Land O'Lakes co-hosts India Learning event

The following story was a blog post by Greg Grothe, practice area manager, Land O’Lakes International Development, which appeared at USAID's Agrilinks website.

Dairy business ideas spread from India, Kenya, Uganda and back

I recently led 14 dairy cooperative business leaders from Kenya and Uganda on a week-long, peer-to-peer experiential learning visit to India. Funded by the USAID Cooperative Development Program (CDP) and co-hosted by Land O’Lakes International Development and the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), the trip combined site visits with interactive workshop discussions on case studies, cooperative development topics and shared learning experiences.

Indian and U.S. dairy leaders consult on a product.The trip confirmed what I’ve learned about cooperatives through the years: Regardless of type, geography, size or level of development, cooperatives worldwide face similar challenges. For instance, given the evolving goals, aspirations and composition of each cooperative’s membership over time, our businesses must manage friction among members. Cooperatives also must resolve members who “free ride,” a term economists use to describe when new or existing members benefit from a service without fully paying for its costs.

Another common feature of cooperatives is their commitment to the principle, "cooperation among cooperatives." This commitment in many ways provides more opportunities for cooperatives to share their learning and best practices. Peer-to-peer learning also helps stimulate problem solving, which is crucial to resolving membership issues like friction and free riding.

An integrated approach to learning

In India, we leveraged cooperatives’ natural peer-to-peer learning structure, using an integrated approach that combined experiential learning, including site visits and interactive discussions, with a hands-on workshop that used case studies, cooperative development topics, and shared learning experiences to flesh out ideas.

Bringing people of different cultures together can be a challenge. And we learned that cultural differences may cause some participants discomfort. It’s helpful to prepare participants for these differences well in advance and, when planning the event, to consider everything from what food will be served to what types of social activities you’ll use to bring people together.

We also discovered that a strong working relationship with a local partner, such as IRMA, was essential to executing a learning event in a community where we had no field-based experience—that is no program activities.

Lessons learned in organizing a learning event in the field

In preparation for the workshop itself, we learned not to overload the participants with too much information or to be too rigid with the agenda. It helps to build in flexibility so you can go with the mood of the audience, and where possible, change topics and activities based on what you’re observing and how the group is interacting. It’s also important to remember to create an experience for participants, as opposed to lecturing them on a topic, so everyone can learn from each other.

Here are several factors I’d share as crucial to success in a learning event:

  • Consider carefully who you select to attend by identifying change agents and leaders from each institution
  • Structure visits to allow for the natural interaction, dialogue, and exchange of ideas and information between cooperative leaders
  • Invite outside experts and global thought leaders
  • Provide visual experiences on how to apply technologies and processes
  • Plan activities collaboratively and well in advance—arranging travel, developing learning material (e.g., case studies), and an event agenda all take time

In the end, the key to a successful learning event is whether people walk away with new knowledge and a sense that they have learned something significant for them personally and professionally. India’s dairy sector has a massive, vertically integrated cooperative system and smallholder farmer production base. It was exciting to see how lessons learned from Kenya and Uganda helped to shape the insights gained on India’s cooperative dairy business.

Learning exchange outcomes

Below are a few CDP takeaways based on this recent collaborative exchange of ideas.

Gender empowerment: Female board members and cooperative leaders from Kenya and Uganda interacted with leaders from the more than 12,000 members of the all-female cooperative in Mulukanoor, India. They discussed new possibilities for women’s involvement in cooperatives. As a means of continuing this dialogue, I plan on sharing Land O’Lakes International Development's gender integration toolkit with participants, which provides comprehensive guidance on how to ensure gender issues are thoughtfully addressed throughout the project lifecycle.

Technology integration: We discovered that thousands of Indian cooperative farmer-members use biometric identification, smart cards, and milk quality detectors to more effectively manage the supply chain. We were impressed to see how Indian cooperatives are overcoming the rural-urban divide by harnessing technology to enhance their competitiveness and market access, and think that many of these technological solutions could be effectively scaled up elsewhere in the world.

Identifying solutions: The milk processors we visited make daily payments based on quality. They also accept quantities as small as 0.5 liters for processing, in contrast to the practice of providing members with payments once or twice a month. Within our delegation, the chairman of a Ugandan cooperative lauded this approach, which created a great sense of loyalty and pride—from the smallest farmers to the highest income earners.

Learn more about our work in Kenya and Uganda, or download our Cooperative Development Program flyer. I really enjoyed this trip, and I look forward to continuing in the dialogue about how best to sustain and advance healthy agricultural cooperatives around the world.