Lessons and Design Blueprints from SEWA’s Data Cooperative Experiment

Paper prepared for presentation at the 8th Conference of the Regulating for Decent Work Network on “Ensuring decent work in times of uncertainty” at the International Labour Office Geneva, Switzerland 

10-12 July 2023


The dynamics of capital and labour undergo significant changes as various production processes across sectors are being brought into the fold of digitalisation, particularly at the cost of informal women workers in agriculture. The growing trend of agricultural digitalisation and datafication, particularly in the Global South, has solidified existing class precarities, and has modified land relations among several marginalised wage workers and farmers. With land sovereignty being increasingly pegged to data sovereignty, the expropriation of data by a handful of Big Tech corporations has immense consequences on existing tenure rights and relationships. This research study, conducted in collaboration with SEWA Cooperative Federation, investigates the following questions in response to the threat of datafication exacerbating existing precarities of women informal agricultural workers in the Global South: (1) What kind of alternative data systems can be created by adopting a base-up mapping of women’s data needs into SEWA’s process of building a worker-designed and led data cooperative and (2) how can this process of trust-based co-design enable the creation of a data cooperative that circumvents the extractive paradigms of data capitalism, with the infrastructure and governance principles to resist the extension of Big Tech into Global South food systems.

In this paper, we demonstrate the need for developing base-up models of data cooperatives as an alternative to top-down data cooperatives, the latter often centralised and non-federated, built to enhance data sharing and monetisation and at the mercy of digital monopolies. Through a Rapid Ethnographic Approach, our Participatory Action Research adopts a unique consultative co-design process (N = 60 women farmers), where we go on to propose a federated techno-institutional model that is pegged on SEWA’s existing, unique hyperlocal Farmer Facilitation Centres (FFC) and Mandli systems. The study highlights the need for techno-design to be informed by data rights principles, foregrounded by political economy narratives that critically appraise digital systems within data capitalism. It also highlights the importance of developing grassroots research methodologies to implement the concept of digital commons as a viable means of resistance against the proliferation of datafication in the Global South. The techno-design blueprints emerging from this collaboration are significant additions to the body of work on executing platform cooperative models.


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