Agricultural cooperatives and the social economy in Kenya – IMRD thesis by Jordan Treakle

treakle-dairy-cooperative-in-kenyaLast autumn Jordan Treakle successfully defended his Master of Science thesis ‘Agricultural cooperatives and the social economy in Kenya’s changing governance landscape’ in Wageningen’s Rural Sociology Group to complete his International Master in Rural Development. Below a synopsis of the thesis.

The thesis research examines the socio-economic challenges facing family farmers in Kenya, and provides a critical analysis of how producer organizations support small-scale dairy farmers to adapt to governance, environmental, and market changes in the country. Small-scale dairy, mixed with field crops, is a common livelihood activity for a majority of family farmers in Kenya, providing both a source of subsistence food security and income generation in formal and informal markets (both local and national). But Kenyan farmers are facing a number of challenges in 2017: an on-going severe drought, increasing conflict over access to pasture lands, and dwindling access to farmer support services as the national government both liberalizes the agriculture sector and decentralizes political power to the 47 counties. Understanding how Kenyan farmers adapt to these challenges calls for researching the role of Kenyan agricultural cooperatives as these organizations are central to the livelihoods of a majority of the Kenyan population: a stunning 80% percent of Kenyans derive their income directly or indirectly through cooperative activities, and cooperatives account for 40% of all sales across the agriculture sector. As a key provider of social and economic services, cooperatives help farmers gain access to formal markets, engage government institutions, and improve their production practices. Thus the cooperative dairy sector, and the services and opportunities brokered through this sector, can be analyzed as a nexus, offering insight into how farmer collective action is both shaping local food system and facilitating farmer adaptation to Kenya’s changing agriculture governance landscape.

Through 22 qualitative semi-structured interviews with cooperative leaders, farmers, and key civil society and government informants, the research identified a number of emerging roles of cooperatives in the family farming sector:

  • Cooperatives as brokers of social and economic services: As semi-capitalist entities, small-scale dairy farmers are only partially embedded in formal markets, but engage in a number of social systems critical to farmer livelihoods. Thus cooperatives provide different services to support farmers in these overlapping spheres. Examining these organizations through a social economy theoretical lens illustrates how agricultural cooperatives provide both economically and socially-orientated services ranging from access-to-credit to political advocacy. In particular, a number of interviewees associated cooperative social services, such as agricultural knowledge transfer, with the concept of farmer “empowerment” and strengthening social cohesion. Thus access to social services is an important, although often overlooked, component of sovereign and sustainable small-scale farmer livelihoods.
  • Supporting farmer adaption to socio-political changes: In response to agricultural governance changes (political decentralization and economic liberalization) and the growing concentration of the dairy processing sector (which is putting economic pressures on dairy producers), agricultural cooperatives are increasingly attempting to adapt their farmer services to respond to the withdrawal of the State and market failures in the agriculture sector. But in many cases cooperatives are finding this transition to providing a broader spectrum of services difficult, often due to lack of technical capacity. Ultimately this means that cooperatives are increasingly playing a critical farmer support role, but are becoming economically under-cut by more market-oriented dairy businesses.
  • Drivers of inclusive development: Cooperative organizational structure, with farmer agency and democratic voting at its core, leads to more inclusive agricultural development opportunities. Through this more participatory producer organization model a diversity of farmers become leaders of their own development, but require greater (and challenging) coordination. On the other hand, more market-driven milk bulking associations, which are growing in number in Kenya and competing directly with cooperatives, trend toward supporting (and sometimes more efficiently) more commercial and larger-scale producers. How both of these models engage with farmers and government institutions have important implications for family farmer and agricultural development in Kenya.

The research concludes that agricultural development stakeholders have a strategic opportunity to support cooperatives in brokering farmer access to a broad range of both social and economic services for improved production, innovation, and social development. Given the prevalence of cooperatives in Kenya, and farmer trust in these organizations to deliver fair benefits and services to their members, cooperatives can play a critical facilitating role to link farmers to service organizations through coordinated and inclusive collective action, and in-turn strengthening smallholder agriculture in the country.

