December 2023 Issue: Co-operator Newsletter Quarterly December 2023

What Happened at the ICA Seminar on Co-op Trade & Development in China

What Happened at the ICA Seminar on Co-op Trade & Development in China
Caption: What Happened at the ICA Seminar on Co-op Trade & Development in China

By Sng Ler Jun

More than 40 co-operators from 17 countries participated in a co-operative seminar and supply chain expo in Beijing, China.

Jointly organised by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) and All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Co-operatives (ACFMSC), the ICA Seminar on Co-operative Trade and Development, and Training Course on International Trade for Co-operatives was held from 28 to 30 November. Concurrently, several co-operatives, including those from Japan, South Korea and Bulgaria, set up booths alongside high-profile brands such as Tesla, Maersk, Visa, at the China International Supply Chain Expo.

Two representatives from the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF) were among those who attended.

Co-operative Trade and Development Seminar

In an online address, Ms Simel Esim, the Head of the Co-operative Unit for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), praised co-operatives' longstanding working relationships with the ILO. “Co-operatives ought to integrate better in the ever-evolving nature of global supply chains and trade,” she said while reflecting on the opportunities for global supply chain integration of co-operatives to be sustainable and fair.

Mr Balasubramanian Iyer, ICA-Asia Pacific’s Regional Director, commended the expo’s theme, ‘Connecting the world for a shared future’, for aptly reflecting the co-operative principles of mutual assistance and self-help in a pre-recorded video.

Sharing of Perspectives from the co-ops

Strategies surrounding trade and development for co-operatives were briefly discussed, with several co-operative federations or co-operative representatives sharing their past experiences nurturing the co-operative ecosystem.

Mr Santiago Esteban, a purchasing manager from a supermarket co-operative Cooperativa Obrera in Argentina, emphasised the supermarket’s commitment to the public and shared how the supermarket co-operative looks to reinvest within the region by supporting local producers and stocking or trading their goods. “We are aware of the needs and requirements of consumers, so we can be a bridge between producers, cooperatives and consumers,” he added.

Ms Layanne Vasconcellos, a business analyst from Sistema OCB—the Brazilian co-operative federation supporting co-operatives in Brazil—shared how the federation strives to empower co-operatives by creating a marketplace for co-operatives to cross-sell their products.

“It’s a good and more competitive way of getting to their consumers directly,” she said. However, creating such an initiative required considerable technical expertise and significant leverage on technology, Ms Vasconcellos added in a follow-up interview. The self-proclaimed internationalist had visited Singapore with her team earlier to explore trade opportunities and met with representatives from SNCF and NTUC FairPrice Co-operative.

According to Ms Vasconcellos, many Brazilian co-operatives welcome such a marketplace, but many of them may require assistance with pricing strategies and onboarding. This is also where OCB comes in to provide the relevant diagnosis in the realms of marketing, finding national or international promotion, preparing qualifications for export and more. “Co-operatives need to be ready to sell their products, preferably with a good catalogue or appealing pictures,” she said.

Mr Schmuel Dor, a chairperson from an Israel-based social change organisation AJEEC-NISPEC, showcased case studies on how co-operatives in Israel pander their products, which comprise mainly agricultural goods. Mr Dor highlighted how reviving beliefs in the co-operatives, whether through strengthening shared co-operative identities and connections or reviving co-operative values as an alternative to the current way of life, is key to ensuring co-operatives’ relevancy.

Private labelling is one strategy deployed by Hong Kong-based Coop Fast East Ltd, the Asian buying office of Italy’s largest co-operative supermarket Coop Italia, said Ms Veronica Natalini, the Managing Director of Coop Far East Ltd. Private-label manufacturers secure deals with individuals or brands to sell their products under the manufacturer’s name without attribution. She added that the benefits of private labelling run the gamut from sustainability and eco-compatibility to being value for money. However, private labelling works best for products that improve the value of other products. Leveraging the co-operative identity as a brand marketing strategy could complement this strategy.

The Role of Co-operative Federation, Climate Change & Big Data

In the subsequent panel discussion, co-operatives avidly discussed the social responsibility co-operative federations have to empower co-operatives, and their need to go beyond corporate partnerships.

Mr Hüseyin Polat, a UN Co-operative Development Consultant, highlighted how climate change and other geopolitical actors will impact co-operatives' role in helping communities, societies, and businesses. Co-operatives, he said, should therefore prepare for them. Mr Polat added: “Co-operatives are unfortunately not doing enough for the future.”

Drawing from his own experience, Mr Polat pointed out that early collaborations by the Mondragon Corporation seemed to have favoured or benefitted private companies or corporates, but this has changed in recent years with greater emphasis placed on co-operatives. Mr Polat had urged Mondragon, the largest industrial co-operative group in the world, to be a role model.

In response, Mr Inigo Landazabal, the Director of Institutional Relations at Mondragon Corporation and President of CICOPA, explained Mondragon’s focus has always been on encouraging social good. However, he quipped that the same rhetoric could have been applied to Brazil, a country with the most number of co-operatives in the world.

“Trust between co-operatives is very important in trade,” said Mr Dor, who concluded the intense discussion.

In a separate training session, Mr Polat suggested co-operatives leverage artificial intelligence to counter the impacts of climate change. “Sustainable development measures can be implemented to reduce risks and ensure the safety of residents in vulnerable communities,” he said.

SNCF’s Head of Corporate Services Mr Alex Shieh shared about the federation's intentions to develop the capabilities of co-operatives in Singapore, especially on sustainability. “Next year, through a new grant, (we hope) co-operatives can be further empowered as they take on sustainability initiatives,” he said.

The trade seminar also concluded with China-based data companies sharing how organisations can tap on trade data (and big data) to derive insights and solutions, including finding precise buyers or directly connecting organisations with companies participating in trade.

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Who we are

SNCF is the apex body of Singapore’s Co-operative Movement, and secretariat of the Central Co-operative Fund (CCF). Formed in 1980 with the aim of championing Singapore’s Co-operative Movement, the apex body represents majority of co-operative members in Singapore through its affiliated co-operatives.