The case study explores the processes of an all-women cooperative constituted during the 2020 pandemic, Bolgatanga- Bawku-Navrongo (BBN) navigate their challenges and successes. These 1406 rice parboilers thrive, accentuating their concerted efforts through active participation.
Problems and Purpose
The Upper East region, part of Northern Ghana, with an economy based on agriculture, cattle rearing and production of cereals like millet, sorghum and rice, experiences widespread poverty due to outmoded farming practices, drought and a slow-down in economic activities as a result of perennial ethnic conflict. There are also gendered dimensions of poverty in the agricultural economy, where women are faced with deeper barriers tailored by societal gender expectations and accompanying challenges. Women are burdened with little to no resources, contributing significantly to the poverty within the region. Responding to these challenges, the goal of the BBN initiative was to help households in the Upper East to alleviate poverty by collectively organizing women to create better access to market, and expand their business and entrepreneurial skills. Active participation was ensured to maintain ownership of the initiative by women members and instil sustainability. The entire process therefore did not only integrate but facilitated women’s capacity
 GSS (2015)
 Asante & Amuakwa-Mensah (2015)
 Britwum et al (2019)
Background History and Context
The Upper East region in Ghana has very restrictive gender norms perpetuated by cultural values that tend to work against women’s empowerment. A prior study in one of the operational districts exploring women’s conception of empowerment highlights women’s subservient positioning to men and how that stamps their vulnerability through lack of access to adequate resources, unregularized marital arrangements that further stress some women in being responsible for the material upkeep of their kids.5 Forward-looking interventions, therefore, draw away from a top-down outlook to a non-linear strategy to improve end users’ capacities and livelihoods. The BBN Cooperative Union used a participatory approach to ensure women’s ownership and the initiative's sustainability even after the project exits. It was developed as a project goal commissioned by Société de coopération pour le développement international through a project, “The Inclusive and Sustainable Model Cooperative Development Program” (PROCED). The cooperative was officially established in 2020 and active operations began at the end of that year. These details will be further elaborated in the ensuing section.
Exploring a Desired-centered Narrative (a term borrowed as an alternate to damage-centered research as described by Eve Tuck), where the focus is moved away from typified vulnerability to strengths and positivity exuded by vulnerable groups. This initiative demonstrates the strength exhibited by resource-challenged rural and peri-urban women rice parboilers in one of the poorest regions in Ghana2. The focus is on their collective participation to build a formidable cooperative geared towards economically empowering themselves, households and their communities. These women specifically worked in rice parboiling, contributing to Ghana's growing local rice production. The parboiling business is a significant endeavour for rural women in Northern Ghana, where the Upper East region is located. Considered a woman’s job, the parboiling business faces various challenges. Significant among them is the constant competition with foreign imported rice due to the variability in the quality of parboiled rice, although comparatively better nutritious. Due to this competition, bridging the market to consume more parboiled rice is challenging. This is coupled with the difficulties in accessing good quality raw products, paddy rice, and affordable production costs – transport, water, fuel among others.
The BBN project, therefore, sought to address women’s challenges by introducing improved technology and substituting the fuelwood used, which is hostile to the health and environmental safety of the women and their communities. This was done by introducing the use of a byproduct of the process as fuel, thus reducing both health risks and financial costs. The ultimate goal was to bridge the market gap by connecting the final product - parboiled rice, to the right market. Therefore, the BBN was to enable members to gain better access to market and improve women’s economic livelihoods, and this was done through concerted efforts by the women with assistance from the project. It, therefore, did not follow the narrative where all activities are run by NGOs to assist
 Mapila et al 2012
 Socodevi, 2020
 Tuck 2009
 Quaye et al (2001)
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The BBN Cooperative Union is the result of a project which translates from French into English as “The Inclusive and Sustainable Model Cooperative Development Program” (PROCED). In Ghana, the project targeted improving livelihoods for member households, especially women, to build a model cooperative in the parboiled rice sector in the Upper East Region. PROCED Ghana is a government of Canada-funded project that spans from 2018 to 2023. The project is implemented by Société de coopération pour le développement international (SOCODEVI), an international NGO headquartered in Quebec, Canada. It is a network of cooperatives that share its strategic and technical expertise and knowledge with partners in developing countries.
