Opinion: Agricultural extension as a crucial support to development

Interactive concept maps help farmers learn how to design efficient farm plots at a training day in Machakos, Kenya. Photo by: Joyous Tata

The Sustainable Development Goals position agriculture at the forefront of addressing rural poverty, hunger and livelihoods. Evidence suggests that gains in agriculture have a significantly greater return on investment when targeting poverty and hunger, often up to five times more than investment in other sectors. As a result, donors, such as the World Bank, the European Commission, the United States Agency for International Development and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, have committed significant financial and intellectual resources to improving agriculture at the global level. Private foundations have also prioritized agricultural innovation and system inefficiencies, as seen in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the Rockefeller Foundation's YieldWise efforts to mitigate postharvest losses. Many developing countries — specifically those with agriculture-dominated economic bases — have followed suit, with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme agreement a prime example of resource commitments to the sector.

Moreover, agricultural development is increasingly taking a nuanced, multifaceted approach, moving beyond primarily food security as a measure of progress to consider services and systems more holistically. Extensive funding to agricultural research and development has determined technologies and good practices that produce greater yields, promote resistance to climate change impacts, encourage higher market value and that better utilize farmers’ efforts in the field. Increased programs and investments in agribusiness have targeted the supply side through improved inputs and input delivery systems, agricultural lending and agribusiness skill training, as well as the demand side through efforts to improve access to markets, fair prices to producers, postharvest loss prevention and value addition.

Yet underlying these efforts lies the crucial role of agricultural extension to leverage these investments into tangible impact. Extension includes “all the different activities that provide the information and services needed and demanded by farmers and other actors in rural settings to assist them in developing their own technical, organizational and management skills and practices so as to improve their livelihoods and well-being,” according to Ian Christoplos of the Danish Institute for International Studies. Technologies and practices can only lead to development impact if they are communicated and implemented by farmers and end-users at scale. Extension is the mechanism by which this occurs.

However, evidence suggests that extension can be a weak link, or an oft-forgotten component, of agricultural development efforts. Extension systems commonly lack funding, cohesion and leadership, and services either lack the requisite quality of messaging or farmers struggle to access them at all. These shortcomings undercut potential agricultural development gains.

“Where system strengthening is prioritized and supported, extension can foster an enabling environment for innovation and entrepreneurialism, empowering farmers and rural communities to solve their own problems and repositioning development partners as facilitators rather than drivers of change.”

— Austen Moore, research specialist, AgReach program

A strong case therefore exists for greater support to extension. First and foremost, extension provides the “last mile” support technologies, and improved practices need to reach and be adopted by potential users. Robust extension systems and services disseminate and communicate information to farmers through messages that are clear, tailored to the learning needs of audiences and locally relevant. They also provide the backstopping to farmers to adopt and maintain use of beneficial technologies and improved practices.

Indeed, both theory and practical evidence show that adoption requires going beyond simple awareness of a technology. Farmers must try technologies, makes modifications to match specific on-farm circumstances and receive support when troubleshooting or when questions arise. They may also need additional incentives to try technologies and practices in the first place. Trust and familiarity in who, and how, messages are delivered is important, which requires intensive and ongoing interactions between frontline extension workers and farmers. This is especially true with complex and intangible concepts, such as climate-smart agriculture, or CSA, approaches, that take longer to deliver returns to farmers. A trusted extension worker who understands his or her farmers’ realities is best suited to make this case. Only then will adoption and behavior change occur. For example, ongoing extension services played a major role in promoting adoption of CSA practices in one Malawi-based program, which ultimately resulted in 62 percent more maize yield per acre for adopters.

Good extension programs can identify aspects of farmer challenges that need prioritization within the research system. Extension that is participatory also helps organize and communicate farmers’ requests, creating a feedback mechanism so that researchers develop technologies that meet farmers’ needs and fit their circumstances, simultaneously increasing their likelihood of adoption and continued use.

Women farmers learn about integrated communication technology from extensionists during a training in Machakos, Kenya. Photo by: Joyous Tata

Social cohesion and governance also benefit from effective extension services. Programs that emphasize community-level problem solving, participatory learning, group dynamics and advocacy support broader efforts to promote democracy and decentralization. Extension itself is also a key social service, often provided to the rural poor as a “public good” like education and health care. Government extension services in particular demonstrate a commitment to the rural poor, which often serves as a mitigating factor against social issues and even the emergence of conflict. Furthermore, extension services are needed to help technologies and information reach traditionally underserved groups, such as women and youth, with potentially life-changing opportunities, promoting equity in development.

AgReach

AgReach is a leader in the push for greater support to extension, working to improve agricultural and nutrition extension services and systems that benefit smallholder farmers. By supporting the development of people and organizations, AgReach stimulates growth, improves rural livelihoods and increases food security in some of the world’s poorest countries. AgReach has worked in over 50 countries and reached nearly 15 million smallholders.

An international thought leader headquartered at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, AgReach implements programs and develops research-based solutions that are both human and scalable, extending the reach of information, resources and people to key development stakeholders. These efforts support advancements in agriculture and nutrition so that smallholder farmers thrive.

For more information about the AgReach program, click here.

Perhaps most significantly, investments in extension can often be extremely cost-effective and impactful relative to other investments in agriculture. One global study found that extension provided a 62 percent median rate of return for extension analyses compared to a 48 percent median rate of return for agricultural research. Country-level experiences also show major development impacts at modest costs. The Savelugu-Nanton Extension Delivery Improvement Project in northern Ghana, which leveraged public-private partnerships in funding, significantly increased the agribusiness capacity of 1,000 farmers at a cost of $80,000, spawning several new agribusiness enterprises. A CRS-Caritas extension program AgReach evaluated in Bangladesh led to statistically significant differences in the empowerment of women and nutrition-related behaviors. The extension effort generated increases in household incomes in a range of $23 to $44 per month in rural households compared to matched households in comparison communities. Extension support proved crucial in prompting behavior change and establishing systems that then produced economic gains for participants at low costs.

Ultimately, good extension services require efforts to develop strong systems. Extension services that are coordinated and highly collaborative can produce synergies and deliver sustainable results that exceed the contributions, and timelines, of individual projects. It also increasingly plays a facilitator’s role in pluralistic situations, sourcing information and specific capacities from a host of actors. Where system strengthening is prioritized and supported, extension can foster an enabling environment for innovation and entrepreneurialism, empowering farmers and rural communities to solve their own problems and repositioning development partners as facilitators rather than drivers of change.

Where extension systems are robust and service delivery is well-supported, development objectives are more easily attained. Greater attention and investment in extension is therefore needed to maximize the benefits of other investments in agriculture, and to produce the impact needed to advance countries toward achieving SDG 1, elimination of extreme poverty, and SDG 2, zero hunger, along with other key indicators of well-being and development. Development actors seeking to increase agricultural impact, sustainability, cost-effectiveness and farmer empowerment should give extension the resources support and attention it deserves.

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About the author

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    Austen Moore

    Austen Moore’s passion for agricultural extension led him to the University of Illinois where he works with AgReach as a research specialist as well as deputy project director for the Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension Services Activity in Malawi. After serving with the Peace Corps in East Timor, Austen completed his doctoral studies in agricultural education and communication from the University of Florida. Dr. Moore specializes in agricultural extension systems and approaches, community-led development and post-conflict agriculture.