BY DYSON MTHAWANJI
During the extensive consultation process to develop Malawi’s first National Agriculture Policy in 2015, extension services were highlighted as the most important priority area for increasing agricultural productivity.
Across the world, agriculture minus extension is incomplete. In Malawi, if agriculture is the hub and the engine for the country’s economy, then agriculture extension is the fuel and the blood for that engine.
Crop yields in Africa are rising, but still at an average of only two metric tonnes per hectare. Improved technologies are available but smallholder farmers lack access to extension services.
African governments have inadequate numbers of extension workers and have insufficient resources for frequent visits and training farmers. The current extension methodology does not address farmers’ needs.
The threat of climate change means farmers have to adopt early maturing varieties and improved soil management practices but extension services are not handy for many of them.
Statistics from Civil Society Agriculture Network indicate that one extension worker in Malawi services between 1,500 and 3,900 farmers. This has left farmers not getting proper husbandry practices, which in turn leads to low yields.
According to a policy brief on the implementation of the 2012/13 Farm Input Subsidy Programme, co-authored by Ephraim Chirwa and Andrew Dorward, only 11 percent of farmers received advice from yields assistants in 2012/13, compared to 22 percent in 2006/07 and 14 percent in 2008 and 2011 agricultural seasons.
The current extension worker to farmers’ ratio is worrisome. Some of the existing extension workers are aging and it is a challenge for them to move with the high technological pace.
Furthermore, younger extension workers shun remote areas. Studying and graduating from an agriculture college is simple, but accepting to work in remote area is a tough decision for many young people. So who will provide rural areas with extension services?
The absence of extension services in many parts of the country makes farmers lack access to accurate and evidence-based information to improve their production and productivity.
Having worked on agriculture extension in Malawi for so long, Professor Daimon Kambewa, who delivers extension studies, and former Head of Department of Extension Studies at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources said the biggest bottleneck for extension system is Malawians’ collective mind-set.
“We are stuck in the traditional extension approach of ‘technology transfers,’ which is apparent throughout the current extension policy. We desperately need to shift our thinking to a more innovative and interactive approach—what some are calling ‘the new extensionist’ approach.
“It brings together different actors (i.e. farmers, agro-dealers, private sector etc.) to collaboratively address farming problems—something truly demand-driven that doesn’t just simply solve problems, but offers tools to understand how to solve problems,” Kambewa said.
Malawi Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services, a platform for strengthening agricultural extension and advisory services through information-sharing and action for professionalism, standardisation and quality assurance, is doing quite well to bring awareness on the importance of extension services.
Other non-governmental organisations have taken utilisation of lead farmers and agro-dealers to strengthen extension services.
The first step in revamping extension services is to reduce extension worker-farmer ratio by creating self-employment opportunities for extension workers (village-based advisors) including women and youth to rapidly create demand for yield-enhancing inputs whilst teaching farmers good agricultural practices.
Malawi should also enhance extension service delivery policies at all levels.
Great possibility is there for extension services to improve. Over 50 percent of the population constitute the youth. These are energetic and a good number of them are suitably educated to take up vacant posts of extension workers.
The mushrooming of FM radio and television stations in Malawi provides a great opportunity for extension services via radio and TV programming.
Furthermore, about eight million people own or have access to mobile phones; therefore, sending extension updates to farmers across the country becomes convenient and helpful.
Electronic media programming should provide platforms for many stakeholders in agriculture sector such as seed companies, input suppliers, agricultural engineering companies and agro-dealers.
With the use of ICT-based extension and advisory services, agro-dealers would facilitate better and reliable access to unbiased extension services; ensure visual aid, confirmation and on the spot action that will trickle down to individual level.
It will also accord instant problem identification and instant solution; and help develop an effective pluralistic extension advisory service from user enquiries.
From the user generated enquiries, the proposed ICT-based extension and advisory services has the potential to become a demand driven and successful extension service. The system would also enhance the rapid uptake of resilience enhancing technologies.
There is need for partnerships between private sector and key extension players in content development. Partnerships among the private sectors should engage with key ICT players in information delivery and develop win-win business models in using ICT platforms (use extension to generate business and make profit).
There is need to lobby for reduced cost of use of ICT short message services (SMS), Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, calls, radio programmes, etc).
The country should explore the possibility of subsidising the cost of information dissemination platforms by the private sector.
It is encouraging to see that the private sector is building up interest in providing extension services to farmers. Mobile network operating companies brought use of mobile money to make payments and buy farm inputs. Commodity exchange companies also send SMSs to farmers.
To fully exploit the potential of the private sector, the country should fill some existing gaps. These include limited content generation, limited budgets that cannot sustain the use of ICT platforms, poor networks and high tariffs.
There are a lot of advantages by using the private sector on extension services. For example, the private sector reaches more people in a short space; and the usability goes beyond literacy challenges.
According to a presentation on extension services in Malawi by Farm Radio Trust, the ability of ICT to bring refreshed momentum to agriculture appears even more compelling in light of rising investments in agricultural research.
The private sector has a strong interest in the development and spread of ICT and the upsurge of organisations committed to the agricultural development agenda.
The private sector is well positioned for sustainability of the ICT-based extension services. Private sector extension service is the way to go.