Gender, cooperative organisation and participatory intervention in rural Tanzania : a case study of different types of cooperatives and Moshi University College’s support to rural women

M. Msonganzila

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


The thesis examines cooperation and participation as modes of institutional action to address women’ social and economic problems and needs in the context of rural Tanzania. It does so against the background of the history of cooperatives in Tanzania and development cooperation. The thesis takes cooperation in a broad sense as the act or process of people working together; cooperative groups and cooperatives thereby become synonyms in this study. In contrast to literature that only recognises formal and informal cooperation, this thesis identifies and distinguishes formal, semi-formal and informal cooperatives. In addition, it differentiates between cooperatives of mixed membership, men-only and women-only cooperatives. The ten cases of cooperation studied more closely belong to the categories of mixed formal cooperatives, or so called Agricultural Marketing Cooperatives (AMCOs) (2); women-based formal cooperatives (2), women based semi-formal cooperatives (4), and informal mixed cooperatives (2). Half of the groups were located in Sukumaland, the other half in the Kilimanjaro region. The interventions of the Gender and Development (GAD) department of the Moshi University College of Cooperative and Business Studies (MUCCoBS) aimed at supporting women in their cooperation. Pooling their resources would meet their needs, increase economic gains and contribute to women’s advancement in society. The study reflects on the participatory character of these interventions and analyses their contribution to meeting the needs and social advancement of women in the respective categories of formal and semi-formal cooperatives.


The history of formal cooperatives in Tanzania dates back to colonial times. The colonial government considered cooperatives as being well-suited to organising and centralising the export of cash crops. These cooperatives built on the general dissatisfaction among smallholder producers over the role of Indian traders, which resulted in the first spontaneous formation of cotton and coffee producer cooperatives in the 1950s. The emphasis on the condition that members should own land biased attention towards men, as they were considered both head of household and landowners. This was later perpetuated in the first Tanzanian cooperative legislation after independence in 1963. This is explained by not only by the lingering colonial perceptions but also by the persistence of gendered roles and traditions in Tanzanian society. This prevailing attitude is found in various domains of agricultural production: for instance, dairy, legumes and bananas are considered female crops whereas men are considered to own the land, livestock, and most of the cash crops. Notwithstanding these perceptions, women have the heaviest work load: they provide a major share of the labour needed for planting, weeding and harvesting, additional to the reproductive tasks of feeding the family and raising the children. This situation explains the low participation of women in agricultural marketing cooperatives, as documented in this study (for AMCOs) and for Tanzania in general. In addition, members of AMCOs were negative about the leadership of their cooperative. The economic performance has been strongly and negatively influenced by entanglement of cooperatives in the wider historical-political context. Weak economic performance appears to be associated with poor implementation of the democratic principles of cooperation. Nevertheless, the study showed that both male and female members of AMCOs as well as F-WBCs perceived cooperatives to be potentially beneficial for women: they contributed to income and assets acquired by women as well as to capacity building, although the documented effect is modest. Because AMCOs continue to suffer from a legacy of entanglement in political processes, as well as adverse prices on the world market, benefits are probably limited for male members as well. Members of the F-WBC Kamanga also thought that the cooperative had probably contributed to their well-being. The exceptional success is the dairy F-WBC ‘Nronga’. This cooperative is based on a sound business model for a product within the female production domain, i.e. dairy production and processing, and has an attractive market in the nearby urban areas. The benefits to women were clear.


A closer look at four semi-formal women-based cooperatives (SF-WBCs ‘Kitandu’, ‘Iboja’, ‘Ngulyati’ and ‘Tulivu’) showed that these were a product of international GO and NGO support, following the Women in Development approach and after 1995 the Gender and Development approach, reflecting the underlying gender paradigm embraced by donors of international support programs. After 1995 participatory approaches were blended in as well. The GAD department of the MUCCoBS was the implementer of several of these international support programs and as such coordinated and realised training and material support (e.g. milling and sowing machines) for a range of SF-WBCs. Many members acknowledge that their cooperative group was formed because they were promised support if they were to did organise as a group. The women-members also acknowledged that being part of the group brought them some material benefit, allowing a modest but for them important increase in independence. Leadership, transparency and accountability of these semi-formal groups left much to be desired. This may be a result of the low level of capacity of members, and resulting vulnerability to elite capture. In addition, the milling business turned out to be economically weak, due to poor performance of milling machines and competition from private entrepreneurs.


Informal cooperatives were encountered in two forms - Bugalu ba Lugembe, a dancing society in Sukumaland, and Wananjembe, a local self-help group in the Kilimanjaro region. These groups had mixed male and female membership, and did not function according to the principles laid down for formal cooperatives. In the case of the dancing society they did not even have written rules. Nevertheless, they acted on clear rules and norms, associated with strong social cohesion. These norms and rules functioned adequately because of relative small group size. The objective of these groups was not in the first place to improve income generation, but to coordinate reciprocal self-help. This was perceived to be very relevant in the lives of the members. As norms and rules were very strongly embedded in a conservative Tanzanian cultural context, they contributed little to the social advancement of women.


Comparing these four different case categories of cooperation allows the thesis to position the experiences of interventions to support cooperatives to advance the position of women in a wider context. The influence of colonial and post-independence politics and the development discourses around gender and participation shows up in all the aspects of formal cooperatives studied, although in different ways. Legal status seems to have little effect on the functioning of the cooperative group; two other factors - size and the way group norms and values regulate group affairs - offer more scope for explaining how the groups fare. In the case of relatively small informal groups, group culture is strong enough to maintain group cohesion and meet the objectives of the group. In the formal groups the capacity needed to articulate demands concerning accountability, transparency and leadership seems to be a limiting factor. Training by the GAD department seems to have brought little change, which may be partly explained by the strength of traditional power relations in Tanzanian rural society.


The conclusion from the study is that cooperative principles, despite their relatively modest contribution to changing the position of Tanzanian women to date, are nevertheless of continuing value and potential. That cooperative principles were not more effective can be largely attributed to the low capacity of cooperative members to articulate needs and demand transparency and accountability – the basis of the democratic cooperative principles. Another cause is the lack of a governance context enforcing these principles. The experiences documented in the study are not all negative; some clear benefits from cooperation were identified in a range of areas. Women appear to be especially benefited when they are in sole charge, and have a commodity over which the rest of society assigns clearly to women.  Better understanding of the functioning of cooperatives and of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to support them remain highly relevant issues if participation of small-holders – and women producers in particular – is to be facilitated as a way to increase participation of small holders in the market. In this respect, the low level of interest of young people in belonging formal cooperatives is also a matter of concern and merits further attention.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Richards, Paul, Promotor
  • Almekinders, Conny, Co-promotor
  • van der Burg, Margreet, Co-promotor
Award date21 Mar 2013
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461735454
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • gender
  • rural women
  • rural development
  • development cooperation
  • cooperation
  • tanzania
  • least developed countries
  • east africa
  • africa


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