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Toward a shared vision on agricultural cooperatives in Tunisia, June 2017

14 June, 2017

Agricultural cooperatives, which account for about half of the world’s agricultural production, play a vital role in improving farmers’ access to inputs, financing, markets and technical know-how.   

But in Tunisia – where small family farms make up the lion’s share of farms – only 6 percent of the country’s producers belong to such cooperatives.  

On 12 April, Tunisia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Hydraulic Resources and Fisheries, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), hosted a workshop in the Tunisian city of Mahdia.  

The purpose was to share the preliminary findings from an FAO/EBRD study on agricultural cooperatives in Tunisia, and to begin mapping out a shared vision and action plan on agricultural cooperatives in the country.  

The event drew around 145 participants from across Tunisia, including representatives from agricultural cooperatives, inter-professional groups, government, international organizations and the private sector.  

The General Directorate for Financing, Investments and Professional Organizations (DGFIOP) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Hydraulic Resources and Fisheries, the Regional Commission for Agricultural Development of Mahdia and FAO’s office in Tunis provided support.  

Amor El Behi, the Secretary of State to the Minister of Agriculture responsible for agricultural production, noted the initiative’s timeliness, explaining that the country’s new investment law “encourages farmers to integrate into cooperatives by granting subsidies and investment premiums that are higher than those granted to individual farmers.”  

“The review of the cooperatives law will give more flexibility to the creation of cooperatives and investment,” he added.  

Good leadership key

The FAO/EBRD study looked at Tunisia’s best performing cooperatives, including dairy, olive oil, meat, poultry, horticulture, wine and multipurpose service cooperatives, to understand why they were successful.  

Through field visits and interviews, the FAO study team, in collaboration with DGFIOP, analysed cooperative governance and autonomy, market positioning, the social context, public policies and investment potential.  

It also looked at the constraints holding back cooperative development in the country.  

Good leadership was the common denominator among the more successful cooperatives, said Cristiana Sparacino, an FAO economist and team member.  

“The cooperatives that work well are the ones where people come together to resolve a problem and get a good, committed manager to help them find the solutions,” she said.  

Deepening the debate

During the workshop, participants broke off into working groups to discuss five main themes from the study.  

One group focused on the process of creating well-functioning cooperatives, while another looked at governance and management issues, reflecting on the different roles and responsibilities within the cooperatives.  

Another group discussed investment potential and access to financing and incentives.  

Integrating into value chains was also one of the themes. Agrifood industries should be encouraged to set up near production areas, while cooperatives and the private sector should enter into consortia agreements. Such agreements can promote innovation and help cooperatives access quality advisory and technical services.  

The fifth working group deepened the discussion around the importance of strengthening the business, leadership and management skills of actors within the cooperative sector, and also of supporting and monitoring the progress of start-up cooperatives.  

Next up

The FAO/EBRD team will incorporate the main observations and recommendations from the working groups into the study, which will be finalized shortly.  

Cooperatives contribute to greater efficiency in certain agrifood chains, create employment and bring more women and young people into the rural economy. That’s why keeping the momentum is crucial.  

One way to do that – as discussed during the workshop – would be to create a specific agency to champion cooperative sector development in Tunisia.  

Mohamed El Akermi, Director-General of DGFIOP, supported that idea as it “would unify and boost scattered initiatives in this domain.”  

For EBRD’s part, Hassen Messedi, Associate Banker in the EBRD office in Tunisia, underscored the Bank’s interest in exploring opportunities to strengthen the sector. 

“While the Bank’s emphasis remains on investment with private enterprises, it can also encourage, through technical assistance and policy dialogue, the graduation from bankable cooperatives to potential clients,” he said. “We recognize that the development of commercially viable agricultural cooperatives can help Tunisian farmers’ access markets and improve employment prospects in rural areas.”  

Learning from one another

FAO is now organizing a study tour for representatives from the cooperative sectors in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The visit will take place in July in Bretagne, France.  

It will enable participants from the three countries to learn from French cooperative leaders and also exchange experiences with one another.  

“The challenge for agriculture in the coming years is to produce sustainably, while ensuring sector competitiveness and profitability for farmers,” said Lamourdia Thiombiano, FAO Representative for Tunisia, adding that all three countries struggle with increasingly scarce and fragile natural resources. “Agricultural cooperatives can play an important role in responding to these challenges and providing farmers with a better environment in which to work.”  

For more information about the workshop