt from the internet or a magazine, they will have rehearsed their answers. They look you directly in the eye and answer your question before you’ve finished asking it. Then they’ll answer your next question before you’ve even asked it. The ladies will never be asked a question, or be invited to contribute to an answer, or explain anything. In fact, they should just stay working. You will leave feeling sceptical.

An authentic source will go like this, not all explained in one sentence, but after a series of Q&A, the summary is this:

“We are a cooperative of 15 women. A woman from Holland in the north of Morocco taught us how to make goat cheese. We used this little mould the first time. There are 2 ladies who look after the goats every day, and 3 of us make the cheese. We rotate the jobs. When we are at work, our children stay at the house of the ladies in the cooperative who are not working, or with a neighbour. We would like to learn to make yoghurt. We store our cheese in these boxes, and send them to the city. We can make 150 cheeses a day. When we get more milk from the goats, we store them in a cool pressure container. We share the money between us, like a wage. Sometimes we get less because we have to buy things, like a material or a new goat. Sometimes we get more because we made a lot. We would like to get enough money to buy some goats for the ladies in the next village, to make a cooperation like ours. We will help them.”

Another version of presenting a cooperative is this:

“We are an argan oil cooperative with many large hectares of trees. I live in London. My wife is grinding the oil and she found these ladies to be part of the cooperative. We have all the organic seals in the world. We are approved by every organisation. We ship all over the world. We can do big export for you. I have house in London. We have ladies who come and work for the cooperative to produce enough oil for what we need. They all get money. This is made especially for the ladies. This was my wife’s idea. Come watch ladies split nut. It takes long time, is why it is such precious oil. We have best facilities to process it. We do it by hand or by a machine. We do mostly by hand. We always do hand pressed oil. Here are the machines for our production. Expensive from Germany. This is the machine for cosmetic oil, and this for food oil. I can’t show you the hand grinder, because it’s not here. You can look at this small grinder and watch my wife grind nuts. She’s very quick. This my son, he is taking over the business.”

Generally you can’t talk to the ladies directly, someone will speak “for” them (eg not even translate).

Core questions you can ask:

  • Where did the money come from?
  • What are the next steps for the cooperative?
  • What government funding is available?
  • How does the pay-back process work? Is there interest?
  • What is the community support?
  • Who looks after the children during work times?
  • How does the labour get divided up?
  • How do they learn new techniques? Who taught? Who do they teach?
  • Look for signals that either sustain their story or not by looking at the:
  • The book-keeping section (how it’s set up, and ordered will give away some info)
  • The toilets (traditional vs. modern)
  • The level of technology around generally (smart phone vs. old Nokia, laptops vs. chunky CPU)
  • The sophistication of marketing materials – brochure, business card, website
  • Look at the email address (you’ll find little cooperatives often use hotmail/gmail/yahoo still)
  • Look at the clothing, jewels, finger nails, hands, eyes, brow line

It’s not about being sceptical, it’s about using all your senses to read the situation carefully and see if what you feel is being related to what you’re being told.

We can still make decisions to support all sorts of cooperatives, whether we think they really cooperate or not. The west is dominated by companies who don’t even pretend to give a damn about people.

I certainly can say, even in the organisations who framed as women’s cooperatives, but weren’t really as benevolent as they represent, the engagement seemed infinitely more humane than most corporations listed on the stock exchanges. Similarly so, we should use these same identifiers to look at our own backyards, what are the multinational corporations saying about Corporate Social Responsibility and if we applied these principles, do you think they would stand up to an authenticity test?

Think about it.

Alyssa Jade McDonald is the founding MD of BLYSS GmbH. The name BLYSS comes from the English word „bliss“, which literally describes a state of profound happiness and joy. Alyssa Jade felt the fusion of bliss and her own name, Lyss, was a commitment to bringing joy into the world via a consciously-indulgent gourmet experience and evolving business methods to bring communities forward together, from addressing diabetes in the Gulf to standards of living in South America. For more information about Alyssa, see her profile.

Photo credit Claudia Stocksieker.

Thank you for your eloquently written article Alyssa.

While living in the US, I have experienced the rise of vocabulary terms such as "Green", "Fair Trade", "Corporate Social Responsibility" and such. With the rise of so many different certifications, these words don't mean anything to me.

I am skeptical anytime I enter a Whole Foods chain and see the next "Fair Trade" coffee bean or chocolate bar. Coming from a country that produces both commodities, I have also experienced what you describe in this article many times. The farmers I encounter don't really see the benefits of green washing.

The question that I have is: How can a regular consumer differentiate between a real "Fair Trade" product and a "Green Washed" one? The authentic women cooperatives that you describe, don't really have the capital that it takes to brand their products and actually enter the market.

I am open to a discussion about the subject.

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