Thursday, 21 March 2013

Extending the extension debate

By Rebecca Smalleyextension1
The challenge of finding effective ways to deliver extension services to farmers was starkly illustrated in a series of presentations made yesterday. In recent years the trend has been for private, demand-led approaches. Yet implementation often falls short.

Anne Mette Kjaer and Hannington Odame described how, in Uganda and Kenya, extension reforms have been reversed or failed to get off the ground. Uganda’s NAADS programme underwent large changes to reincorporate the public sector and local government involvement. This is due to political factions “wanting in” on the action, impatience with long-term initiatives, and bureaucrats not agreeing with the original values of liberalisation and privatisation. Short-term thinking of politicians preoccupied with election cycles and rent-seeking, but also of donors, has been a constraint on extension service delivery in Kenya, too.

Blessings Chinsinga questioned the very paradigm of private demand-led extension. In Malawi, he said, most farmers could not afford to ‘demand’ private extension services. And the idea that the private sector would provide its own extension agents has not materialised. Instead, NGOs are hiring government extension staff, who are already busy with the logistics of fertiliser subsidies.
In a presentation that gave a historical review of approaches to extension, Miguel Loureiro showed how the currently fashionable approach of ‘Agricultural Innovation Systems’ has origins not in agriculture but in thinking on innovation in industry. Of several objections to this approach was Loureiro’s concern that focusing on ‘innovative’ farmers to receive extension excludes other, more vulnerable members of rural society.

Lastly, Kojo Amanor presented an update from Ghana, where farmers have been offered a package of inputs as part of the Block Farming Programme. Amanor argued that smallholder-targeted extension has been used to integrate farmers into the value chain and provide opportunities for agribusiness. Describing a case in which input suppliers have been licensed by the government to provide new maize varieties developed outside Ghana, Amanor asked, who are the clients of extension officers? What is the role of extension? And should extension officers not respond to farmers’ preferences rather than forcing them to adopt inputs from agribusiness?