Extension services: master or servant?
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CTA. 1997. Extension services: master or servant?. Spore 68. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Agricultural extension services link research workers and policy-makers with farmers. All too often extension services havebeen structured and operated on the assumption that farmers are largely passive, that they are illiterate and therefore...
Agricultural extension services link research workers and policy-makers with farmers. All too often extension services have been structured and operated on the assumption that farmers are largely passive, that they are illiterate and therefore ignorant, and that they are unable to innovate or to integrate new cropping and livestock practices into their established agricultural systems. New approaches to extension have been tried but have been found wanting. Meanwhile, the need for rural revival and increased food security is more urgent than ever. Key questions must be addressed. What do farmers want in terms of advice and assistance to help them improve productivity on a sustainable basis? In what forms are advice and assistance best provided? Who should be responsible for the maintenance of extension services? And how should extension services be funded? Without further development of their rural areas, it is unlikely that the majority of sub-Saharan African countries will be able to feed their people, develop industries based on their primary agricultural products, provide adequate employment or sustain current levels of foreign exchange earnings from their exports. Without a more rational approach to the management of natural resources, erosion will increase and there will be an accelerating decline in soil fertility, water resources and vegetative cover. Yet, if rural development policies are to be formulated with the aim of satisfying each nation's needs for food and employment opportunities, they can only be put into practice with the active and willing participation of millions of rural people living in scattered and distant communities who need to know, to learn and to be motivated to change. This is the challenge facing policy-makers, research institutions and extension personnel throughout the continent. Farmers' priorities In the past, extension has at best enjoyed localized success; more often it has fallen far short of targets. Among the reasons for this are some concepts of what constitutes extension. A widely accepted view has been that it is a means of delivering to farmers information based on technologies developed by international, national or commercial research; and that agricultural extension is the promotion of something which farmers would otherwise neglect. This smacks of the transfer of technology, top-down approach where 'outsiders' believe they know what is best and farmers are expected to accept and implement received wisdom, whether or not they see the need for it. In too many instances the 'outsider' view has reflected government or donor priorities, and extension has attempted to promote policies and projects designed and developed without prior consultation with the potential beneficiaries. Inconveniently for those who hold such views, farmers have proved to be independent and to have their own experiences, perceptions and understanding of their soils, crops, animals and markets. Moise Mensah of Benin, former Deputy President of IFAD, has recently defined the function of extension as the dissemination of knowledge that is necessary for improving agricultural productivity. Jon Moris, author of Extension alternatives in tropical Africa, believes it to be the promotion of technology to meet farmers' needs; and Jules Pretty, of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and author of Regenerating agriculture, has observed that there are strong feelings among rural people that they do not like plans to be made for them by others. Robert Chambers of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) was arguably the first of a growing number of authorities to emphasise the need to put the farmer first. For most of the post-Independence period in Africa (and pre-Independence too) the emphasis has been on promoting 'modem' agriculture. Intercropping was deemed untidy and inefficient, and old landraces low-yielding. Farmers were urged to switch to cash crops, to grow crops as sole stands, and to adopt new high-yielding varieties together with the use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. But in many cases the technical packages that were supposed to generate agricultural growth not only failed to deliver the expected benefits of higher productivity, better food security and higher living standards, but they also left farmers in debt and unable to repay the loans taken out to fund these higher input systems. At a CTA workshop on agricultural extension in Africa held in Yaoundé, Cameroon in January 1994, Moise Mensah observed: 'We have focused on productivity instead of household food security. We have disregarded the fact that farmers do not manage individual crops but complex livelihood systems. We have focused on men and neglected the increasingly major role women play in food production in Africa.' Farmers' requirements might thus be summarized as follows: to be recognized as men or women with varying responsibilities on their farms and in their communities; to be invited to participate in the formulation of development plans; and to receive recognition of their traditional knowledge, incomplete though it may be. Whose responsibility? Extension services are criticized for being under-staffed (too few extension agents for the number of farmers), top-heavy (too many office-bound senior staff), inflexible and remote. In many countries 60-80% of budgets are allocated to salaries and up to 80% of budgets may be foreign financed, a dependence on external funding that is not sustainable. Jon Moris has written: 'Basically, poor countries have been helped to establish complex networks of service institutions which exceed what the local economy can sustain. In many countries in anglophone and francophone Africa there is an overlapping of extension services provided by agricultural ministries, parastatals, commodity boards, UN and World Bank projects, NGOs and commercial companies. Each has its target group, all compete for the most able staff, and there is seldom meaningful coordination or collaboration between them. Some are very successful but, when projects end, extension usually ceases and the benefits are seldom sustained or replicated. Since the 1980s the World Bank has promoted the Training and Visit (T&V) system of extension in Africa and for the Bank this has largely replaced the earlier Farming Systems Research (FSR) approach. The T&V system is based on developing a cadre of competent extension agents who are based at regional or district centres, where they receive regular training and briefing before going out to interact with target farmers. The system uses leader farmers and demonstration farms and has been very successful in countries as different as Burkina Faso, Kenya and India. But critics suggest that T&V is suited only to places