The age-old practice of extension-farmer contact on a one-to-one basis, though very effective, is expensive and unsustainable as the sole means of reaching farmers with agricultural technology. New methods emphasize the passing on of agricultural technology to farmers in organized groups (farmer groups). A farmer group is a collection of farmers interacting with one another towards achieving a common goal. Usually, the interaction between the members of the group is more than with those outside the group. Membership of a group varies, and it is advantageous to have a small number of people forming it. A group size of between 20 and 30 is ideal and manageable in order to provide a face-to-face interaction, better communication and the free flow of information.
The farmer-group approach plays valuable rôle in policy advocacy and in realizing economies of scale. One major benefit of the group is that farmers support each other to learn and adopt. Thus farmer-to-farmer extension is amplified. Rather than simply be agents for technologies imposed from outside, the extension agents are expected to become catalysts, mobilizing farmers to experiment on an identified need/ solution, recognizing local innovations and helping to assess and encourage them. Experienced farmers thus become the best discussion partners for other farmers. A farmers’ network of communication operates in a sustainable basis since it is perpetuated continually for a number of human generations.
A condition of effective and sustainable functioning of farmer groups is that the perceived benefits to members substantially outweigh the perceived costs. Benefits are likely to be high where the production of a high value commodity is involved and where linkages with other stakeholders (private or public sector) are valued by the group (Stringfellow et. al., 1997). There are various types of farmer groups, including formal co-operatives, informal farmer associations or groups, multi-purpose groups and national farmers’ organizations.
The benefits of farmer groups include:
- making agricultural extension services more client-driven and efficient;
- strengthening farmers’ bargaining power with traders;
- reducing transaction costs for input supplies and output buyers;
economies of scale (e.g. from bulking up in output marketing or storage)
facilitating savings and access to credit; and
- reducing public-sector extension costs (Conroy,2003).
This strategy enhances the dissemination of agro-information either by public or private interventions to a wider spectrum of users, including women and youth, unlike the formal extension systems.
However, as veritable machinery, which is sustaining and relatively cost-effective, the farmer-group approach is dependent on sufficient mobilization at the grassroots and in social units in order to achieve the desired objectives of the approach.
Farmer Field School Approach
Farmer field schools are schools without walls where groups of farmers meet periodically with facilitators during the crop or animal cycle (Davis and Place, 2003). It is a participatory method of technology development and dissemination (FAO, 2001), based on adult learning principles and experimental learning. It reflects the four elements of experiential learning cycle, namely: concrete experience, observation and reflection, generalization and abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. It has now been established in several African, Asian and South American countries, with millions of farmers participating. For example, over 900 FFSs are being successfully implemented in Kenya (Davis and Place, 2003).
The operation of the extension delivery approach is that developmental organizations partner with extension personnel to identify or form farmer groups based on particular topics. For instance, there are groups based on passion fruit, poultry, beekeeping ,vegetable production etc. Farmer field schools hold field days for other FFS groups and neighboring farmers. This provides an opportunity for each participant to teach others what they have learned. At the end of the FFS cycle, certain farmers are chosen by the group to be farmer facilitators. They can then lead their own farmer field school the following season. The extension officer’s role has evolved from that of a primary knowledge source to that of a facilitator of knowledge creation. The EA no longer has to have all the answers, and the messages of extension are not centrally contrived but, instead, related to locally relevant problems emerging from the FFS study field. The FFS methods have transformed farmers from recipients of information to generators and manipulators of local data.
One important issue in FFS is that of sustainability without outside funding. It is a participatory approach, which facilitates farmer demand for knowledge, and offers opportunity for the end users to choose, test and adapt technologies according to their needs. Through participation in FFS, farmers develop skills that allow them to continually analyze their own situation and adapt to changing circumstances.
Provision of legal and policy framework
A major problem of organizing agricultural extension in developing countries is the absence of a legal and policy framework for providing the service. What exists now as extension in many African countries are programmes from colonial masters, which have over the years been refurbished and tinkered with. They have no legal, policy or philosophical bases and are out of touch with cultural realities. Such a legal framework, preferably an act of parliament, should not only create extension as an important activity in pursuance of national development, but should also:
- state the structure for extension in the country;
- indicate the sources, levels and methods of funding;
- identify sources and types of programme;
- determine functions that constitute extension;
- provide the quality of manpower needed, and
- identify which agencies can participate and how.
Putting in place a legal and policy framework is one basic new and indispensable way of conducting extension in the developing countries. It will help streamline the confusion currently existing in the effort to transfer agricultural knowledge to farmers, particularly in the areas of service provision, programme development and funding.
