’Casualties Inevitable’ – Consumer Co-operation in British Africa

by Linda Shaw

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‘Casualties Inevitable’ – Consumer Co-operation in British Africa, by Linda Shaw (410 kB)

On 1 February 1866, the UK newspaper The Co-operator reported on the progress of a co-operative set up in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, some13 months earlier. The newspaper reported that those involved were ‘endeavouring to make the principles of Co-operation more known’ as well as trading in provisions. They had recently written to the north of England Co-operative Wholesale Society “to see if there would be any probability of dealing with them on a small scale advantageously.” Its members were, presumably, British settlers in the Cape Colony which was then part of the British Empire The Cape co-operative was set up along the lines of the Rochdale Pioneers and had already received “copious information” from Mr Ashworth on all aspects of co-operation. Unfortunately no further records of this society have been located as yet at the time of writing (2014). This is by far the earliest documented co-operative existing in Africa and notably this was a consumer society.
The colonial nature of this first co-operative in South Africa was to be replicated across Africa in the following decades as Africa was colonised by white settlers. In common with other regions in the developing world, co-operatives, if not a co-operative movement, arrived with the colonial powers. They have a long history in Africa, as elsewhere. In most countries, co-operatives did not disappear when states gained their independence and continued to play a central role in both rural and urban areas.

Today, an estimated 7 percent of the African population is a member of a co-operative and their numbers are currently increasing. Despite this, the role and presence of co-operatives is not always adequately reflected in contemporary studies of African development. Today, co-operatives are strongest in the agricultural and financial sectors and there are very few consumer co-operatives to be found. However, as we shall see, this state of affairs has not always been the case.

In several African countries, the first co-operatives were established over a hundred years ago. Yet remarkably, they remain largely unexplored by historians, with no substantive studies published either at the regional, national or local level. This is in sharp contrast to the recent revival of interest in African labour studies and history. Drawing on this context, this paper begins to piece together, for the first time, the beginnings of a narrative about the histories of consumer co-operation in Africa.

The central theme of this narrative is one of many failures and few successes. In particular, there is a focus on the failed attempts to set up co-operative stores on the Rochdale model in the British colonies during the 1950s and 1960s. However, there is also more to the narrative than this particular episode. Although the Rochdale standalone store model did not thrive in an African context, other types of other forms of consumer co-operation appear to have taken root. These include the many farmers’ co-operatives which continued to run small stores selling variously farm inputs, household provisions and building materials. They still do so today. The case of Botswana is another example where co-operative stores were set up later in the 1970s and with more success.