where there are already financially secure farmers with viable landholdings, who are credit-worthy and able to take some risks and where an infrastructure exists for supply inputs and purchasing products e.g. Kenya and India. Etienne Beaudoux of the Institut de Recherche et d'Applications des Méthodes de Développement (IRAM) points out that: 'Using the T&V method to improve agricultural systems does not solve the problem of government expenditure and keeps farmers dependent on technicians.' NGOs and bilateral donors have also had their successes: for example, Oxfam, with Project Agro-Forestier in Burkina Faso, and World Vision's Menaka Oasis Project in Mali. SIDA has supported soil and water conservation in Kenya and in Lesotho through government bodies, while in Burkina Faso GTZ has funded a consortium of ministries (agriculture, livestock, environment and tourism) and NGOs within the government PATECORE project (Project d'Amenagement de Terroirs et Conservation de Resources). The two common denominators of all these projects have been that they involve a substantial element of soil and water conservation, without which no other farm improvements are viable, and that they all depend on a participatory approach to developing the plans of action and to implementing them communally. Conveying advice and assistance The ratio of farmers to extension staff in African countries is invariably high. There are never enough extension agents for regular personal contacts nor sufficient funds to provide transport and support materials to service all farmers' needs. Utilizing the mass media, in particular radio, to create awareness of new technologies and concepts such as better marketing, and targeting extension to farmers' groups, can be a more effective use of scarce human, financial and material resources than attempting to deal with individuals. The awareness created by radio can benefit extension staff, who find participants at meetings and demonstrations already informed at an introductory level and with questions to put forward. More productive use of extension agents' time should result. It must be accepted that mass media such as radio and TV are only effective when transmissions cover all target areas and when rural programmes broadcast at times convenient to rural listeners and are in their own language. Furthermore, programmes only attract audiences if they are accurate, timely and creatively produced. Ideally, rural radio and TV programme output should be planned and broadcast in concert with extension staff, so that although extension messages are delivered by different media and in different formats (radio, posters, farmers' meetings) they reinforce each other. Regrettably, rural radio broadcasting is under-resourced and tends to work almost, or completely, independently of the mainstream extension activities. Furthermore, lack of resources, poor training and lack of management result in poor morale among rural broadcasters and a consequent high proportion of programmes that are unattractive to listeners. Rural programmes are also relegated to 'off peak' listening times when target audiences are at work or asleep. A new and very damaging trend in ACP countries is for national radio, under pressure to be self-financing, to demand such high costs for transmitting programmes produced by ministries of agriculture that rural broadcasts are drastically reduced or abandoned. Group extension provides not only savings in costs, but also the opportunity for a truly participatory approach to analysis, planning and execution of projects which have addressed those developments seen to be priorities by the communities. A relatively new example of group extensions are the Farmers' Field Schools (FFS) that are being run with FAO guidance and assistance in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe (see box). The FFS concept originated in Asia and its main focus to date has been to train farmers in the concept and practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). In Burkina Faso and Ghana experience has been limited to IPM in rice, but in Kenya maize is the first target crop and in Zimbabwe, cotton. The initial success is encouraging: the majority of farmers are staying the course for the whole growing season and are developing their confidence to monitor and analyse field and crop conditions, to test alternative courses of action and to decide subsequent management based on their own experiences m the group. Extension advice IS not accepted at face-value but is tested, observed and assessed before being put into practice on a field-scale. Following their season at Farmers' Field Schools the participants, who include men and women, form the focus for on-going training of other farmers in their village or district. The FFS system appears to offer an economic, interactive and effective form of training and extension. Finding the funds As the competition for funds intensifies, difficult choices have to be made as to where extension input is likely to yield the best output. Where governments wish to continue to manage national economies the greatest challenge will be in agriculture. But for ministries of agriculture to function adequately, they will need a greater share of natural resources; they will also need clear policy guidelines and the responsibility for coordinating their own extension resources and those of donors, NGOs, international research institutes and commercial companies to achieve the most cost-effective results. Extension remains a challenge and one that cannot be met without a reassessment of national needs, farmers' priorities and the optimal matching of resources to tasks. Tasks themselves need prioritizing and extension needs to be directed at a few key aspects such as soil fertility, IPM and livestock. These can incorporate the principles and practice of land conservation, water management, varietal choice, composts and mulching, weed and pest control, agro-forestry, livestock feeding and health. In addition extension needs to incorporate advice on adding value to crops through processing and, increasingly, on marketing, where awareness and skills must be developed. In order to rise to the challenge extension staff themselves must adopt new attitudes, gain training and be provided with the resources needed for them to carry out their work. ACP farmers are receptive to new ideas, which they recognize as serving their economic and social aspirations, and it is for all those involved in extension to select information and devise ways of delivering it cost-effectively. The success of future extension services will ultimately depend on whether their agents continue to see themselves as directing farmers or whether they adopt the role of persuading and helping farmers to agree mutually beneficial courses of action. Will the day come when extension ceases to be the master and becomes the servant of rural people? Further reading: Extension alternatives in tropical Africa by Jon Moris published by ODI, 1991 Regenerating agriculture by Jules N Pretty published by Earthscan, 1995 Agricultural extension in Africa, proceedings of a CTA Workshop, Yaoundé, January 1995
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