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Cooperative spirit

Filipe Naigulevu
Tuesday, February 06, 2018

FIJI'S cooperative movement is expected to reach newer heights with various developments aimed at reviving several aspects of this lucrative sector.

And while cooperatives have been around for decades now, the Department of Cooperatives and Small Businesses under the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism is looking to further strengthen the movement along with their relationships with cooperatives.

This week we focus on the cooperative movement in Fiji, which were mainly focused on the establishment of retail shops in local villages and settlements.

This had been the trend over the years.

According to the Department of Cooperatives and Small Businesses acting director Ramesh Chand, cooperatives started off in 1947 with the first cooperative registered in 1948 — the Naluna Cooperative in Tailevu.

"Over the years we have registered around 2000 cooperatives and like I said not all the 2000 cooperatives are still operating, some died its natural death, some have fulfilled their objectives and have been liquidated, some had issues while others are still operating," Mr Chand highlighted during a Cooperative Business Divisional Workshop in Suva last month.

"We have more than 400 cooperatives operating now, and every year we register an average of 20 cooperatives.

"2017 saw a bigger number because Government had opened up the scheme, the Ministry of Sugar scheme where cane farmers can form cooperatives to apply for grants to buy cane harvesters and other farming implements.

"So we saw lot of people forming cooperatives, taking loans."

But as businesses and the economy evolved over the years, the approach now moved from traditional retail store business approach to income generating which saw cooperatives diversifying into areas such as agriculture.

According to a joint study conducted in 2005 titled: "The Key Factors Contributing towards Successful Performance of Cooperatives in Fiji for Building a Harmonious Society", the advantages of cooperatives are that the goals and objectives of employees are the same as that of employers.

Hence there is less need for supervision and the employees derive a share of dividends from profits.

Conducted by academics from the University of the South Pacific and Queensland University of Technology, the study highlighted that cooperatives had been promoted in many developing countries including Fiji to address issues such as unemployment, housing shortages and as a means of creating income generating activities.

This study, which looked at co-operators directly involved in local cooperatives, demonstrated that the main reasons for unfavourable outcomes in Fiji were inadequate planning, lack of training in financial management and lack of understanding of cooperative concepts.

The cooperatives movement recently saw a positive step with more than 30 representatives from cooperatives in the Central and Eastern divisions attending the Cooperative Business Divisional Workshop.

Facilitated by the Department of Cooperatives, the basis of the workshop was to discuss the formation of a new apex body — The National Cooperative Federation (NFC) — which will soon be established solely for the promotion of economic and social interests of cooperatives in Fiji.

This organisation will be mainly made up of interested cooperatives that will make up its membership - but is not compulsory.

This body will be established under the provisions of the existing Co-Operatives Act of 1996 acting as an umbrella organisation for the welfare of all types of cooperatives at all levels in Fiji.

The workshop also saw several issues being discussed relating to areas of the Co-Operatives Act which needed amendments along with the launch of a pilot project - Target 100 - which literally targets 100 cooperatives, which had been pre-selected by the department, to be fully compliant and being role models for other cooperatives in Fiji.

Mr Chand also raised several issues during the workshop regarding cooperatives such as the upgrading of the department's database which were unable to be improved because of non-compliance from several cooperatives.

"One thing that we are trying to upgrade is our database, the reason why we are unable to improve our database is that the cooperatives are not complying and they are not supplying us the information," Mr Chand said.

"I can't give you the full number because not all cooperatives are supplying us with the information but the membership would be more than 30,000 who are members of the cooperatives."

Mr Chand said several registered cooperatives had also ignored to abide by the Cooperatives Act in providing necessary information and documents for the update of records.

He said there was also a lack of knowledge on roles and responsibilities of board of directors of several cooperatives.

Other issues raised were:

* failure to follow proper procedures in amending by laws;

* amendments not filed with director and registrar of cooperative.

* failure to keep up to date share register;

* failure to provide the list of board of directors;

* failure to prepare annual financial reports;

* failure to have the accounts audited;

* failure to submit accounts, activities reports to the Department of Cooperatives;

* failure to provide Cooperative Act for the terms of office bearers;

* exceeding share collection in excess of the authorised capital;

* failure by cooperatives to call general meetings;

* failure to follow procedures for termination, member recruitment, conflict resolutions; and

* improper share transfers.

Participants of the workshop also acknowledged and showed their support for the several initiatives such as Target 100 and the establishment of the NCF which will give cooperatives an active collective voice and bargaining power.

While majority of cooperatives in Fiji are smaller in size, together these small cooperatives pose is a force worth reckoning.

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