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Collective empowerment? Producer cooperatives versus women’s groups in Kenyan ethical trade

29 Apr 2015

Collective empowerment? Producer cooperatives versus women’s groups in Kenyan ethical trade
This is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series is being published in conjunction with the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference took place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

Part of the rationale behind fair and ethical trade is to improve the economic empowerment of smallholder farmers in the South, but also contribute to environmental sustainability, more equitable trading and decision-making relationships, and often, gender equality. However, the extent to which women’s participation in particular schemes contributes to their empowerment is highly variable. This think piece considers in particular the extent to which women’s empowerment is enhanced or reduced through their participation in ethical and fair trade decision-making structures, such as producer cooperatives, as well as other collective strategies, such as women’s groups.

Kiah Smith is a sociologist and research associate at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia. She is the author of Ethical Trade, Gender and Sustainable Livelihoods: Women smallholders and ethicality in Kenya (Smith 2014, Earthscan), from which this think piece is adapted.

Collective empowerment?

Fair and ethical trade1 are examples of voluntary, market-based efforts to embed transnational justice into global food production and consumption networks. They resonate with development ideals in which smallholder farmers in the global South are connected with international food markets in ways that not only improve their economic empowerment, but also contribute to environmental sustainability, more equitable trading and decision-making relationships, and often, gender equality. Many of these ideals have been borrowed from the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) and applied, rather problematically, to market capitalist relations. For example, the collective organisation of smallholders is a central component of achieving ethical sourcing’s ‘process rights’ 2(Barrientos and Smith, 2012). But the extent to which women’s participation in particular schemes contributes to their empowerment is highly variable.

A ‘paradox of ethicality’ has emerged. Women smallholder farmers often provide the majority of labour in high-value export horticulture sectors that are the focus for ethical sourcing (e.g. French beans, baby vegetables, tea, coffee). However, ethical and fair trade have been increasingly criticized for failing to reflect women’s values and needs. The gendered nature of ethical trade is visible in terms of:
  • women’s employment (i.e. the feminization of global agricultural labour;
  • women’s ‘triple burden’ of household, farm and off-farm responsibilities;
  • gendered control of crops and income),
  • participation (high participation in labour, low participation in decision making),
  • knowledge (traditional knowledge devalued; low access to training) and
  • livelihoods (low incomes, poor healthcare, poor living conditions) (see for example, Dolan 2004).

These contextual factors have implications for women’s empowerment generally, but also for the potential for fair and ethical trade to provide spaces for women to meaningfully, and collectively, challenge or reshape gender inequalities that affect their lives. In particular, the extent to which women are included or excluded from participating in the governance of ethical and fair trade (that is, beyond participating as ‘labour’ towards becoming ‘agents’ of decision making) means that gender is a key element affecting (a) the process of defining standards, (b) the content of standards; and (c) the impact of standards. A growing body of research has thus highlighted the extent to which ethical standards themselves are highly ideational: They reflect particular constructs of well-being and ethics depending on who is defining the standards, the goals or the desired outcomes of ethical trade schemes (Barrientos, Dolan and Tallontire, 2001; Blowfield and Dolan, 2008; Nelson and Pound, 2009).

This description is incomplete, however. While matching rhetoric with reality has emerged as a major challenge for ethical sourcing, spaces of authentic, women-centric collectivity also co-exist. This is especially important in contexts where pervasive local- or culturally-specific gender norms and values restrict women from participating in making key decisions within ethical food networks. Southern women smallholders are key agents for transforming ethical and fair trade structures and processes along more locally- and gender-appropriate lines.

Below, I consider the extent to which women’s empowerment is enhanced or reduced through their participation in (a) ethical and fair trade decision-making structures, such as producer cooperatives, as well as (b) other collective strategies, such as women’s groups. Women smallholders use both types of strategies (that is, inside and outside of formal ethical sourcing structures) to negotiate the gendered challenges they face within their food networks. Fair and ethical trade can learn from this.

Women smallholders in Kenyan ethical trade

Between 2007 and 2010, I conducted fieldwork with over 180 women smallholder farmers in two locations in Machakos, Kenya. Some women smallholders engage with global ethical trade networks via participation in producer cooperatives. Cooperatives are the unit through which contracts for French beans and baby vegetables are negotiated and enforced, where payments are made, and where training is given at the farm level. Other women participate locally in women’s groups, which are organized by specific groups of women, the local Chief or community development workers. These include formal self-help groups licensed and governed by the Kenyan government, as well as informal networks of women based on shared interests and mutual goals. Most groups share friendship and labour, and many have an entrepreneurial purpose (or commercial aspirations, at least) producing food, handicrafts or operating small businesses such as community gardens, seed banks, nurseries, craft outlets and local shops. They represent key sites for women smallholders to enact agency within their food networks, with knock-on effects into ethical trade.

