They were part of a group from the Co-operative College who attended, and helped to run, a conference for youth and student co-operatives in the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, a small, very poor country surrounded by South Africa.
There they met 300 young people who are all involved in setting up and running their own co-operatives, and shared experiences. Most of the participants were from Lesotho, with others coming from South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda.
This was the third year that the Co-operative College had assisted the Lesotho Department of Co-operatives with the running of their annual event for young co-operators, and the second time students from the UK had taken part.
“We have developed an ongoing relationship with our friends in Lesotho – supporting them in whatever way we can to help launch more youth co-operative businesses,” said Co-operative College Principal, Mervyn Wilson, who led the delegation.
“This year we were keen to introduce some active learning techniques to help groups develop the skills needed for sustainable co-operative enterprises. We split the participants into small groups and set them the task of building a working team, coming up with a business idea, conducting market research, and developing a business plan – all in two days!” It was no wonder some of the students looked tired by the end of the week.
The UK students helped to facilitate the group activities and, in the process, learnt a great deal themselves:
“We taught people about ground rules to help people run their co-operative efficiently. We looked at roles and responsibilities within a co-operative business, and how our personal skill link with those,” explained 16-year-old Josh Gandy from Sutherland School. “The delegates, within each of the groups, were given team-building exercises, like building the tallest free-standing tower using only newspaper and sticky tape. We explored different co-operative business opportunities, and in small groups created new small business ideas – like, water selling, rice production, internet café, and stationary distribution.”
A field visit to the village of Malealea, nestled in the foothills of Lesotho’s high mountains, provided an insight into life in the country’s rural communities. Students also saw how a development project supported by the City School in Sheffield had helped develop the community co-operative – and was impacting on income generation and poverty reduction.
The animal life the UK participants encountered also made quite an impression.
“We saw a lot of dogs at the village and I nearly had a heart-attack today when a pig moved under some metal sheets and quoinked at me!” said Jasmine from Sutherland School. “We have also seen sheep, lambs, donkeys, horses and puppies. We walked about 3 miles to a museum which showed how the ancestors of the community had lived.”
On the final morning of the conference, each co-operative made a presentation about their new product or business idea – showing how they had used the market research techniques and business organisation skills they had learnt during the week. Awards for the business idea most likely to succeed went to Mocha-o-Chele for traditional Basuto hats customised to include the flag of the participating countries in this summer’s soccer World Cup in South Africa, and a student run Cinema Junkies programme. Other awards included the best business plan, the best presentation and the best social goal. The latter was particularly difficult to chose, as many of the projects addressed key issues of improving housing, HIV Aids disgnosis and education, poverty reduction and employment generation.
The Assistant Minister from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Co-operatives and Marketing, the Hon. Khotso Matla MP, was there to support the proceedings and give out the prizes. He summed up all the hard work the students had put in perfectly: “The conference was designed to promote professionalism among the youth in running and manning their co-operatives, learning and development, concern for community and good governance, including consumer protection across all sectors of the movement.”
He described the young co-operatives as “unique because of their members, who are innovative. For example there are youth co-operatives in tourism and entertainment, to mention just a few examples. Creativity and innovation involves using energy even in threatening situations like the global economic recession where youth co-operatives have been growing in numbers and strength.”
Youth and Student Co-operatives are part of the Government of Lesotho`s strategy for job creation, income generation and poverty reduction. With fifteen such co-operatives now legally registered, and many more operating at the pre-registration phase, they can now be found throughout the “Mountain Kingdom”.
To keep in touch with school friends and family back home, the UK students recorded their experiences every evening on a blog posted on the Young Co-operatives website.
“We made friends with some Ugandans, as well as some local youths who were also attending the conference. We have exchanged email addresses with several people hoping to establish links for the future. We are really looking forward to being in contact with them when we get home,” wrote Zoe and Charlotte from St Benet Biscop School. Julie Thorpe, Schools and Youth Programmes Manager at the College added: “The blog clearly demonstrates the impact that programmes such as this have. They are very much a two way learning process – and help enrich our knowledge and understanding of how co-operatives contribute to improving the lives of people and communities globally as well as the impact on the participants.”
A Lesotho Youth and Student Co-operative calendar has been produced by the Co-operative College and the schools that have participated in the programme to help raise funds to support their continuing development. Copies are available, priced £4.00 (inc post and packing) from Steve Kingman, Co-operative College, Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester M60 0AS.
The 2009 Lesotho Youth and Student Co-operative awards went to:
Business most likely to succeed
Mocha – o – Chele
Best business strategy
Ungulungulu Farmers Co-operative Society
Best Social Goals Detect It
Hardworkers Co-operative Society
Best response to local needs
United Multipurpose Co-operative
Youth Business Development
Most ambitious project
Best overall business plan
United Youth SACCO
Most original business idea
Best business plan
Lesotho National Institute of Entertainment
Phoronand Spring Water
Unity is Power