Farmer field day as part of the SANE project in Malawi. Credit: University of Illinois' AgReach Program.

Citizens of many developing countries often expect that key services — education, health care, and agriculture, for example — will be provided by governments. However, the public sector is often unable to provide adequate and high-quality services to all citizens and serve remote geographic areas.

In fact, in the agricultural sector, and especially in countries where high percentages of people derive their primary livelihood through farming, there is often criticism of government-led agricultural research, the dissemination of seeds and other crucial inputs, extension and training programs, and market opportunities for farmers due to low outreach, and the overall quality and appropriateness of interventions.

The role of the private sector

Increasingly the private sector is seen as an alternative to constrained and largely ineffective public systems, and has seen notable successes in rapidly developing agricultural systems and increasing production. Private sector actors, whether multinational corporations, domestic companies, or local businesses, have assisted in galvanizing value chains and improving agriculture in many developing countries.

Larger companies are often well-resourced and bring cutting-edge research and development, improved seeds and inputs, and modern information communication technologies to agriculture, increasing impact and reaching groups of farmers that governments fail to sufficiently serve. In addition, private sector actors increasingly provide advisory services to farmers as a business strategy. Input supply companies often provide extension workers with specific knowledge of pest and disease management, as well as how their products can be applied in response. Private input supply dealers are often also trained to become de facto extension workers in their communities. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s PROFIT+ project in Zambia and the “agronaut” approach to training Farmers’ World agro-input dealers as extension workers in Malawi are two such examples.

The rise of the private sector coincides with the emphasis on “agriculture as a business,” or the philosophy that entrepreneurship, market-driven production, and strengthened value chains that link local producers to buyers and markets best develops viable and sustainable agricultural systems. Examples include out-grower schemes, support to small-scale agro-processing, on-demand transport services, and market price sharing via information communication technologies. Many actors in development, both within governments and among donors and development partners, support this approach to improve food security and enhance rural livelihoods.

“Working together can harness strengths and abilities of each, and in some cases have an impact far beyond what one partner could achieve on its own.”

The lessons learned so far

Where these approaches have seen success, largely or entirely privatized extension is often an objective of countries and extension systems, owing to the weaknesses of systems dominated by public sector services. Overstretched and underfunded ministries of agriculture may see private extension as a way to reduce public spending in agriculture while simultaneously improving service quality, leading to economic growth, improved rural livelihoods, and mitigation of unemployment challenges.

Caution should be taken, however, in placing too much faith in the private sector as a replacement for public services. The private sector approach to extension also has limitations and is not the “silver bullet” it is often considered to be by donors and enthusiastic governments.

First and foremost, burgeoning rural economies lack the capacity to incorporate all farmers. Private extension still requires at least a basic ability for farmers to pay for services, whether as a component of purchasing inputs or as a standalone source of information or training. Farmers who are less economically viable will struggle to gain access to these services. Similarly, private sector actors have no mandate to provide services as a “public good” and largely lack incentives to reach poor farmers who are not commercially viable. Public services are still required to serve those who are not served by the private sector.

In addition, private sector actors often focus on a narrow range of products and approaches that may align with the needs of businesses more than end-users. This could lead to a conflict of interest. An example would be prioritizing a chemical product for pest control when a natural, or cheaper, alternative might be better for the farmer or community. Input-driven private sector extension may also undersell the potential of agro-ecological approaches that might better promote climate smart agriculture, utilize local resources poorer rural communities can afford, and preserve soil and natural resources.

PPPs as a solution

Public-private partnerships

According to USAID, a PPP involves agreement between multiple actors “to work together to achieve a common objective” and involves shared contribution of resources.

PPPs should “achieve a common good” of value to both public and private actors; include contributions by the private sector partner go “beyond the private sector partner's immediate commercial interests”; and utilize resources from the private sector actor that would not otherwise be contributed and leverage financial, human, or in-kind resources from the public sector actor.

Effective extension systems therefore require influence from both public and private sectors. Increasingly, public-private partnerships are viewed as a mechanism that leverages the relative benefits of the public and private sectors to best serve farmers.