To understand how women might (or might not) benefit from producer cooperatives and women’s groups, I draw on Agarwal’s conceptualization of women’s participation as a means to address gender inequalities and power relations; that is, to enact agency. According to Agarwal (2010: 100), participation at its narrowest can be defined “in terms of nominal membership and at its broadest in terms of a dynamic iterative process in which the disadvantaged have voice and influence in decision making.” This corresponds to an empowerment perspective in which empowerment is not something that can be done from the outside (that is, by development ‘experts’), but comes from women gaining social power, not just economic power (see Olin Wright, 2013). This ‘power within’ can transform into individual or collective ‘power to’ improve livelihoods; often through ‘power with’ others. This may lead to ‘power over’, that overcomes gender inequality.

Producer cooperatives

Ethical trade regulations are enacted at the local level through interactions between the exporting company—whose responsibility it is to monitor and enforce standards—and smallholder producer cooperatives. These groups provide opportunities for farmers to pool produce and resources, facilitate market access and increase knowledge of market requirements such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, and are used in the majority of French bean export production. Producer cooperatives are also central to the governance of fair trade. They are the main point of contact between producers and export companies, and provide:
  • A physical space for collecting produce, keeping records, and holding training events;
  • Infrastructure for cold storage and a transport collection point;
  • An institutional structure governed by members, with an elected chairperson, secretary and treasurer;
  • A place of employment for a few women farmers, in grading, sorting and packing produce;
  • A social space, where knowledge is communicated and shared;
  • A site for ethical audits by third party auditors, where many of the standards requirements are applicable (for example, record keeping, hygiene, chemical use, etc.).

The benefits that smallholders received from participating in cooperatives reflect many of the benefits of producer organizations detailed in other studies in Africa (see Borot de Battisti et al. 2009). These include the promotion of smallholder commercialization and modernization, agricultural development and economy-wide growth, increased access to donor funding through NGOs, increased household incomes, and assistance for poverty alleviation programmes. They also promote inclusiveness and encourage participatory, bottom-up decision making. From discussions with women about these benefits, it is clear that producer cooperatives play a significant role in helping to (a) meet ethical standards, (b) gain employment and income, and (c) access training and other services needed for market access.

Despite the optimism of exporters who in interviews conducted for the study claimed, “It’s very participatory on their part”, there are also serious limitations on the extent that women smallholders participate in producer cooperatives. These include:
  • Constraints on meeting membership criteria which exclude women. Without formal property rights, women could not become members even in cases where their status as a farmer was recognized by their husbands and community; women also had little disposable income of their own with which to pay membership fees;
  • Low attendance in training. This reflected women’s position in the household more than their position as farmers, and further limited their capacity to access information relating to farming practices and gain recognition for their contribution as farmers;
  • Limited knowledge about standards, and thus inability to debate their content or claim rights;
  • Gendered norms about ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’, including the expectation that women’s horticultural work would continue to produce higher quality and quantity without shifting responsibility for household or reproductive tasks;
  • Lack of control of income, which was experienced at the level of the cooperative as well as within the household;
  • Governance structure of cooperatives themselves, whereby women did not hold elected positions of power other than secretary, and did not attend meetings with management.

Although women do the majority of the labour and are very knowledgeable about farming, they are rarely members of producer cooperatives. Membership privileges land owners and traditional land tenure does not favour women. Institutional and cultural processes thus combine to exclude women, and cultural norms preventing women’s full participation in cooperatives have resulted in discrepancy between the discourses and reality of women’s representation, inclusion, bargaining power and empowerment. These limitations on women’s participation have very real implications for the capacity for Southern actors to influence the content of global ethical trade standards.

Women’s groups

Of the 182 participants in both case studies, most were active members of women’s groups. For subsistence smallholders, these groups present one of the few opportunities for collective action in their food networks. For smallholders also involved in export, their participation in women’s groups is as central to their food networks (if not more so) as participation in producer cooperatives, with important lessons for ethical trade. Women’s groups (a) improve women’s control over income and labour, (b) enhance voice and influence, and (c) represent sites of negotiation and resistance.
In women’s groups, women are members, are informed, attend meetings, make decisions, undertake specific tasks, express their opinions and influence the groups’ decisions. Women have closer involvement, legitimacy, decision-making power and motivation here, they are more vocal, and they can manage their own income collectively. Women’s groups also provide three redistributive functions:
  • The redistribution of income (through internal loans or ‘merry-go-rounds’), enabling women smallholders to (a) purchase fertilisers, pesticides and tools, and (b) fill the gap in income not currently met by producer cooperatives;
  • The redistribution of labour, by rotating work on group members’ fields, thus helping to address locally embedded gender inequality in food production and consumption in a culturally appropriate manner;
  • The redistribution of power and knowledge through more participatory decision making, access to information, (sometimes) bargaining, social cohesion and solidarity, thus contributing to women’s empowerment.

