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The Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Micro Finance Society, Ltd. (Bukonzo Joint) is a member-owned coffee cooperative in the Rwenzori Mountains region of Uganda. The cooperative was formed in 1999 to help prevent widespread and pervasive poverty among rural smallholder farmers. The cooperative has grown from 11 member groups in 1999 to 86 member groups today. The cooperative provides marketing, financial, and skill development services to their members. But it focuses primarily on addressing two main issues: gender inequity and poverty—both with environmental sustainability as a central concern.
Bukonzo Joint’s membership is 78 percent women and members run 3,400 smallholder farms in the Rwenzori Mountains region of western Uganda. More than 3,800 varieties of Arabica coffees sold within the cooperative are Fair-Trade certified and 1,500 cooperative farmers are U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic certified. The farmers practice ecologically sustainable methods to help build resilience to the impacts of climate change on their farms. They utilize soil and water conservation methods, such as terracing, and they practice no-till methods to protect the soil. And they use compost and animal manure, instead of artificial fertilizer and pesticides.
As a way to approach the gender inequity that exists among many Ugandan families, the cooperative partners with Women’s Empowerment Mainstreaming and Networking (WEMAN), an initiative of Oxfam Novib, to spearhead the Gender Action Learning System (GALS), a participatory and community-led program that uses mapping and diagrams (to accommodate illiterate members) to facilitate learning, analyzing, and strategizing. Women make up approximately 90 percent of Bukonzo Joint’s GALS participants. In Balanced Trees Bear Richer Fruit Value Chain for Coffee, a documentary about Oxfam Novib’s work with Bukonzo Joint, they explain how this method helps members visualize the distribution of work on their farm, as women frequently find that they do the majority of the work with very little, if any, say over how the family’s money is spent. The GALS method takes a collective brainstorming approach and teaches women skills that enable them to resist gender inequality in their lives.
Because the members own and run the group, they decide where the surplus money goes based on their needs. As Bukonzo Joint coffees have created a higher demand in international markets, the cooperative has decided to focus on two additional capacity-building priorities for its members. The first priority is a community health center. The women have decided to lobby their local government to partner with them in building a community health center. The center is now in the process of being built. The second priority is to build more community coffee micro washing stations because washed Bukonzo Joint coffee sells for a higher price. The cooperative currently operates 21 washing stations and more are in the process of being built.
Josephine, a Bukonzo Joint member, explains that before being chosen to participate in Bukonzo Joint’s entrepreneurs program, she, her husband, and their 10 children were living in a refugee camp, barely surviving. Now, according to the cooperative, “They eat three meals a day and overall nutrition has improved. She has better clothing and a little spending money in her pocket after meeting all her expenses. And Josephine is now able to provide medical care for herself and her family. She finds that her success in business and managing money has improved her relationship with her husband and enabled her to take a stronger, more equal role in household decision-making.”
According to a final report on Oxfam’s efforts in Uganda, the GALS process and the collective efforts of Bukonzo Joint have “contributed to concrete positive changes in women’s secure access to land, division of labour between women and men, increased quality of produce and more equal sharing of benefits.”