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Home gardens, community and co-operatives: Resilient economies during Covid-19

The initial and dominant emotions during this Covid-19 crisis have been fear and panic. The fear of death has triggered the world to do everything and anything possible to strengthen the health infrastructure in the world. We have done this so much; we have closed down the majority economic activity. This has led to the question in most homes, what are we going to eat? How will we survive? Covid-19 has brought to the forefront the necessity for resilient economies, community living, and co-dependant food systems to alleviate hunger and loneliness during these difficult times.

What makes an economy resilient? On a global scale, the Global Resilience Index uses three key factors which are economic, risk quality and supply chain. The Resilience Index generally shows results we are used to. Scandinavian countries are the most resilient followed by Europe, Asian countries generally rising higher than Latin American countries and African nations languishing in the bottom. Covid-19 has burnt away the cloak on invisibility that most African nations hide behind when it comes to how vulnerable their economies are. The Index although useful, doesn’t really explain why Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Finland are so high or how even in African countries, there are pockets of genuine economic resilience that we could learn from. These pockets of resilience are found in high levels of a cooperative economy and community living.

What is a co-operative? A co-operative is a farm, business, or other organization that is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits. An illustration of this is when a farm instead of having a farm owner/manager who has 50 workers, the 50 workers actually run the farm. This type of business has successful examples all over the world. Cooperatives by their very nature call for democracy, equality, and solidarity. What makes them even more incredible is that they are very resilient during a crisis. Cooperative banks survived and thrived during the 2008 financial crisis in comparison to the more traditional banks such as Lehmann Brothers that collapsed. A key reason for this is that co-operatives are not only motivated by short term profits but by other values such as equality and long-term sustainability. Co-operatives plan for the future a lot better. Finland ranks 5th on the Global reliance index. A nation famous for being the home of Nokia, 84% of Finland's population is part of at least one cooperative, and above 50% of the population belong to two co-operatives. During the Covid-19 crisis, this resilience is seen in how the cooperatives have health benefits, and instead of laying off workers, they take collective pay cuts to ensure that everyone in the firm has money to live on.

In Africa, there are a plethora of cooperatives. But that is not what I’d like to focus on. Rather, the aspect of community living is more important during Covid-19. Community living is something that is very common in rural areas. compared to urban dwellers who sometimes do not even know the name of their neighbors, rural people actively engage in community activities. I live in a peri-urban area about 35 km from Harare Central Business and during these times of self-isolation, community living has been vital for us. Whereas most urban dwellers rightfully so have been scratching their heads as to where/how to buy food, a lot of my community is actively involved in garden farming. In the last two weeks, I have eaten maize meal, millet meal, okra, pumpkin leaves, chicken, spinach, sugar cane from gardens in the community. This localized, mutual self-reliance instead of being pictured as a sign of poverty is in fact an example of power and security which needs to be developed.

A telling reality of crises is that they have a tendency of growing the co-operative/community living structures. Housing co-operatives started in Britain when textile workers lost their jobs during the Industrial revolution. Agricultural co-operatives sprung up after the Great Depression in the USA. One of the largest international co-operatives, Mondragon started after the Spanish civil war. In Zimbabwe, SEEDCO started in the 1940s as a cooperative. Old Mutual was a mutual society cooperative. Rooibos SA tea is produced by a farming cooperative. These examples point out that co-operatives have a rich history and can become part of our future. Vendors, as they try to eek out a living, are better served by forming cooperatives based on what they sell, or where they procure their merchandise. These collaborative activities do happen but informally without any long term, structural actions.

Covid-19 has shown us that humanity is stronger together. Our 21st-century economic lives and conditioning have been based on individual self-enrichment. We have been told to aim to become the next Steve Jobs, Strive Masiyiwa, Dangote. But evidence shows that to live a more sustainable life through good and bad times, cooperative, community living is better. To be sure, it is close to impossible I would argue to become a billionaire through co-operative structures. Dare I say, one doesn’t need to become a billionaire or multi-millionaire to live a quality, fruitful life. If the Covid-19 crisis has shown us anything, solidarity living will always be the best form of economic living. Community living not only based on government structures but creating community/co-operative structures. As I munch on Ipwa (sweet cane) from my neighbour’s garden, let us think deeply about how we can change our world post-Covid-19. A different, better world is possible.

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