Guide to Cooperatives in South Africa

Updated on Sep 19, 2022


While South Africa has tens of thousands of cooperatives, little is known about the business model compared to other types of economic enterprises such as SMEs or corporations.

Cooperatives are businesses owned and run by and for its members. Whether the members are the customers, employees or residents, they have an equal say in what the cooperative does and share in the surplus (profits).

The cooperative model is often compared to traditional business, particularly small businesses, cooperatives are however not small businesses. The key difference between traditional business and cooperative is with their purpose. While traditional businesses exist primarily to generate revenue and make a profit, cooperatives have a purpose that goes beyond profit. They work to meet “economic, cultural and social needs of the organisation’s members and its surrounding community.”

Examples of some of the needs they seek to address are: “rural electricity or other utilities in sparsely populated areas; affordable healthy and organic foods; access to credit and banking services; access to affordable housing; access to quality affordable child or elder care; access to markets for culturally sensitive goods and arts”.

Cooperatives can be formed in all sectors of the economy including agriculture, education, financial services, healthcare, housing, and more.

Examples of the main types of cooperatives that exist in South Africa are:

Worker Cooperatives where employees have a stake in the business and an equal vote in the way it runs, for example bakeries or retail stores.

Financial Cooperatives provide financial products and services to its members such as savings, credit, insurance and investment among union members, to ensure access to these services at reasonable interest rates and premiums.

Agricultural Cooperatives work together to produce, process or market agricultural products and supplies agricultural inputs and services to its members.

Cooperative Burial Society provides funeral benefits, including funeral insurance and related services, to its members and their dependants.

Cooperative Values And Principles

To be a cooperative, the enterprise must reflect the following cooperative values set out by the International Cooperative Alliance, namely: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.

Cooperatives must also reflect four ethical values namely, honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

They must also subscribe to the following set of cooperative principles:

  • Voluntary and open membership
  • Democratic member control
  • Member economic participation
  • Autonomy and independence
  • Education, training, and information
  • Cooperation among cooperatives
  • Concern for community

Cooperatives In South Africa

Cooperatives in South Africa are regulated by the Cooperatives Act 14 of 2005 that is based on international cooperative principles. In 2013, further amendments to the Act as well as a Code of Good Practice were adopted by the government. The regulatory framework also includes the Department of Trade Industry’s: A Co-operative Development Policy for South Africa, 2004; and the Co-operative Regulations, 2007.

Cooperatives are well established in many parts of the world, including Canada, Italy, Spain, India and Kenya. In South Africa, cooperatives historically play an important role in economic development as well as alleviating poverty and reducing unemployment.

They are one of the major interventions by the government to increase the number of viable and sustainable economic enterprises and to encourage the economic empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups, especially persons in rural areas, women, persons with disability and youth.

There are various support measures, which have been put in place to bolster the development of cooperatives including incentives, and non-financial and financial support to bolster the development of co-operatives in various sectors of the South African economy.

Despite this, there is limited success as many cooperatives fail at their emerging stage. The main identified reasons for the failure of cooperatives include a lack of critical skills among co­operative members; limited cooperation among cooperatives; limited access to finance and markets by cooperatives; lack of compliance with legislation and lack of monitoring and evaluation of cooperatives development.

The Department of Trade and Industry’s Integrated Strategy on the Development and Promotion of Co-operatives 2012-2022, attributes the failure of cooperatives to insufficient support. According to the report, “though enterprise development agencies have provided some support to cooperatives, the challenge is that this support has been negligible, unfocused, uncoordinated and lack of systematic and sustained targeting on cooperatives”.

Launching A Cooperative

The process of launching a cooperative is as follows:

Identify a Need – Cooperatives exist to help solve a particular community need such as affordable housing or affordable and healthy foods. The first step is to discuss with fellow community members to gauge the level of interest in forming a cooperative to address the issue. The meeting should also address what tools or resources (equipment, stock, etc.) and how much money is needed, as well as how much each person is willing to pay to start the cooperative.

Elect a Steering Committee – A steering committee is a group of people that form a cooperative. For example, a steering committee outlines how decisions are made. Often it completes and submits government forms. A chairperson and a secretary will be responsible for the project.

Formation Meeting – Before registering a cooperative, a formation meeting needs to be held with all persons who are interested in establishing the cooperative.

  • The Chairperson outlines the aims and objectives of the proposed cooperative
  • The Chairperson answers all the arising questions
  • The Chairperson invites everyone to join
  • The members must decide on the number of the board
  • The members will then elect the board of directors who will be the management of the cooperative

Members should also discuss and agree on the following:

  • The objectives (exactly what the cooperative will do)
  • The equipment, premises and other materials needed by the enterprise
  • Where will the premises (cooperative office) be located
  • How will the cooperative be financed and how will the funds be obtained?
  • Draw up an initial business plan
  • Choose a name for the cooperative (propose and choose alternative names)

Registration of the cooperative – Contact the company and intellectual property registration office (in short “CIPRO”). By registering a cooperative, you are creating a legal entity with powers and responsibilities as prescribed in the amended Cooperatives Act 6 of 2013.

