Agricultural extension is the application of scientific research and knowledge to agricultural practices through farmer education. Generally, agricultural extension can be defined as the “delivery of information inputs to farmers.” The role of extension services is invaluable in teaching farmers how to improve their productivity. Extension is also critical to move research from the lab to the field and to ensure a return on investment in research by translating new knowledge into innovative practices. The UN High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) argue that “national research and extension systems need full attention and investments from governments and the donor community.”
Extension services are classified into 3 types:
Technology transfer – the traditional model of the transfer of advice, knowledge and information in a linear manner;
Advisory – the use by farmers of a cadre of experts as a source of advice in relation to specific problems faced by them;
Facilitation – the aim of this model is to help farmers to define their own problems and develop their own solutions.
Traditional extension systems focus on increasing agricultural productivity, use a top-down approach and often emphasise the transfer of technology. This model for extension, however, is becoming out-dated in the more competitive, market-oriented climate of today’s agriculture. Alternative models have emerged that recognise other actors than traditional public extension services – including agribusiness companies, NGOs, agro-dealers, producer organisations and farmer to farmer exchanges. Many countries, especially in Latin America, have privatised and contracted out advisory services. Uganda’s National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) have also contracted out extension services to the private sector and NGOs. FARM-Africa‘s farmer-to-farmer extension model involves extension professionals training farmers in demand-driven technologies and encouraging them to serve their communities voluntarily as community extension workers.
After years of neglect and disinvestment, there has been renewed emphasis and new approaches to demand-led extension. Within the donor community, a revitalised and expanded role for advisory and information services is seen as central to pro-poor agricultural growth. Apart from their conventional role of providing and transferring knowledge in order to increase productivity, new functions include linking smallholder farmers to high value and export markets, promoting environmental outcomes and coping with public health challenges such as HIV/AIDS.
Increasing productivity on current land requires significant investment in agricultural research and extension. Extension can provide farmers with the tools and knowledge they need to adopt new sustainable methods of farming in order to increase their yields, improve their food security and livelihoods and build resilience against climate shocks. Importantly, farmers can be encouraged to achieve more with existing resources and prevent the expansion of arable land and to restore those lands that have been degraded. The training of extension workers is also a potential driver of employment and economic growth. In Africa. Many rural poor households face numerous risks, which require a more interactive extension system. In some cases, programmes training farmers themselves to become informal extension agents have proved successful in building human capital, such as Flora Kahumbe, an agro-dealer in Malawi, who was trained by RUMARK to be a private extension agent.
In Africa there is an estimated 1 extension worker per 4,000 farmers, compared with 1 per 200 hundred farmers in developed countries. This ratio falls far below the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommendation of 1 officer for every 400 farmers. The proportion of agriculture budgets allocated to extension services varies from country to country, for example, from 5% in Zambia to 50% in Zimbabwe. Evidence from Nigeria shows that the higher the extension agent to farmer ratio, the more successful the extension delivery. According to the FAO, investment in agriculture extension services needs to increase to 3.5% of the agriculture GDP in order to achieve the necessary coverage. However, no African government is currently spending even a tenth of that amount.
Information on the direct costs and cost-effectiveness of agricultural extension services across Africa is sparse, in part because this is not often evaluated. In the case of Malawi in the early 1980’s, direct agent-to-farmer extension services cost US$21 per contact and US$4 to US$5 per participant for a one-day training course. By comparison, a mobile film show cost US$0.17 per farmer per hour and a radio programme cost US$0.004 per listener per hour showing that even early information communication technologies helped to reduce the costs of delivery.
A more recent analysis of farmer field schools (FFS) – a participatory approach to farmer education and empowerment featuring discovery learning, experimentation, and group action – found the cost per participant to range between US$20 and US$40. These estimates however, do not take into account the costs to beneficiaries which can make the approach relatively costly compared to other types of programme approaches. Although government expenditure on extension services has typically been low, evidence from several countries show that agricultural extension is a pro-poor public investment with high returns to poverty reduction. In Ethiopia, poverty was reduced by 9.8% from just 1 agricultural extension visit and in Uganda, increases in extension visits reduced stunting and wasting in children.
The high costs many farmers face in accessing extension services, such as travelling to a regional town or city, can act as a strong disincentive to seek out advice and support. To resolve this challenge, mobile phone networks can help to disseminate knowledge given the dramatic increase in access to such networks, even in rural areas, and affordability even for the poor. Today 75% of Africans own a mobile phone, making it increasingly easier to reach those located in remote rural areas with timely weather forecasts. The Ghana Ministry of Agriculture Extension Service Portal, or the crowdsourcing model of WeFarm communicate a variety of information with farmers exclusively by SMS.
Women’s participation in extension is limited by traditional, social and institutional factors. Whilst it is still common for agricultural extension workers to be male and to interact only with men, in recent years there has been growing recognition of women’s role in managing farm households and the importance of female to female communication in the adoption of new farming methods and technologies. Extension services need to be sensitive to women’s household responsibilities, availability and suitability of the information to the beneficiary to reduce the exclusion of women from education and training opportunities.
For Sustainable Intensification to succeed, smallholders need to build up their understanding of farming systems and capacity to innovate within their own particular ecosystems. The use of videos in West African countries such as Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Gambia and Guinea has been successful in raising awareness about potentially beneficial technologies and practices among farmers. However, agricultural knowledge is very contextual and requires a deep understanding of the entire farming system. Therefore, it can be difficult to communicate or assimilate advice for widespread use.
Most producers live in a world of imperfect information, and are subject to considerable uncertainty with regard to weather conditions, pest attacks, and market options. Some of these uncertainties could be mitigated by better access to information and communication technologies (ICT). Better, reliable and timely information will help farmers become more responsive to price signals and help to expand the reach and impact of extension and advisory services. For example, Safaricom Ltd and the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange collect and disseminate current commodity price information to Kenyan farmers through a low cost SMS provider.