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Community-based agricultural extension

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‘Agricultural extension’ describes the services that provide rural people with the access to knowledge and information they need to increase productivity and sustainability of their production systems and improve their quality of life and livelihoods. Recent developments in agricultural policies have re-emphasised the importance of extension services (extensionists are technically qualified individuals who provide outreach services to rural areas). However, models of extension based on government services or private agro-dealers and service providers are not sufficient to meet the needs of farmers in less favoured areas. This is due to a number of factors including the necessity to respond to the specific technological needs of farmer in different agroecological zones, high transaction costs of reaching remote areas; the need for localised crop and livestock management solutions suited to tough environmental conditions, which are often not well understood by extension agents trained for work in high potential areas; and the challenges of finding professional extension specialists willing to live and work in remote, and sometimes insecure areas (Coupe, 2009; Rivera, Qamar, and Crowder, 2001).

The community-based rural agricultural extension model is based on the idea of providing specialised and intensive technical training to 1 or 2 people in a community who then promote a variety of appropriate technologies and provide technical services with occasional support and review from a supporting organisation (FAO, 1997). This model is demand-based in that the providers of service are contracted directly by farmers’ groups or communities to deliver information and related services that are specified by farmers (Feder et al, 2010; Rivera, 2001). These models have generally experienced a high degree of success in terms of discovering or identifying productivity enhancing technologies, which are then widely adopted. They have also been able to do so at relatively low cost (Scarborough, 1995).

Description: Farmer-to-farmer systems of extensions are based upon some key principles (Bunch, 1982):

  • Motivate farmers to experiment with new technologies on a small scale;
  • Use rapid, recognisable success in these experiments to motivate others to innovate;
  • Use technologies that rely on inexpensive, locally available resources;
  • Begin with a limited number of technologies to retain focus;
  • Train villagers as extensionists and support them in teaching other farmers

In general, there are five stages to implementing the rural extentionist model (De la Torre, 2008).

Stage 1: Creating a space for public debate and institutional coordination

As a first step, it is necessary to stimulate debate around the role of rural extension services and technical capacity-building in rural areas. This space should be created between communities and local public and private institutions. These could include state entities working on agricultural/livestock development, producers associations, water user boards, agricultural/livestock research institutes, local universities, private agriculture and/or livestock companies and NGOs.

Stage 2: Establishment of training centre

The next step is to establish an appropriate training entity with inter-institutional support. The design should be decentralised and sensitive to the local socio-cultural context. A group of technical experts is required to design and provide the training modules. A budget will be required for their remuneration, for materials and equipment and training activities. Figure 4.18 shows a local training centre for agricultural extension agents in Peru.

Farmer centre in Peru where local agricultural extension agents are trained

Figure 1: Farmer centre in Peru where local agricultural extension agents are trained (Source: Courtesy of Jon Hellin, Practical Action 2003)

Stage 3: Training Rural Extension Agents

Training is designed to reflect the livelihoods of the local communities. For example, in Kenyan pastoralist zones, training could concentrate on livestock. In Bangladesh, training could focus on fisheries, agriculture and livestock. Communities elect candidates against a list of agreed criteria and a consensus is reached on the best individual or individuals to be put forward. Training is organised with the participation of relevant district-level government staff, whose fees are paid for from project budgets. Activities include visits to technology development and research centres, the establishment of trial testing and experimentation plots, and problem-solving workshops. Upon completing the training, participants should receive official certification from a state body.

Stage 4: Ongoing Technical Support and Evaluation

Technical experts should be available to provide ongoing support to rural extentionists and also to be responsible for undertaking follow-up impact evaluation via household surveys. This information should be systematised and documented to feed into future programmes.

Stage 5: Knowledge Refresher Courses

Periodic refresher courses should be made available to rural extentionists. These courses should provide a space for participants to feedback on their experiences and contribute to the improvement and refinement of training materials. This can be undertaken at the training centre hub or through visits to the extentionists at work in their respective communities.

The community-based rural extension model contributes to climate change adaptation and risk reduction by building the capacity of communities to identify and select appropriate strategies in response to observed impacts of climate variability on local livelihoods. The model promotes a rural outreach programme that provides assistance to many communities that would otherwise not receive technical support services. As a result of these services, farmers have generally been able to increase crop and livestock production. This, in turn, has positive effects on family health and food security. In addition, rural extentionists have been instrumental in supporting local communities to develop affordable new products for local markets (Coupe, 2009).

