What are Farmer Based Organizations Networks / Apex Bodies?
by Nana Oforiwaa Koranteng, Development Economist
Farmer Based Organizations (FBOs) Networks and Apex organizations act as mouthpieces of FBOs and represent their interest in ensuring the best possible financial and social positions for their members within the national economy.
They provide a platform for the provision of promotional and advisory services and become the conduit for advocacy with collaborators, especially, in pricing and other marketing negotiations with distributors and industrialists.
They emerge as networks of local NGOs usually of common commodities within a given value chain and are organized and controlled by the farmers themselves. The fact that they are apex bodies implies the existence of a network of bodies from a base to the top. Since farmer groups are owned by farmers, apex bodies must by default be owned by farmers.
Ownership however may not necessarily imply direct management since like any other corporate institution the owners/shareholders may hire management expertise for its efficient administration albeit under the auspices of a controlling authority.
Currently, there are many FBOs, most of which were formed to respond to project requirements. They therefore do not last beyond a project period. A recent exercise to register FBOs generated considerable challenges for the FBO secretariat from persons who thought they had been excluded despite their being in existence for ever; others who thought their existence was from projects thought they did not have anything to do with the MOFA. In all these it appeared the overriding resistance was from a perception of the ministry trying to control FBOs; a situation which seemed to pose a threat to some existing kingdoms. Maybe we cannot discount this erroneous perception altogether since MOFA tenaciously clings to FBOs formed under the AgSSIP program in their reporting and other collaborative efforts with their partners.
A validation exercise undertaken by independent consultants, provided some startling insights; most of which had bearings on FBOs with no active/paid up constituent members; FBOs without constitutions and sadly in some situations some FBOs without traceable addresses. I must admit there were also very credible FBOs and even self sustaining networks whose credibility led to the establishment of an active database and a website.
Most of them have not evolved from the recognition of a need to congregate to take advantage of strength in numbers. This has been the bane of FBO development in Ghana.
Granted that the website is not the most up to date locus for information on FBOs but it provides in the very least a reference point as may be attested to by many local and foreign agencies including IFPRI in its research on FBOs in Ghana.
Similarly, there may be institutions identified as apex bodies but it has been difficult to identify who really owns them, the relationship between them and their constituencies, especially, in areas of advocacy, and financing.
Why Do We Need Apex Bodies/Networks?
One of the expected outcomes of support to the promotion of FBOs under AgSSIP was to create opportunities for FBOs to develop networks towards apex organizations. Such apex organizations are the mouthpieces of the FBOs and represent their interest at national and even international forum. They provide a platform for the provision of promotional and advisory services and become the conduit for advocacy with collaborators including distributors and industrialists.
Apex networks are necessary to enable FBOs take advantage of the economies of scale in numbers.
As farmer association networks, FBOs become a civil society force at various levels of decision making that allows them to bring their specific issues to policy makers both within the private and public sectors.
Within the context of Ghana’s food and agriculture development policy (FASDEP II), it has become necessary to encourage FBOs to evolve from community levels through district to regional and national apex groups that can advocate on behalf of their members. This will allow them at various levels to benefit from the many advantages that may accrue from population thresholds that will make them economically viable.
Advantages of Local/Community FBO Networks
- Local level FBO networks may benefit from commodity specific extension services through MOFAs extension agents as well as any other service delivery agencies including input supply dealers;
- The local networks can also organize marketing of their produce at sub-district or area market centers where with larger quantities and a common voice they are likely to gain better prices for their farm produce. At this level it will be easier to promote adherence to standards and good agricultural practices.
- In addition cooperating/associating at local levels will enable them have credibility and enhance collaboration with financial institutions in accessing financial resources at the market place to sustain their operations.
- FBO networks at local/community levels provide ideal numbers for capacity building and training in business skills, accounting and financial management, adherence to entrepreneurship principles including transparency and accountability as well as organizational leadership.