The organization worked closely with 16 hired local staff who served as facilitators and specialists and a consortium including a governmental agency, Department of Cooperatives, Upper East Single Mothers Association and Youth Harvest Foundation-Ghana, both local NGOs. The first provided an interim milling site, and the latter connected the project to the women. Using the cooperative model, which operates under multiple participatory approaches, SOCODEVI through PROCED Ghana, with assistance from other local partners, empowered target participants to take charge of their development process by enabling a decent entrepreneurial experience.
 Socodevi (2022) https://socodevi.org/en/more-rice-available-for-the-local-market/
 Socodevi (2019)
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Although a key principle of cooperatives is voluntary and open membership, the BBN Coop requirement for membership was being female and a rice processor. Also, because the entire idea was drawn from a project, fifty–nine specific women-only farmer-based organizations (FBOs) in the Upper East region, introduced by SOCODEVI’s local NGO partner, Youth Harvest Foundation-Ghana, were engaged. However, the cooperative operated under individual membership, therefore members of the FBOs were only asked to participate voluntarily. The section engages with the recruitment and selection of leaders who played a significant role in the emergence of the BBN coop.
Before its establishment, fifteen women were member-appointed from the FBOs to lead the establishment of the cooperative as start-up committee members. There were two levels of the delegate system, both based on appointments.There was one at the district assembly level, where five members per FBO were appointed to facilitate a decentralized information-sharing system. These five appointed people varied based on the FBO’s discretion and the appointee’s commitment. Three of the five appointed members represented their FBOs at the regional general assembly level. During the first regional general assembly in September 2020, nine women were elected to serve on the board of directors, seven of whom were startup committee members and two delegates. There have been two elections since the coop was established in 2020. BBN coop is therefore made up of the members who willingly joined, their elected leaders, and appointed committee members
 Personal Reflection
Methods and Tools Used
The BBN coop used different participatory methods, including consultative, community participation and planning. All three were a two-way communication system to ensure that decision-making and planning were made by all BBN members. Each of the 59 FBOs was well presented at the delegate meetings to elect leaders, and also, the coop’s bylaws were co-drafted with 15 representatives from BBN and shared with members at the district delegate meetings. There were also various decentralized cluster forums (smaller group discussions where the delegates go to their groups to break down information shared at the delegate meeting and take back reactions from the members)12. These methods were realized through trainings and facilitations, meetings and regular FBO-based consultations. SOCODEVI recommended these methods to ensure that all cooperative members have equal decision-making and participation power. It was also to build autonomy and leadership among leaders and all members. The methods were used to ensure a self-sustenance system in the coop and instil a well-rounded accountability structure. The idea was to create and entrench ownership and commitment to the cooperative, even after the project exits, and thus the choice of these methods and tools. As such, members were fully committed to all the activities of the coop, regarding themselves as co-owners, decision-makers, and formulators in the entire process and not just receiving beneficiaries of the project. There was a sense of responsibility, as they financially committed to the coop through entrepreneurial decisions. As indicated, the BBN coop employed multiple tools in its activities. The tools employed in conjunction with one another or as a system helped realise the methods and the project's ultimate goal. They facilitated a constant relationship with members, easing information dissemination and collection and ensuring commitment by all members through participation and inclusive decision-making.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
An African proverb indicates that travelling alone, you go fast but, in a group, you go far1. This is one of the guiding principles of the BBN Coop in its operations. The cooperative model is highly participatory in nature due to the use of multiple approaches. The consultative, community participation and planning and cluster forums at the very beginning were used in facilitations and trainings to explain the goal of BBN to alleviate poverty among the households in the targeted communities by economically empowering the women involved. These methods were in 2019 conducted face to face at the FBO level. From there, leaders of the 59 FBOs, through regular cluster forums, regrouped into 15 cohorts and appointed a member each to initiate the establishment of the cooperative. These leaders met consultatively, and physically for eight months in three zones consecutively to discuss the co-op formation and complete the first draft of the co-op bylaws. Information to feed into the bylaws was done through a weekly information collection by the FBO leaders for the board members. They brought back feedback from BBN members to the leaders and vice versa. They worked in the interests of their representatives through these consultations 1,7,10,11,
However, during the peak of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, all these consultations paused for about three months, resumed online through the support of Socodevi facilitators, and then progressively resumed face-to-face meetings after restrictions were eased. Socodevi, in addition to facilitating the virtual meetings, also provided capacity building and leadership training and facilitation services only at the start-up committee level and assisted in the collaborative drafting of the BBN coop bye-laws. The idea behind focusing on only that level was for women to take charge of the FBO cluster forums independent of project implementors. It was also to build their leadership capacity and autonomy in collaborative consultation. The election by the delegate system facilitated the selection of leaders who will serve on the coop board. The voting system was conducted through secret balloting and overseen by Socodevi staff and other temporary aids who had no contact with women before the elections.
