Navigating dynamic contexts: African cooperatives as institutional bricoleurs

Mangnus, Ellen; Schoonhoven-Speijer, Mirjam


In agricultural policy and programmes, cooperatives have been framed as organizational fix for addressing institutional voids and market imperfections in rural Africa. By way of guaranteeing scale, quality of produce, and professionalism, cooperatives are assumed to be capable to subvert current trading patterns and contribute to sustainable market access for small-scale farmers. However, such change logic does not hold up well with the circumstances of African farmers and traders. We argue that for understanding how a cooperative organizes sustainable market linkages, attention should be paid to its capacity to navigate within its specific context. This article traces the emergence and development of two cooperatives in distinct contexts, Uganda and Mali. We use a critical institutionalist approach, called bricolage, to show how in both cases farmers organize sustainable market access by blending novel arrangements with existing institutions embedded in social and economic relations. We suggest agricultural policy and programmes to shift attention to the ability of a cooperative to embed new institutions in socio-historical shaped local realities rather than requiring them to comply to an ideal-type organization.