Professor Bina Agarwal sees cooperative models as a solution for the agricultural sector in the South

“Collectively they have more land, can invest more and share their skills and knowledge. This boosts their productivity and profits.”

Professor Bina Agarwal has an impressive CV of positions, prizes, honorary doctorates and pioneering publications. Agarwal, professor of Economic Development and Environment at the University of Manchester, possesses extensive knowledge of the problems faced by small farmers. Based on her research work, she advocates cooperative models of agriculture as a possible solution.

Small-scale farmers, major concerns

“Small-scale farmers have to cope with all kinds of limitations. They only have one or two hectares of land to work and have little access to fertilisers, irrigation, markets and new technology. And because they have nothing to offer in terms of collateral - land or other assets - the bank is unwilling to lend them money. It is even harder for female farmers to access loans. And because legislation discriminates against them in terms of inheritance law and land distribution, women often have no land at all.”

Cooperative farming as a solution

“For small-scale farmers, bundling their limited resources offers a great deal of potential. Collectively they have more land, can invest more and share their skills and knowledge. This boosts their productivity and profits. In former socialist countries, where state land was divided after the political upheavals, some farmers reunited their land and means of production. Research shows that these cooperative farms produce more than individual family farms.”

Not all cooperatives are the same

“Cooperative collaboration is now characterised by many different levels. The farming groups I study are committed to what I call ‘integrated cooperatives.’ They bring together land, money, labour and other resources, and also manage the entire production process together. They all contribute equally and everyone does their share of the work. This intensive cooperative cooperation, which also includes daily tasks, requires a great deal of mutual trust and commitment. It is precisely this form of far-reaching cooperative farming that offers small-scale farmers the prospect of a better life.”

What about microfinancing?

“Microfinancing is part of this solution. The institutional structure provided by the microfinancing movement serves as a good basis for the development of cooperative farming. The group structure forms the core of the innovation. For example, the success of Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank rests on the premise that, if you give credit to small groups, the group members provide a guarantee for each other. This institutional innovation is important. It ensures that all members ultimately receive a higher loan than through an individual application.”

My contribution as a researcher

“Poverty, inequality and injustice have always concerned me. There are many ways you can try to do something about it. I chose to become a researcher, to understand the processes that lead to poverty and social and economic inequality. In the hope of finding potential solutions.

My research work led to the understanding that new technologies alone are not enough to reform our agricultural system. We also need to make sure they reach farmers and that the latter use them effectively. This requires a group approach.

I hope that in time my work can improve the lives of small-scale farmers, including more and more women.”