It is no surprise that, according to interview participants, “every woman is in one or two women’s groups, it’s very common”. Forming women’s groups is an important livelihood strategy for women who face power imbalances, lack of financial independence, and social or environmental challenges, particularly for women whose husbands are absent or unreliable. By being part of “a group that they rely on”, women smallholders are able to increase income, food security, learning, trust, cooperation and generosity within their community, meaning that they are better able to resist vulnerable contexts and gender inequalities. From a sustainable livelihoods perspective, women’s groups can be interpreted as strategies that build assets (such as social and political capital) and contribute to achieving particular livelihood outcomes.

Although women’s groups help smallholders engaged in ethical trade networks to improve yield, quality and efficiency—core productive concerns of export-oriented agriculture—their connection to the structures and institutions of ethical trade is limited.


Unfortunately, the collective strategies that provide women smallholders with the most meaningful opportunities for participation, negotiation and empowerment within their food networks are often excluded from the structures and processes of ethical trade. Both cooperatives and women’s groups represent institutions where cultural norms governing women’s participation are evident. Both types of groups are examples of daily activities in which women negotiate gendered power relations and construct strategies for effecting change. Both represent spaces where the local and global (do or do not) meet, although power and agency is negotiated differently within these groups. Women’s groups provide for more active and empowering participation. But only producer cooperatives currently provide the institutional connection between ethical trade regulatory structures and smallholder livelihoods.

The extent to which women’s groups could or should be integrated into ethical or fair trade is not straightforward, and the potential for trade-offs (negative and positive) for women must be taken into account. Women’s groups benefit their members because they are autonomous, culturally appropriate and driven by women from the ground up; but they also embed women more centrally into economic and environmental production and reproduction within their community and their food networks. How women’s groups could be harnessed for the benefit of both ethical trade and smallholder women themselves requires further investigation. A different kind of organization may need to be evolved that can support smallholder women in responding to the requirements of ethical sourcing audits as well as providing space for women to voice their opinions and influence decisions, while continuing to pursue diverse economic strategies that may or may not include participation in producer cooperatives.

1Both fair and ethical trade are examples of voluntary multi-stakeholder ‘ethical sourcing’ standards (that is, regulations) that aim to address “how historically exploitative producer consumer chains can be refashioned around ideas of fairness and equality” (Raynolds 2002: 405). Fair trade schemes are often associated with ‘alternative food networks’ which seek to transform North-South trade through empowering producers and direct producer-consumer links. Ethical trade refers to more modest codes of labour practice which denote minimum labour and environmental standards within an existing trade model, within a corporate social responsibility framework. The UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative is one example.
2Process rights refer to those around representation, participation, equity and accountability.

Agarwal, B. 2010. "Does women's proportional strength affect their participation? Governing local forests in South Asia." World Development, 38(1):98-112.

Barrientos, S., Dolan, C., and Tallontire, A. 2001. Gender and ethical trade: A mapping of the issues in African horticulture, Working paper on gender in ethical trade in Kenya, South Africa and Zambia. Department for International Development, London.

Barrientos, S. and Smith, S. 2012. "Assessing the ETI codes of labour practice" in D. Reed, P. Utting and A. Mukherjee-Reed (eds) Business Regulation and Non-State Actors: Whose standards? Whose development?, Routledge, London.

Blowfield, M. and Dolan, C. (2008). "Stewards of virtue? The ethical dilemma of CSR in African agriculture." Development and Change, 39(1):1-23.

Borot de Battisti, A., MacGregor, J. and Graffham, A. (eds). 2009. Standard Bearers: Horticultural exports and private standards in Africa, IIED, London.

Dolan, C. 2004. "On farm and packhouse: Employment at the bottom of the global value chain." Rural Sociology, 69(1):99-126.

Nelson, V. and Pound, B. 2009. The last ten years: A comprehensive review of the literature on the impact of fairtrade. Natural Resources Institute (NRI), University of Greenwich, Chatham, UK.

Olin Wright, E. 2013. "Transforming capitalism through real utopias." American Sociological Review, 78(1):1-25.

Raynolds, L. 2002. "Consumer/producer links in fair trade coffee networks." Sociologia Ruralis, 42, (4):404- 424.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.