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May 04, 2008

Renewed focus on the importance of agricultural extension services

At a time of international concern about the future of the world's food supply, it's a comment that gives pause for thought: "I teach university students agriculture and extension but many of them opt for other professions, especially in ICTs, because agriculture is 'for those who haven't gone to school'."

Washington Ochola, a senior lecturer in sustainable agriculture and rural development at Egerton University, near Nairobi, made the comment at the recent launch in the Kenyan capital of findings by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This three-year initiative canvased the views of all parties involved in agriculture with a view to making the sector more efficient and sustainable.

Far from being a refuge for those without formal education, however, agricultural extension work is demanding ever greater expertise from those who practice it, as the farmers they assist face difficulties that would have been unimaginable a generation ago: the pressure of working in a globalised market, for instance, or producing crops when HIV/AIDS is decimating rural workforces. Extension workers have traditionally served as the link between researchers who develop new technologies and the farmers who put these approaches into practice.

How authorities in Kenya -- and elsewhere in Africa -- meet the challenge of producing skilled extension workers and enabling those already in the field to perform more efficiently will play a key part in determining whether agriculture fulfils its potential across the continent. It will also require more than raising the professional status of these workers above that of information and communication technology employees; increasing the budget for extension work may also prove necessary.

"The extension workers exist, but there are no facilities to enable them to deliver services to the farmer," Daniel Otunge of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) told IPS. The ISAAA, a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Nairobi, is involved in extension work for banana tissue culture and the planting of eucalyptus trees. "Without a motorcycle, for example, the extension worker can't reach crucial farmers."

Communication between the various groupings in charge of extension workers also needs to be improved. "There is a lack of an integrated approach in extension work," said Ochola, who served as one of the authors of the IAASTD's review of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. "This leads to duplication or conflict of ideas, confusing the farmers. For example, sugar companies have extension work and the government also has extension workers targeting the same farmers!"

While extension work has often been to the advantage of large, cash crop farms, it has proved less effective for smaller, diversified operations. Small-scale farmers simply don't have the resources to deal with extension workers for the various crops and animals on their properties, said Ochola. Large-scale farmers who manage fewer crops find it easier to liaise with the workers.

But, even those who have big operations may not be receiving the best advice. "Many research findings do not reach the farmers in good time and in consumable formats due to lack of seriousness in repackaging and effective agricultural information and knowledge management," said Ochola. Furthermore, "Donor driven extension workers set the agendas, and these usually go against farmers' expectations."

Another of the participants at the IAASTD launch in Nairobi painted a picture of workers whose skills were being steadily outdated: "I think since they were posted to these regions after graduation from college, many of them have not updated their education, and drink with the locals -- forgetting to keep abreast with research and new technologies."

Age old cultural factors also come into play. According to the IAASTD's review of sub-Saharan Africa, 83 percent of extension workers in the region are men who may be forbidden or discouraged from dealing with women farmers because of cultural barriers. This is despite women accounting for some 70 percent of agricultural workers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Notes IAASTD Co-Chair Judi Wakhungu, "The extension worker speaks to a man because he is not allowed to interact with women in that culture. The man is not the farmer, and the right message thus doesn't reach the right target, missing the objective of extension work."

Wakhungu is also executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), based in Nairobi. ACTS oversaw the compilation of the IAASTD review of sub-Saharan Africa.

The result of all of these problems is an extension work sector that is failing to make the grade.

"Extension work is supported by donors and non-governmental organisations and it is present throughout the region, but the workers are not responsive to farmers' ever-changing needs, making no impact on their work," said Ochola.

Yet, the need for every effort in improving African agriculture could not be clearer. As the IAASTD indicates, agriculture accounts for about a third of gross domestic product in sub-Saharan Africa, yet 30 percent of people living in this region go hungry. Between 1970 and 1980, yields fell, and have since remained unchanged -- even as national populations grew.

Ensuring that more women are trained, and retained, as extension workers would go part of the way to addressing the shortcomings of agricultural extension work. Educating workers to be multi-skilled and capable of advising on a variety of crops and animals would, in turn, benefit those who run small-scale, diversified farms.

These views are echoed in a 2005 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). "Cosmetic changes to the existing national extension systems will be of little benefit, as will be the repeated training of staff in stereotypical agricultural subjects. Just as well beat a dead horse," notes the document, 'Modernizing National Agricultural Extension Systems: A Practical Guide for Policy-Makers of Developing Countries'.

Amongst the other recommendations made by the FAO: the establishment of a national policy on extension work that would guarantee political and financial commitment to the sector, and encouraging "bottom-up" participation by farmers to ensure extension meets their needs while retaining the option of a "top-down modality for promoting common public good practices such as conservation of national resources and environment protection."

The education levels of farmers themselves may need to be improved, to help them interact more effectively with extension workers. "Unless there are many educated farmers, it is difficult to simplify scientific findings and for them to follow instructions," said Ochola.

According to the FAO report: "The time is indeed ripe for policy-makers in developing countries to challenge and revisit the discipline of extension within a global context..."

The alternative to such re-evaluation? A situation where extension workers are the weak link in the chain between government, researchers and farmers -- rather than the indispensable link.


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