It is important to caution at this point that the purpose of associating or belonging to an FBO should not be for receiving credit or resources ONLY
Advantages of District /Regional/National Networks
- FBO networks at district and higher levels are generally responsible for seeking input and output markets for their members advocating for their interests, and serving as agents for self assessment and adherence to standards.
- FBOs networks provide opportunities for Post production management through improved supply chain management with emphasis on developing linkages between clusters of small to medium scale farmers and processors to be recipients of technical advice and logistics; and the development of commodity brokerage services to support marketing of agriculture produce;
- Particularly at the national and regional levels, FBO networks provide a vehicle for the promotion of demand-driven research for Science and Technology in Food and Agriculture. Through the relay of information based on identified issues from their networks to scientists, FBOs can direct research towards achieving the objectives of FASDEP. A clear area for their participation will be representation on the Research-Extension-Farmer Linkage Committees (RELCs). They can also enhance opportunities for sustained funding of research by partnering with the private sector (including farmer groups) and NGOs to identify and adopt innovative approaches to agricultural research funding and commercialization;
- As indicated earlier, FBOs provide opportunities as vehicles for rural and agricultural development. Through them, government and donor agencies may deliver support for capacity building, and even technologies to enhance their operations. However, as was learnt from an evaluation of MOFA promoted FBOs, when such support becomes the raison d’être for the formation of FBOs their chances of survival become limited.
In concluding, I would like to emphasize a few points that help in sustaining FBOs and pose some questions to engender further discussions on how to sustain FBO networks.
- Like any other voluntary organization, farmers/fishermen/herdsmen must be free to join up and participate democratically in their FBOs. This implies reducing potentials for domination of the group by persons with kinship or other bonding ties.
- FBOs must to the extent possible be self-financing. Members should agree on levies that will enable them cover administrative costs and must contribute equities that assures them of their membership status and right to ownership.
- There must be equity in decision making: The need to ensure equity for all irrespective of gender, class and kinship in an association can never be overemphasized. This can be assured if shareholding rights are clearly spelt out and participation is dependent on contribution to the organizations sustenance.
- Membership in an FBO does not necessarily guarantee credit: Whilst this may not be documented, it appears that most people join FBOs with an intention to receive credit most of which are not paid back because it is “government money”. I will like to disabuse this notion. On the other hand members may institute their own financial institution to support themselves. The Credit Union Association (CUA) of Ghana is a typical example of self-owned financial institution.
- FBOs are employers of their administrative staff and not vice versa. Quite often, employees of cooperative associations do not demonstrate sufficient commitment to members of the group, a situation which leads to dissatisfaction and their eventual disintegration. On the other hand members of FBOs should strive to understand key principles of association to hold their leaders and employees accountable
HOW DO WE GET FARMERS TO OWN THEIR ORGANIZATIONS?
In principle therefore an FBO apex body cannot exist without a constituency of farmers or allied groups of agriculture operators. To be an owner of an organization has its obligations, the first of which is sustaining its existence. In other developing economies, particularly, in Asia and East Africa, such Organizations are forces to reckon with since they determine prices and even supply levels. Quite often because they are voluntarily formed based on need, they are sustained through shared interest of their members. Their employees are encouraged to work on their behalf mainly to protect their own survival and secure their career developments. FBOs are basically unionized farmers and must be managed just as other professional and trade associations are managed in the country.
Some questions to ask ourselves include:
- To which extent do we respond to the requirements of being an apex body?
- What contribution do our members make towards maintaining our existence?
- What mandate do we have from our constituents and how do we report back to them on our marching orders? To whom do we have accountability?
- When we present ourselves in organized forums, who sponsors us and whose interest do we seek? Do we report back to our sponsors? (This is relevant even if we are sponsored by donor agencies who I believe support us on the understanding of the interest we are supposed to be serving)
- What legal instruments exist to ensure sustenance of the relationships between employees of the apex bodies and the owners of the network?
It is important to stress at this point that what we seek to achieve include:
a) Self evolved and self-sustaining farmer groups; and
b) Apex bodies of FBO networks that are sustained by their memberships.