One muggy morning in March 2012, Steffen arrived at the Office of the Registrar of Cooperatives and Business Development Services Lakatoro, Malekula, Vanuatu. But there was no real office – only one cramped admin room and one other, larger, room which had no electricity and was used for storage. Steffen, a German-born New Zealander, was there as a VSA volunteer, working for two years as a business adviser.
The first thing Steffen and the co-op staff did was completely transform the space. They wired up the unused room, installed the lighting themselves and transformed it into a bright and welcoming office for both the public and staff.
“Working in Vanuatu was just amazing. Our relationship with the people went from scepticism, to working together, to trust, to friendship.”
Steffen’s biggest project while on assignment was the building of a micro-hydro-scheme for the MAPBEST plantation (the plantation is named after the Islands where the founding cooperatives are located). They now have reliable hydro power available to light the buildings in Sarmette village. Steffen designed the dam using Ancient Roman principals and made a model for the workers to refer to. All concrete blocks were made by hand. Trees from the bush were used in the construction process. Six men built the dam, with Jean-Brice and Jerry sharing the role of foreman. Once the dam was built, a generator (ordered from China by Steffen) and 3.5km of cabling were installed.
Cooperatives for community development
MALAMPA Province (named for the three main islands: Malakula, Ambrym and Paama) has 105 cooperatives. Fifty three are small rural banks called Savings and Loans Cooperatives, and 52 are community stores called consumer cooperatives. Every seventh inhabitant of MALAMPA Province is member of a cooperative society. For the economic development of the province, and the sustainable livelihoods of its people, cooperatives are vital.
Thanks to Steffen’s guidance, the provincial office now runs regular training sessions on how to set up a cooperative, cooperative accounting, good governance and raising awareness of savings and loans. Micro-finance loans are granted for people’s entrepreneurial endeavours, from sewing machines to stock for small shops to copra processing. This advancement for cooperatives feeds through to improved economic opportunities, education for children, family health and sustainable community development.