Monday, July 30, 2007

Coops in trouble

I'm blogging in full this article from the Daily Star on the difficulties facing cooperatives in Lebanon. these coops were started by development projects, then abandonned as the project ended (project lifetime...the usual initiative killer). So the best thing is to create...a new development project to deal with the marketing. I dont exactly see how they intend to market, but I can give them a few pointers:

1. Dont go to supermarkets, establish your alternative system. Go to souk el Tayyeb, it is a great venue to kickstart the chain.
2. Get yourself a quality label: ISO, HACCP, Organic, anthing that can give confidence to the customer.
3. sometimes you just have the wrong product, even if it sounds romantic and exotic, it is not consumed by the customers you are trying to address, and it is available to those who want it. Example: kishk, there is plenty of it accessible to the people who eat kishk, but there is none available to those who dont want it, so dont try filling that gap. There are tons of cheaper jams on the markets, locall or imported, and with a brand confidence level that is much higher.
4. seek to understand ALL the components of the economic supply chain (filiere) and indentify the most limiting factor, and work on it. it may not be marketing, although marketing may be A limiting factor. Sometimes it is the relationship between the people, sometimes the availability of raw materials, sometimes the access to resources.

"With imported food stuffs crowding the shelves of Lebanon's large supermarket chains, and Western fast-food franchises proliferating in the capital, it has become increasingly difficult for local agricultural cooperatives to access more lucrative city markets.

Market access has been even more difficult for the dozens of female-led rural cooperatives set up under the Agriculture Ministry's 1999 initiative. The collective farming units producing traditional staples ranging from kishik to pumpkin preserves got off to a running start initially, but few have managed to become self-sustaining, let alone profitable, since the sellers remain isolated from potential buyers.

The Women Economic Empowerment Project (WEEP) partnered with the Canadian International Development Agency and Oxfam Quebec in 2006 to launch a marketing branch in Beirut to sell the cooperative's products to consumers and supermarket buyers in the capital.
The WEEP's Marketing Unit identified rural women's cooperatives in 14 different villages in the Bekaa region for the first phase of its project, helping them find sustainable markets for their products and transport goods to Beirut to develop a viable customer base. The goal is for the businesses and the villages to prosper, explained WEEP projects coordinator, Natalie Chemally.
"They say they don't have contact points to sell products in Beirut and that if they do have a contact point, how can they reach it?" Chemally said last week at the opening of the Marketing Unit's headquarters on the first floor of the Mansourati building in Mathaf.

The WEEP exhibited products from rural women's cooperatives at local and regional trade shows in 2006, and moved on to the second phase of the marketing strategy with the opening of a permanent distribution point in the capital.

Retailers and consumers alike will now be able to purchase kishik balls stuffed with red peppers, organic fruit jam, pastries filled with yogurt and herbs, and a host of other traditional food stuffs whose recipes have been passed down through generations in rural Lebanon.
If the Marketing Unit succeeds in selling Bekaa products to an increasingly discerning urban customer-base, the WEEP will take on 22 new cooperatives from North and South Lebanon.

Unlike other agri-food ventures financed by international donors, the WEEP marketing unit is geared towards the local market first and foremost, with exports a distant possibility.
Chemally acknowledged that co-op goods have a long way to go before they can compete with established organic, local brands like Green Valley that dominate the shelves of Lebanese supermarkets. But they are not looking to capture a huge share of the local market just yet, she said.

"We know we are not going to be a Wadih-Al-Khader [Green Valley]" Chemally admitted. "We are just trying to mobilize the co-ops to compete in a decent fair-trade market."
Meanwhile WEEP will continue offering technical assistance to women in rural Lebanon so they can participate in the labor force.

"Individual women or local women's associations decide they want to do something on their own, so WEEP helps them define and structure their own goals," Chemally said.
The organization provides start-up capital to women with viable business plans, and then gradually teaches them the skills to become independent, assisting with funding proposals for potential donors.

Recently WEEP organized a hairdressing-training session for 16 girls in Mashat Hammoud, a village in the Akkar region. Half of the participants are now operating their own hair salons now, Chemally offered of a typical WEEP project.

The goal is always to "build their capacities to become more economically autonomous and form and maintain their own grassroots organizations."

The Marketing Unit headquarters are located on the first floor of the Masourati Building, above the Misubishi/Kassab Auto Shop in the Mathaf area of Beirut. More information on WEEP, CRTDA and the Marketing Unit can be obtained via email at or by phone at 01-391196."

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