To access the full thesis you can click here and for more information you can contact Jordan at

Farmers’ perception of opportunities for farm development – PhD thesis by Ron Methorst

methorst-thesis-coverNovember 18, 2016 at 4.00 pm Ron Methorst will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Farmers’ perception of opportunities for farm development‘ in the Auditorium of Wageningen University.

The full thesis will be available after the defence ceremony. See the Abstract below. The ceremony will be live streamed by WURTV but can be viewed later as well.

Ron Methorst is affiliated at the Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Dronten (Aeres Hogeschool Dronten). For more information you can contact 

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Il a plus sur le grand paysage – Film about crisis in Wallonian Dairy farming in Movie W

Monday March 31, 20.00 the film ‘Il a plus sur le grand paysage‘ (with English subtitles) will be shown in Movie-W. The film is directed by Jean-Jacques Andrien. The director and a farmer will be present and open for discussion with the audience.

Autumn 2010. In the region of Herve, in Belgium’s east, the milk crisis of 2009 struck brutally at the dairy farms. In this profoundly estabilised context, the decision of the European Union to completely remove the milk production quota in 2015, and the determination of the World Trade Organisation to further liberalise the markets, directly threatened the existence of the farms. Nine farmers tell us of their struggle, from the heart.

Free entrance thanks to the support by Rural Sociology and Sociology of Development and Change of Wageningen University. The evening is co-organised by Otherwise, Movie-W, ILEIA, RUW and Boerengroep.

Selective breeding in organic dairy farming

Tuesday June 2, Wytze Nauta will defend his PhD-thesis ‘Selective Breeding in Organic Dairy Production’. 

Family herd

A family herd

Organic dairy farming doesn’t have a distinct breeding system. Farmers are free to breed with a farm bred bull or Artificial Insemination (AI) bulls of conventional breeding programmes. Organic farming thus directly and indirectly depends on conventional breeding goals and modern selection and reproduction techniques such as multiple ovation and in vitro embryo production and transfer (ET). As naturaless and animal integrity are basic principles of organic farming, the direct and indirect use of these modern reproduction techniques is questioned, from organic farmers as well as from societal interest groups favouring organic farming. Moreover organic farming intends to maintain or even contribute to bio-diversity. It supports the use of different (traditional, regional) breeds. Finally, in organic farming animals are kept for different purposes and in a different, more extensive production environment then conventional agriculture. This further questions the dependency on conventional breeding programmes, since these programmes select breeding animals that perform best in intensive, high input production systems. Practice learns that on the whole these cows are genetically not well equiped to perform in an organic environment and this was sustained by research (see paper Genotype x Enviroment Interaction). So one can argue that organic farming has its own demands towards breeding, that may even differ with different farming strategies (see paper Different Strategies, Different Demands). Organic farming is highly diversified and organic farmers are known for their on-farm experiments, also with regard to breeding.

The question is not so much if selective breeding in organic dairy farming needs to be more in line with the intentions and principles of organic farming, all stakeholders agree on that, but to what extend and how to realize that. Then opinions diverge and different positions are taken (see Discussion paper).

Wytze Nauta explores this question throughout his PhD-thesis. He finally discusses the pro’s and con’s of three options that meet organic principles to a different extend: 1) a pragmatical one, i.e. using conventional breeding programmes, but with the exclusion of modern reproduction techniques, although an exception is made for AI; 2) a distinct organic breeding programme with distinct breeding goals and exclusion of modern breeding techniques and 3) a distinct breeding system based on natural mating.

The more exclusive, the more organic, but also the more difficult to realise. However, for an individual farmer it is more easy to decide to start breeding with a bull at the farm for natural mating. For option one and two more stakeholders need to come to an agreement. But all options imply a ‘system innovation’: radical change of practices at different levels of different actors in different positions lacking appropriate knowledge to come to a well grounded breeding system for organic farming. So, the ultimate recommendation of Wytze Nauta is not to impose a new breeding system, but to start joint learning processes involving organic farmers as well as other stakeholders based on the three options provided. This would best respect diversity organic farming.

Wytze Nauta ( is researcher Animal breeding at the Louis Bolk Institute.