Advantages of the technology

Rural agricultural extension programmes can help reduce the costs of providing extension services that emanate from the scale and complexity of centralised systems (Feder et al, 2010). Rural extentionists themselves benefit from the accumulation of new knowledge and technical skills and, through this, are able to generate additional income by charging for their services. The strengthening of social and professional networks via this model provides vital access to information and, by working directly with local producers and passing on acquired knowledge, rural extentionists are building the technical capacity of their communities (Feder et al, 2010). They learn, for example, to detect illnesses amongst livestock and implement preventive measures, thereby reducing the need for costly veterinary services. Other benefits include improved self-confidence and innovation on the part of rural extentionists.

Disadvantages of the technology

In terms of limitations, the model may face problems where rural farmers do not have the means or are not willing to pay for technical services. In societies where paying for information is not the norm, rural extentionists will have to work hard to earn trust and acceptance as a service provider who is able to charge and make profits within the community from which they originate. Wherever they work, it will take time for extentionists to build up the skills and client base and, providing inputs, establish their position and reputation (Coupe, 2009). The model also depends on adequate technical expertise being available locally, either from civil society, NGOs, governmental or private entities, and the capacity of a local institution to adequately integrate this information into local know-how.

Financial requirements and costs

External financing will usually be required to set up training schools for agricultural extension. When the training is carried out by local organisations and farmer facilitators, initial start-up costs may be moderate, but the running costs will be much lower. In Peru, between 1996 and 2000 the average annual cost of training a rural agricultural extentionist was $ 1,200 (De la Torre Postigo, 2004). Estimates of costs per farmer for Farmer Field School (FFS) training in several East African programs vary between US$ 9-35 per day, depending on whether extension agent or farmer facilitators are used (Dragun, 2001). It may be possible to charge extensionists a small fee for training, depending on an assessment of their capability to do so. In East Africa, extentionists have been managing small commercial plots alongside the study plots in order to raise funds to buy inputs and stationery (Braun and Duveskog, 2008). In Bangladesh, training by Practical Action and department officers in 2002-3 including equipment donation, refresher training and field follow-up came to 12,730 Taka per person ($ 177) in the case of livestock and 8,050 Taka per person ($ 112) in the case of agriculture and fisheries (Coupe and Pasteur, 2009).

Institutional and organisational requirements

The training of farmers as community-based extentionists is a complex educational process that needs to be constantly and flexibly adapted to the social and cultural conditions of each locality and the institutional and natural resource context of local agricultural production. Community-based rural extentionists require specialised technical training on locally appropriate agricultural practices including crop, soil and water management, animal husbandry, and fisheries to fill the service vacuum left by the state and formal private sector. The curriculum should be designed to reflect the educational level of the participants. Cultural and linguistic barriers must also be taken into account in the delivery of the training. Training should promote action-research, farmer-to-farmer learning and learning-by-doing; under a methodology that combines theoretical and practical aspects.

It is necessary to promote debate on the importance of extension and rural technical education by means of coordinated efforts with all the institutions present in the zone that are dedicated to rural development. These are likely to be state institutions dedicated to agricultural development, associations of producers, organisations of water users, research institutes, local universities, private companies and NGOs.

It is desirable to obtain an inter-institutional agreement between a group of institutions to push forward the development of a system of extension that responds to the particular needs of the locality. Identifying the best farming practices in the intervention area, be they from individual farmers, producer associations or companies, and securing support for training of the community-based extensionists can also generate important financial and technical support.

Establishment of a training institute with the support of the group of institutions identified will help to ensure long-term sustainability. Finally, there is a need to create a model for institutionalising rural extension training within a broader framework for formal training and education institutions in order to facilitate scaling-up.

Barriers to implementation

Barriers to implementation include a lack of appreciation for local knowledge. This can be overcome with concerted action to validate and disseminate information on indigenous practices and develop appropriate technologies that combine this know-how with modern strategies. A lack of access to credit by extentionists to buy basic equipment required for technical service provision can also act as a barrier to successful implementation.

Opportunities for implementation

The implementation of the rural extension model provides an opportunity for the generation of innovative sustainable agriculture and livestock development strategies which embrace local customs and know-how. Furthermore, the model facilitates the development of entrepreneurial skills amongst participants and provides multiple co-benefits that reach far beyond the immediate impacts on the extentionists themselves. Another opportunity provided by this model is the establishment of strategic alliances between local educational, technological and scientific entities to promote the exchange of information and facilitate wider dissemination and uptake.