Rethinking agricultural extension

Zimbabwe’s agricultural extension service, Agritex, was the pride of Africa in the 1980s, before the ravages of structural adjustment hit in the 1990s. There were extension workers throughout the countryside, and a network of subject matter specialists, most highly experienced and qualified. The quality of the training and advice offered was unparalleled anywhere on the continent, and for a time the service was well resourced with extension workers reasonably paid and with transport and so able to move around.

Today the extension service is a sorry reflection of past glories. Many qualified staff left or passed away (the ravages of HIV/AIDS hit many government services very badly), posts are unfilled, the transport capacity virtually non-existent and the ability to offer up-to-date advice severely hampered by the parallel decimation of government research services. Most farmers rely on private input suppliers, agrodealers and their neighbours for advice these days. Of course there are extension workers in the field, and they are usually extraordinarily committed and informed, despite the poor conditions of their posts. In the communal areas many get additional incentives from NGO programmes, often diverting their work to projects like conservation agriculture or group gardening.

I had some interesting discussions recently with a number of former Agritex staff and resettlement farmers about what they thought of the service today, and what they thought about its future, particularly in the post land reform era. They reminisced about the past of course, and acknowledged how effective Agritex had been, but they were also sanguine about the future. What do the ‘new farmers’ really need?

The discussion identified three important things: information (and particularly up to the minute market and price data), brokering (between farmers and contractors, suppliers, markets and service providers, to ensure that deals struck are fair and regulated) and business management skills (they were confident about agronomy, but not running a business, even a small one: managing accounts, cash flows, investments and the rest). This is a very far cry from the standard Agritex approach, based as it was on the old World Bank Training and Visit system, and of course with its roots in the colonial era with the post of ‘Chief Instructor of Natives’ held by the famous American missionary, E.D. Alvord for many years. Today the emphasis should be very different, my informants suggested.

This would require a total rethink of Agritex, and agricultural extension in general. Indeed a department in the Ministry of Agriculture may not be the appropriate organisational vehicle at all. My informants pointed out that the new farmers, compared to their compatriots in the communal lands, were younger, better educated, more mobile, and with good access to town. They all had mobile phones, and many had smartphones with Internet access. Many were making money, and had investment, marketing and business planning decisions to make, often juggling an agricultural enterprise with other activities. Many women were independent operators, or took on particular roles within a more complex business than the standard communal area farm.

Of course not all resettlement farms are like this, just as not all communal area farms are classic family smallholder farms focused on subsistence agriculture with some off-farm activities. There is a huge diversity, and tailoring approaches to extension and development more generally to different groups is essential. In our study in Masvingo we identified 15 different livelihood strategies across the sample of 400 households in 16 sites that we clustered into four broad types. In a recent DFID-funded initiative three categories are identified that roughly chime with our livelihood types: market oriented surplus producers, smallholders who are surviving and are in need of livelihood support, and those who are struggling and in need of social protection.

Our discussion focused on the first, and some of the second, group. But this is a big and growing proportion of the new farming population, and the one that is really going to get agriculture moving. While social welfare approaches are clearly necessary, if there are to be long-term transitions out of poverty and onto growth paths that are sustainable backing those who are engaging with markets, developing their farms, and investing should be a priority. And supporting such people with the type of service that meets their needs I would argue is a useful public service. Some of it of course could be paid for in time, but as a strategic government investment it could easily be justified.

The new DFID programme is being implemented by FAO, and appears to be focused on ‘training’ focused on building ‘resilience’ through ‘climate smart agriculture’, with a range of high-sounding objectives set. But is this going to be old-style training, rekindling the glory days of 1980s Agritex (although in this case implemented by NGOs) and focused on instruction and demonstration around farming techniques (including conservation agriculture)? Or will it be building capacity around the priorities of information, brokering and business that we identified? There has been a repeated default in new programming by aid agencies as well as government to return to the past, and not rethink for the future. This is $48 million of UK taxpayers’ money, so let’s hope it is better focused than previous efforts, and helps to rebuild an agricultural research and extension capacity in Zimbabwe that is fit for its new purposes.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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4 responses to “Rethinking agricultural extension