The election was done in a year at the end of the coop’s fiscal year, where financial and operational reports are presented, and decisions for the next year are made. All other participatory methods regularly occurred as a flowchart throughout the year.
Like a spectrum, discussions held at the board level were disseminated to the members at the FBO level, and feedback came from the cluster to the board. Ensuring a continuous system of consultation and community planning practice. The ultimate goal was to create a model cooperative, achieved using the methods. Throughout all processes, participants’ voices were the determinants in decisions made. Although there were leaders throughout the processes, they represented their constituents' opinions through cluster forums. The entire process, from the start of the consultations by the startup committee in 2019 to the present, 2022, thrived on collective decision-making.
Presently, the board makes decisions concerning the operations of the coop and communicates decisions made to members. They meet monthly to discuss operations. Despite that they are now responsible for decision-making, there have been several instances where they either refused to finalize a decision until after consulting with their members or rescind decisions made after engaging with members. Unlike enterprises or single private businesses, this extensive adherence to the multiple participatory methods slows the running of the coop. However, the idea is for each member to realize the full benefit of the coop, not just in decision making and capacity building, but economically being empowered as well .
 Meyer et. Al (2018)
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The entire process was initiated to develop a cooperative, which was achieved in the end. The interaction has significantly altered the narrative that African women can only be recipients of development aid. Women have proved their ingenuity and capacity to run the cooperative after the project exits. It has achieved membership of 1409 women across language, geography, religion and ethnicity. The effect that stands out is the increase in women’s capacity to think critically and act autonomously, independent of external influences. At the early stages of the project, these women were not too confident, shying away from talking much10. However, they have developed quality leadership and a good sense of self-esteemThe influence of participation and the various methods are accountable for the significant shift in women’s assertiveness.
All decisions are documented in the bylaws and meeting minutes from establishing the cooperative until its operations. The secretary, also a participant, documents the decision with the assistance of an administrative staff hired by the board. The binding decisions on the conduct of the coop are presented in the bylaws. In addition to assisting women to establish the cooperative, SOCODEVI found it useful to run field schools inviting men from various communities. The rationale was to emphasize positive masculinities to promote an egalitarian community. There have been testimonials of men assisting their wives in the processing, even though it is perceived as a feminine job. Their outlook on discourses on joint decision-making has been altered. This change has contributed to women’s increase in the size of production. One unexpected outcome was operating as a cooperative union. This was informed by the influence of their state partner, the Department of Cooperatives, which advised against a single cooperative operating across languages and locations.Although the plan has not been changed much, this intervention meant constituting small boards at the district level and with regional board members in their respective districts. Although unexpected, the only challenge was the need to run emergency district assemblies- this time not only to disseminate information but make decisions, which also delayed the legal registration period.
