On the Road with NCBA: View from the Center (of Mozambique)
Due to internet access issues, I’ve got a few days stored up. So this first post on the road will be a bit long.
One cool thing about my very long flight was that the South African Airways dairy buyer seems to like co-ops. We had Tillamook cheese, Land O’ Lakes butter, and yogurt from some relatively dinky outfit called the Upstate Niagara Cooperative. There was also a fair trade wine from a worker-controlled South African project called Fairhills. I love that sort of thing, when farmers can get their products on international flights. I’m curious to see what brands they have coming back.
In the afternoon of my first day on the ground, I met up with my hosts Maria Jose (a consultant who works with the CLUSA program) and Momed Rafico (the president of the Mozambican Association for Promotion of Modern Cooperation, or AMPCM), and got a proper driving tour. One surprising highlight included a gorgeous century-old train station where we found a mysterious train car labeled “Cooperazione Italiane. Anyone who can convincingly explain how what appears to be a co-op train car wound up in Africa will win a prize.
While having a drink in the evening, I learned a few interesting historical tidbits:
My favorite was about is a neighborhood on the map that caught my eye, labeled simply “Coop.” I asked whether there is a story, and got more than I bargained for: It turns out that during the late colonial period, a group of Portuguese organized a huge co-op, with 6,000 houses, a bank, grocery store and other amenities. Alas, when independence came most of them bailed out and the place was nationalized, effectively becoming a public housing project. Now, it turns out the government is tired of running the joint and wants to give it back to the residents. Trouble is, the 20% of current residents who were formerly co-op members now have a claim on the place, especially since the nationalization law was apparently not properly ratified and therefore the old titles are still valid. Yikes.
We started my second day with a few tours. First we stopped by a credit association called Associacao Phambeni Makwero. All of the employees were in their early 20s, including the director, Atimo, who showed us around their sparse but spotless offices in an building owned by the Catholic group Caritas.
They aren’t a co-op, with a fundamental difference that they refer to their 2000 “beneficiaries” and are governed by an appointed board that is mainly priests (although these select a couple of beneficiaries to join them). They offer mainly commercial and home improvement loans, with a rate of 4.5% (less than half the country’s fierce inflation rate, and a quarter what banks usually charge). They also offer savings accounts, insurance to cover funeral costs, and a new loan program for appliances. Their portfolio is about $200,000, with loans ranging from $100 to $1000 on a repayment schedules range from 6-12 months. Commercial loans are offered only to women. They have three branches in the suburbs, where poverty is the worst and their services are most needed. Despite taking only 4-7 days to approve loans, they have had only 10 of 800 loans default this year.
Our next stop was CoopMed, a cooperative of 80 doctors, including Rafico. They are based on a Brazilian model, providing mainly fee-for-service medical care including minor surgical procedures. They are open 24 hours a day with a general practitioner always present. Their services include pediatrics and gynecology, and they hope to re-start the dental practice by the end of the year. They have eight beds, as well as their own lab for basic test work. Their main difficulty is that specialists can make more money at private clinics, so they are sometimes less available to do their clinic work.
Stop number three was the Polana neighborhood consumer co-op, a tidy little store with amazing prices, like 30c for toothpaste and wine for about a quarter what I paid last night. This connects to another interesting story I first heard last night: After independence, most of the Portuguese shopkeepers left. So the government set up more than a 2000 “co-op” grocery stores, including about 80 in Maputo. After the end of the People’s Republic, competition made these unprofitable and now all but three have ceased to operate. Most simply dissolved, but I hear than nine survived by becoming a sort of cooperative real estate holding company; they rent out their spaces and split the proceeds among their members.
Then we had a meeting with the AMPCM. We met crammed into a room shared with the national farmers’ union (an AMPCM member), but it was an amazing meeting. The first hour was spent introducing me to all their members, including several agricultural groups, a co-op of tradespeople, a recycling co-op that has given former scavengers a better life cleaning and processing, and the consumer co-op association. The second hour was a business meeting, and that’s where it got really interesting. They are just starting out with only 15 members but big plans are in motion.
As an after-effect of their startlingly successful work reforming the law (with key help from NCBA’s CLUSA International program, which also played an essential role in the creation of AMPCM), they recently met with the prime minister to hash out some details of the regulations. He has asked them to come back for a meeting of the full cabinet to explain the benefit co-ops more fully. Try picturing that in the U.S.!
The other amazing thing is that there is a big national trade show coming up in a few weeks, and they are getting a professionally-developed 100 square-foot booth, featuring a video monitor, as well as several square meters of display space for each member. And while they were at it, Maria showed the designers a brochure she got from CLUSA’s work in Indonesia, holding it up as a model for how she would like the handouts.
And if that isn’t enough, they have a detailed and very ambitious four-year strategic plan under development, which includes a detailed $1.3 million budget to focus on housing, health, consumer and agricultural co-ops. They plan to devote 70 percent of the budget to activities, including study trips to visit Kenya and Tanzania.
What has me most excited is that this group seems to be gaining its own momentum. It probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point without years of ongoing support from CLUSA. But now they seem to be starting to strike out on their own. Due to the general poverty of the country, they are still in need of grants from groups in wealthier nations. However, they seem to be identifying and approaching these grantors under their own initiative. That suggests to me that the overall CLUSA approach is working, and we should be keeping an eye on how we might continue to back AMPCM and looking for other nations in which this sort of potential is brewing.
After the meeting, Rafico and Maria took me out to one more lunch before the airport. We had a great talk about whether the “buy local” impulse can be nurtured in a society where so many are living day-to-day and totally focused on immediate survival. We had a lively debate with no clear resolution. But one thing that seems likely to me is that local production in Mozambique has a long way to go before it can compete with imports from South Africa and elsewhere. If they are to compete, I think they need to do that in a two-pronged approach, in which consumer co-ops in the Global North provide the initial volume to develop infrastructure and economies of scale. This is obviously just the germ of an idea, but I’m going to be chewing on this thought for the rest of the week.
I’m now in Nampula, which is a much smaller and dustier version of Maputo. My hotel is on the top two floors of the tallest and most fancy building in town, which also houses a small mall and offices. CLUSA’s office is almost directly below me. Despite the upbeat news article claiming that telecommunications are “back to normal” there is no internet in the hotel.
In the morning, we’re getting up early and driving for an hour to visit two farmer associations – one brand new, and one starting to become more of a co-op. I look forward to seeing this from the grassroots. After a short and incomplete glimpse of things from the capital, I’ll be able to see the most basic part of the work here. From there, I hope to start filling in the gaps, gaining a better idea of what’s happening.