Link to market opportunities
The old practice of asking farmers to produce without providing the means but to meet specific market demands have not worked. Extension is valuable when it is linked to specific market opportunities, when producers are being equipped to respond to particular market demands. The inefficiencies that bugged the traditional supply-driven, slow and expensive approaches to extension, are giving way to more efficient, demand-driven, flexible and responsive approaches.
Recognizing indigenous knowledge
There is a need to harness indigenous knowledge for the development of extension service. A country’s knowledge base needs to be developed and fostered to both improve its competitive position and to contribute to human and sustainable development goals. This is evident when local, scientific and technical information are properly managed and used. Special emphasis could be placed on developing and disseminating local content, improving the relevance of the information to local development, as well as capturing and auditing all relevant local resources.
Targeting and gender sensitivity
Targeting is the understanding of who the farmers are in terms of their capabilities (gender, resources, markets, culture, etc.) and ensuring that only technologies that are relevant to each farmer’s capability is targeted at him or her. Targeting compels the extension service provider and, indeed, research to properly examine the audience and the technology, and identify farmers that have a greater likelihood of benefiting from the technology based on the characteristics (technical, social and market) of similar technology.
Networking and enhancing the capabilities of extension service providers
Agricultural extension by its nature is a service that relies on linkages and networks. An extension service that is not linked to research, farmers or other service providers cannot be effective. Unfortunately, the linkages between extension and research and extension and farmers in most developing countries over the years have been very weak. The new thinking is that for extension to succeed, it must enhance its linkages and networks with research, farmers, and among extension providers (public and private). This way the capability of extension to transfer agricultural technology to farmers will be improved. National and regional associations of extension service providers have proved a good tool in this regard.
Increased use of information and communication technologies in extension
The promise of ICTs in agricultural extension is that they can energize the collection, processing and transmission of data, resulting in faster extension of quality information to more farmers in a bottom-up and interactive channel of communication. Thus ICTs may be the only way in which farmers can access a variety of information sources that are accessible, affordable, relevant and reliable. Also, increasing the use of ICTs in agricultural extension will narrow the gender disparities in terms of access to agricultural information. The internet could be used to enable farmers to become part of the information flow process and even to instigate the process of information flow rather than waiting for the information to be presented to them via radio, TV, newspapers, newsletters, bulletins or other ICTs.
Increased use of private extension service providers
Increased involvement of the private sector either in delivery, funding, or management of agricultural extension broadens the focus of extension personnel and makes extension services more responsive to client needs and changing economic and social conditions. It offers farmers value for their money. The result of increased private sector participation is higher in those aspects of extension service that are always profit-driven: for example, input procurement and distribution, cash crop extension, and veterinary extension. For services that are more of publicly oriented, for example, adaptive research, management and the administration of agricultural extension - including policy formulation, should continue to operate under the ambit of government.
If scientific research is to achieve a real impact on farm productivity and livelihoods, new methodologies for dissemination of information have to be developed or adapted. The main direction of reform in agricultural extension is towards a learning rather than teaching paradigm. This learning approach should incorporate new methodologies and approaches that are demand-driven and increase the real, interactive participation of local people at all levels of decision making in an extension delivery network. These methods require that the rôles and responsibilities of researchers, extensionists, and local people be re-defined and shared. However, it is imperative that individual countries make situational analyses of the social, political, technical, economic and natural conditions prevalent in their areas before adapting any method, approach, or strategy. An integrated approach (comprising of different strategies) is recommended in diverse socio-cultural, economic and political situations in order to achieve the desired goals. Generally, a sound agricultural extension policy is indispensable to achieve success in transferring knowledge to farmers. What exists now in most developing countries does not meet the criteria of an agricultural extension policy.
Michael. C. Madukwe is Professor at the Department of Agricultural Extension
University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria
Conroy, Czech (2003). New directions for Nigeria’s basic agricultural services. A Discussion Paper for Basic Agricultural Service (BAS). Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, United Kingdom Vol. 1: 61pp.
Davis, K and N Place (2003) Current concepts and approaches in agricultural extension in Kenya. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Conference of AIAEE. Raleigh, North Carolina, U.SA: 745 - 756
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2001) Farmer innovation and new technology options for food production, income generation and combating desertification (KEN/99/200). Progress Report - 2001: Nairobi, Kenya. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Stringfellow, R, Coulster, J. Lucy, T. MeKone, C. and Hussam, A. (1997) Improving the Access of Smallholders to Agricultural Services in Sub-Saharan Africa: Farmer Cooperation and the Role of the Donor Community. Natural Resources Perspectives No. 20. London: Overseas Development Institute.