The Benefits Of Cooperatives

Cooperatives are established for the mutual benefit of all members, as well as the greater community that they operate in.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Increased buying power – lower costs by buying in bulk
  • Improved bargaining power
  • Expand new and existing market opportunities
  • Equal say in the business for members
  • Shared values
  • Tax advantages for cooperatives organised as non-profit businesses
  • Access to industry incentives
  • Provide competition

Cooperative Incentives

The Cooperative Incentive Scheme (CIS) is a 100% grant for registered primary cooperatives whose objective is to improve the viability and competitiveness of cooperative enterprises by lowering their cost of doing business through an incentive that supports Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment.

The maximum grant that can be offered to one co-operative entity is R 350 000. A cooperative enterprise can apply for multiple activities provided that the cumulative grant awarded to the enterprise does not exceed the maximum grant offered.

How Does the CIS work?

The CIS assists emerging cooperatives to acquire their start-up requirements and to build an initial asset base to enable them to leverage other support.

What are the Benefits?

Eligible cooperatives can use the money in activities that include business development services, including feasibility studies, business, manufacturing and production systems, and production efficiency and improvement.

Also among these activities are technological improvements, machinery, equipment and tools, commercial vehicles, and infrastructure linked to the project and working capital.

Who Benefits?

The requirements say cooperatives must be incorporated and registered in terms of the Cooperatives Act and also be emerging cooperatives with a majority black ownership. This relates to the ownership requirement which states that cooperatives must be owned by historically disadvantaged individuals.

Also, cooperatives must have projects in any of the different economic sectors, as well as adhere to cooperative principles and be biased towards women, youth and people with disabilities.

Read more: All Your Co-Operatives Incentive Scheme FAQs Answered

Funding For Cooperatives

Within the public sector, the DTI, other national departments and various provinces offer a wide range of products and services comprising loans, grants, and incentive support, which play a significant role in enabling access to finance for co­ operatives through various development finance institutions.

Related: A Guide to Government Funding in South Africa 


The Small Enterprise Finance Agency (SEFA) provides development finance to SMMEs and cooperatives that are not able to attract commercial credit.

SEFA provides funding mainly to two types of cooperatives:

  • Cooperative Financial Institutions (CFIs)
  • Enterprising cooperatives

To qualify for funding at SEFA, the CFI must be/have:

  • Duly registered with CIPC as a cooperative
  • Valid deposit-taking license (duly registered with SARB and/or CBDA)
  • Certified constitution
  • NCR certificate
  • Minimum membership of 200 people
  • Minimum members’ shares /savings to the value of R 100 000
  • Savings and loan policies
  • Have a full-functioning board
  • Valid Tax Clearance Certificate
  • Must have been in operation for at least six (6) months
  • A three- to five-year business plan with financial projections
  • Proof of proper systems and processes in place
  • Outstanding loan book of at least Rv100 000
  • Any other document that SEFA may require
  • Maximum funding is based on CBDA/SARB external credit threshold, e.g. 15% of the total assets
  • Maximum loan term: 5 years
  • Interest Rate: Prime plus


NEF offers funding to cooperatives under their Rural, Township and Community Development Fund. The fund caters for rural entrepreneurs or communities seeking to buy equity in existing rural and community enterprises.

Qualifying Criteria:

  • Rural entrepreneurs, cooperatives, community groupings arranged as Trust or any legal entity, and workers trust and individuals
  • Principal goal of Rural and Community Development Fund: To cater for rural entrepreneurs or communities seeking to buy equity in existing rural and community enterprises
  • Location: Rural and Peri-Urban


The NYDA offers products geared towards supporting youth development, including various financial and business­ development products to boost cooperatives.

Besides the registration of cooperatives, the NYDA assists aspiring and established cooperatives with the following business support programmes and services:

  • Cooperatives pre-incorporation training
  • Gap analysis and needs assessment
  • Technical and entrepreneurship development training
  • Cooperative governance training
  • Business development support services such as bookkeeping, marketing, tendering support, website development and more
  • Facilitate regulatory compliance
  • Facilitate access to markets and other business referrals
  • Access to business loans, the NYDA offers a low business loan interest rate which currently stands at 6%
  • Mentorship and post-investment support

See also: What You Need to Know About NYDA Business Funding

Gauteng Enterprise Propeller (GEP)

Gauteng Enterprise Propeller (GEP) is a provincial government agency established under the auspices of the Department of Economic Development to provide support to small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs) and cooperatives in Gauteng.

GEP focuses on supporting the development of township enterprises, cooperatives and SMMEs which supply goods and services to township residents. Excess products and services can be sold to other regions, provinces and cross-border markets.

See also: Your Guide To The Gauteng Enterprise Propeller Programme

The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition

The DTI offers a wide range of incentives that play an important role in enabling the success of enterprises and improving their capacity and competitiveness, including the Export Marketing and Investment Assistance (EMIA), which provides assistance to cooperatives including SMME exporters with partial cost incurred in respect of activities at developing export markets for South African products and services and to recruit new foreign direct investment (FOI) into South Africa; and Black Business Supplier Development Programme (BBSDP), which offers support to black-owned co-operative enterprises in South Africa.