  1. am

    The value of telephony and internet based applications is clearly to the good. In a response to a comment in the previous post it was stated that there are a good number within the country making use of these means to follow this blog and no doubt other internet based applications.
    My point is that the farming community is poorly served by the media in comparison with other places in the world but there appears to be a market for something like a farming information service using these internet platforms. There could be several developed depending on the vision of the developers. It could be news based, advice based, research based, financial farm management or a combination of different things. Farmers could refer to the sites to obtain information on soils, crops, livestock and various husbandries associated with agriculture and benefit therefrom.
    I would prefer it to be non-partisan as these types can degenerate into endless argumentation and the developer of the site would end up spending time defending a particular position and have less time for giving farming advice and tips. E.g. I very much believe in CF but a site hijacked by CF ideas and not recognising other methods would just degenerate. Really it should be a farming handbook on-line for the country covering all different schools of thought with advice for different types and scales of farmers.
    Wordpress, Google and tailor-made blog platforms could be used but I would prefer a menu based application. It is easier to retrieve information with menus although the site could also contain a blog section for developer, guests and general discussion. Perhaps an agricultural version of the search financial website is what is needed but with more emphasis on the husbandry advice mentioned above. Hope somebody who has a bit of time could take it on in a serious manner and professional manner. It would be to the good and of benefit to farmers.
    Suggested First Paper: Agricultural regions in imbabwe

  2. am

    The farming retailers, growers and equipment manufactures also seem to have failed to assist the farmers.
    If a farmer wished to establish some permanent or semi-permanent pastures for forage or fodder sytems he would find it very difficult to obtain the standard grass seeds or even lucerne which are recommended for such things.
    The usual things like maize, sorghum, beans and wheat are available but anything unusual just does not seem to be available.
    Further the equipment needed for these forage and fodder systems does not seem to be there either whether fully mechanised or oxen based.
    It may be answered that there is a lack of demand for these products but it may be more correct to say lack of effort is involved. Standard retail practice is actually to try and create demand by placing useful products before customers with some form of information showing the benefits of the product.
    The downside on beef and dairy production is clear. Skinny cows poorly breeding and yielding little milk from the time the grass runs out after the rains can be avoided if more forage and fodder systems were in place.

  3. am

    Came across this today. There is a farming section which seems very helpful.

  4. am

    Further to this particular post it is clear that Agritex still have a high level of expertise even though the communication of it to farmers has fallen down in recent years.
    It would seem an easy task for Agritex HQ to produce, using their country wide expertise and knowledge, a zimbabwean farmers handbook.
    It should contain all the elements of farming relevant to the country based on soil type and rainfall region. It should also be crop specific showing minimum fertiliser requirements, fertiliser types, standard spacing, reasonable yields. It should be written in an encouraging and non-technical way. A comparitive element should be given but not that technical. Many people think in buckets not MT rather like the US farmers think in bushels not really in MT or tonnes in pounds. But the comparison should show yield differences for winter ploughing, manuring etc.
    If costs of the production of the handbook are a limitation then the initial target readership should be the proven master farmers. Not people with old style certificates but currently proven producers. These are known by the local Agritex officers in each area and a simple A4 hand book could be handed out to them for their assistance. The whole handbook need not be produced at one time but issued as each section is available.
    A further advantage of the printed handbooks is that the farmer can sit down with the handbook, giving it a good read over some time and have a good think about his way ahead. Workshops and demonstrations become a day out and take up his time. They also only cover a small area of farming in one time. The reading and evaluation of tips and advice over some months by himself, in his own time, will allow more reasoned deliberation and action.
    Farmers like these things and need the expertise. They like to get tips.

    Earlier this week I met a farmer who is doing very well on A1 irrigated but was not happy because he feels he can get a lot more. He is specialising in potatoes. The problem is the knowledge base, poor staff and thieves. The latter two are difficult to resolve but the former can be the way of giving tips that will help them. I suggested to him he should think cash income first then try to work out how to achieve it. Not to just plant and see what he gets. He appeared a bit shocked when he was told aim for 40,000 US$ from his 7 ha irrigated and work out how to achieve that amount.

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