01/10/2014 07:44 EST | Updated 03/12/2014 05:59 EDT

It's Time for Africa to Rise

We don't often get a chance to be part of something really big from the very beginning. Or perhaps, more accurately, very few of us are smart enough, or lucky enough, to recognize something with huge potential before it becomes huge.

For many years Africa has been considered the place where poverty refuses to release its grip. While India has become a "more developed industrialized country" (we won't talk about how all that new wealth has been distributed) much of Africa has seen its economic fortunes decline over the past decade.

But there is a new optimism associated with Africa these days. The phrase "Africa Rising" is showing up with regular frequency in media reports within the continent and beyond, and instead of a steady diet of African despair and failure, we are finally hearing about African innovation and success. Perhaps it is finally Africa's turn, and we at the Canadian Co-operative Association will have front row seats for a long-overdue African renaissance.

As an organization that has been working with co-operatives and credit unions in Africa for several decades with the purpose of reducing poverty and all of the ills that go with it, the thought that we may be turning the corner is welcome news indeed. In fact, the evidence from our work with co-operatives and credit unions in Africa supports this optimism. For sure, there is still a lot of poverty in Africa -- but many of the co-operatives institutions we support are becoming solid, successful businesses, helping their members move permanently out of poverty.

CCA plays a strong role in helping partner co-operatives in Africa through direct technical assistance and capacity building, and through facilitating knowledge exchange across the continent. Our partners have as much, or more, to learn from their African counterparts as they do from our experiences in Canada. We can help to create win-win situations simply by getting the partners together. In four years as CCA's Africa Region Director I have seen significant impact from this dual approach and I can feel the momentum building.

I don't mean to be naive about the challenges that we all still face on this continent. But one area where I have seen real progress over the past four years is in the ability of partners to identify and quantify the obstacles to success. If you can't identify the real problems, it is unlikely that you will be able to fix them. While each country has unique development challenges they also share variations on the same themes; burgeoning and increasingly educated unemployed youth populations; heavy reliance on subsistence agriculture for livelihood for the majority of the population, especially for women; inequitable access to land, education and financial resources for women; weak legislative environments and rule of law; population and technology growth outpacing social and infrastructure growth; and a widening livelihoods gap as a growing middle class drives inflation and consolidates wealth.

So where is the good news? Let's start with ownership of the processes that will help to fix things. Take legislation, for example. This was, and is, a major obstacle to progress, particularly for credit unions in Africa. In partnership with the World Council of Credit Unions, we sponsored annual conferences for the people who regulate credit unions in Africa. We don't need to do that anymore. The annual conferences have taken on a life of their own, and now the African Confederation of Credit Unions is in the driver's seat, rotating the conferences among key African countries.

We are also seeing technological innovations in Africa that have yet to resonate in Canada. Mobile (telephone) money transfer is as common as brushing your teeth in East Africa but uptake has been slow in West Africa and it is virtually unheard of in Canada. During the last Africa Partners Forum held in Ghana, partners from Uganda and Tanzania promoted the use of this safe, efficient, cost effective, and revenue generating means of money transfer to grass roots Ghanaian Credit Unions. At the same time the Ghanaian CU system, inspired by Canadian examples, is the leader in deposit insurance and youth savings. Partners from southern and eastern Africa were eager to take these experiences home to their own movements.

In another example of knowledge transfer within the continent, CCA's long, capacity-building partnership with the Credit Union Association of Ghana (CUA) is now paying dividends in Sierra Leone. CUA's CEO Emmnuel Darko is the lead consultant reviving and re-energizing the movement in a country that is throwing off 20 years of stagnation and isolation to become one of the fastest growing economies Africa.

Raising capital for growth and re-investment is a vexation for every co-operative and credit union manager everywhere. Joint ventures between co-operatives and corporations or return-seeking investors are delicate liaisons but we keep experimenting with different models to solve the capital conundrum. A group of agriculture co-ops in Rwanda have invested in a company along with a Brazilian equipment supplier, local purchasing agents and private investors to access secondary processing and inputs supply for their operations. The Uganda Co-operative Alliance (UCA) is planning a visit to study the model to see how it might be applied in Uganda.

Innovation is always exciting, but it only works if there is careful attention to the boring fundamentals. In the food insecure areas of Rwanda, Uganda and Northern Ghana that means co-operatives focusing on good agronomy to increase yields and cope with climate change, on reducing post-harvest losses through better drying and storage, and astute marketing based on careful research.

Yes -- there is still a lot of poverty in Africa. Among the members of our partner co-operatives, many families will find themselves short of food at some point this year. That is why the Canadian Co-operative Association is still here -- doing what we can to reduce those numbers each and every year and to use the co-operative model to ensure that when the boom comes, it will benefit more than the wealthy few. And we are here because we believe that progress is happening, that there is a new momentum, and that it really is Africa's turn to rise.

Ingrid Fischer is Africa Region Director for the Canadian Co-operative Association. This commentary will appear next month in CCA's International Development Digest. To subscribe e-mail