As part of its initiatives, the project organized a peer-mentoring program between the BBN coop and other cooperatives in Ghana's Northern and North-East regions and another from Burkina Faso. The idea was to create an experiential learning platform for the different cooperatives, nine in number, including the BBN coop, to learn from each other. Thus, participatory practices conducted by the BBN were shared with these other cooperatives and vice versa. The initiative realized its intended results not without its fair share of challenges, including limited financing and a protracted decision-making process, which will be elaborated on in the analysis section.
 Personal observation (2022)
 Messerschmidt (2019)
 Oral communication with a representative from the department of cooperatives
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The goal was to establish a cooperative that will help female rice parboilers to improve their economic livelihoods, and that was achieved. Due to the inclusive, participatory processes, there is a high sense of ownership and commitment to the cooperative, with participants acknowledging their empowerment through the processes as the quotes below indicated.
Madam Diana Asunpani, the Vice President of the BBN Co-operative commended Socodevi for helping them to establish as well as sustain the BBN Cooperative.
She said the Co-operative was a great empowerment to their livelihoods as it was helping them generate more income to support their families. (GNA, 2021)
“I am delighted that the cooperative’s members came together. Alone we go faster, but together we go further. Together, we will achieve our goals.” 1-Esther Nsohbila, BBN delegate for the district of Bolgatanga.[PE1]
Participants interact consensually with project implementers, not as beneficiaries, as is the norm, but as consenting partners in realizing a goal that would be essential to them as cooperative owners. However, the process was slow and cost-demanding due to the multiple and extensive participatory methods and tools used. As participants converged in a city in one of the three zones at every point in time. This meant the emergence of logistical costs, including travel, feeding and accommodation as zones are not close .Inspite of achievements indicated earlier, there are other financial trade-offs. Establishing a coop involves capital-intensive assets, including milling and processing sites and improved technology. Although SOCODEVI provided equipment, there is still the caveat: facilities housing this equipment isprovided by partners on a rental basis. Rent, initiated by SOCODEVI. These are dependent based on the entire initiative starting from a project. The project has also given the BBN Coop a lever to start with adequate support like the equipment and a revolving fund to keep operations running until they start accruing profits.
In retrospective, the challenges the BBN coop faces is not too different from challenges faced by other startup companies. What is different is that, they have 1406 members to pool resources to ensure sustainability. Imitating the goodwill cooperatives acquire as a result of size, this is not to ignore the negative effects of increased membership, such as freeriding and disloyalty, pointed out in an historical case study analysis of Ghanaian cocoa cooperatives. As well as the difficulties in accessing and accumulating capital among others. They have also been left with a good financial security system, through the venture capital invested by Socodevi to be able to operate till they create a good market niche. Unlike, other start-ups that may have resource challenges, they are located in the largest rice growing region in Ghana, and therefore supply of raw material is not a challenge.
As a resolution to the anticipated financial challenge, BBN members agreed that profit will only be shared after five years of operating, but rather reinvested. Their sense of commitment and ownership, and enthusiasm with which they operate, is a great learning point for other initiatives such as this. They are willing, even with the presence of their funding partner, to cut down on administrative and other operational costs so that after the project exits, they can run their system without hitches. Their loyalty to themselves, ensuring that they collectively build towards an end they can be proud of,is inspiring. Most of the expectations were met. The only outstanding matter was the expectation to get an onsite facility owned by them. However, the cooperative has partnered with three processing sites and warehouses until they are in the position to construct a site of their own.
Theoretical experiences of development practice are top-down as a result of expert/donor - beneficiary/recipient power relations, but this was more linear4 to a great extent. A critical lesson from this experience is including participants’ needs and interests in conceptualizing projects. This action discontinues the disconnect between intervention and the actual needs of the targeted participants. Participation is not also one time but should be a continuum to ensure sustainability. Trust is another important facilitator of participation because, without it, there would not have been any cooperative or continuous concerted effort to make the BBN stand. The methods used complemented each other at every step of the process. The tools served as great agents in executing the overarching methods. Regular meetings at the different levels helped the cooperative circle to touch base with each other, including members and leaders. Although thought impossible by the actor, Department of Cooperatives, operation has been successfully conducted across geographical locations and other differences. The level of inclusivity based on the methods is highly commendable
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