The AgReach program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has stimulated several effective PPPs that have advanced agricultural systems and transformed advisory services. Uganda has a large number of farmer-based organizations that serve as marketing cooperatives around the country and many of these FBOs offer a modest set of extension services to their members. These FBOs are grassroots-level private sector agricultural organizations with a business model built upon their marketing margins and membership fees for financial sustainability. The FBOs regularly partner with government extension workers for training and technical support, and they partner with donor funded projects in specific activities.  

Under AgReach, the USAID-funded Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services project, working with the Ugandan Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services, have partnered with these FBOs to better integrate nutrition and gender into their programs. Through a capacity development program of task-oriented training and doing, the partners have improved FBO extension staff capacity on nutrition and nutrition-sensitive agriculture leading to specific actions such as the assessment and development of new business lines in crops that provide protein and the provision and deployment of nutrition training job aides for use by the extension workers. Public sector extension workers also support the work of the FBOs through technical trainings and backstopping.

In northern Ghana, AgReach facilitated a PPP between the Savelugu-Nanton District Municipal Department of Agriculture and the USAID-funded Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services project and Engineers without Borders Canada to improve extension service delivery through farmer-based organizations in the district. The Savelugu-Nanton Extension Delivery Improvement project leveraged technical capacity of private partners through an agribusiness/entrepreneurship training program conducted by public extension workers. The program implemented an in-service training program for extension workers, who were then backstopped to teach the same content to farmers in 30 FBOs. Technical areas were prioritized by the municipal department and the farmers themselves through a facilitated needs assessment and strategic planning process, and included: agriculture as a business, post-harvest handling and loss prevention, and ICTs for extension. Overall, the collaboration built capacities within the public sector and among farmers, while leveraging the technical capacities of the NGO partners, and helped farmers form commercially viable cooperatives to operate in the private sector.        

In Malawi, AgReach’s Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension project backstops and supports the Department of Agricultural and Extension Services to deliver agricultural and nutrition extension and advisory services more effectively and in a coordinated manner. A key aspect of the project is strengthening the District Agricultural Extension Services System. This governmental system is composed of collaborative platforms that enhance agricultural service delivery and bring both private and public extension stakeholders together in order to address prioritized farmer demands in a bottom-up and coordinated way. This approach not only recognizes the pluralistic nature of extension provision in Malawi, but also recognizes the importance of giving public and private actors the opportunity to complement each other and to direct time and resources toward the common goal of serving farmers.

These examples demonstrate the power of collaborative PPPs in improving extension service delivery to small-holder farmers. Within effective PPPs, agricultural services benefits from the private sector’s unique capacities related to technologies, approaches, and skills not possessed by the public sector. In turn, the public sector’s investment and support of extension through provision of field staff complements the technical knowledge of the private sector, though in many cases support for operational funds and links to innovative technologies may be lacking. Working together can harness strengths and abilities of each, and in some cases have an impact far beyond what one partner could achieve on its own.

To learn more about the how the AgReach program is improving agricultural, nutrition, and gender-responsive extension services to benefit smallholder farmers, click here.

About the authors

  • Paul McNamara

    Paul E. McNamara is the founder and director of AgReach. He is passionate about extension and committed to substantively improving the lives of smallholder farmers in the poorest countries of the world. Paul has over 20 years of international development experience, which is bolstered by his academic background as teacher, researcher and extension program specialist in the area of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • 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.
  • Cristina Alvarez Mingote

    Cristina Alvarez Mingote's deliberate research and resulting understanding of the political economy and governance that impact farmers' lives contributes to AgReach's ability to design research-based programs that work. Eight years of research experience has prepared Cristina to assess the political economy of development within varied contexts, most recently concerning the public provision of agricultural extension services. In this role, she addresses issues of governance, accountability, and farmers' involvement in extension service delivery. AgReach applies Cristina's knowledge of governance, political economy, economic, and political development towards strengthening sustainable agricultural extension systems that empower smallholder farmers.