If all smallholder farmers were properly trained in modern farming technologies with the aim of increasing food security and income in their homes, Mathews Goba would not have abandoned farming in search of green pastures.
Goba recently surprised people in his village when he abandoned farming and ventured into tailoring.
“People in my village could not understand how anyone in his right mind could stop farming, six years after embracing it,” Goba said.
The 45-year- o ld Goba complains that, despite toiling for years, breaking his back in the scotching sun, his life did not improve.
In fact, Goba’s sentiments may be echoed by a horde of farmers in Malawi.
According to a policy brief on the implementation of the 2012/13 Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), co-authored by Ephraim Chirwa and Andrew Dorward, only 11 percent of farmers received advice from field assistants in 2012/13, compared to 22 percent in 2006/07 and 14 percent in 2008 and 2011 agricultural seasons.
Moreover, even though the research shows that access to extension services is significant in explaining productivity levels of both female and male-headed Households, the 2013 Integrated household Survey (IHS) analysis shows that access to extension services is biased against some segment of the farming population.
Therefore, poor households, households with very young or very old heads, and those into limited formal education are less likely to access agricultural advice from extension agents.
The survey indicates that focus group discussions with farmers revealed system wide deficits in knowledge, resources, and intra–agency communication. One example is the inadequate response to pest and disease threats.
In many cases, initial early detention practices appeared to function as planned, but follow-through steps to manage outbreaks and prevent full-brown epidemics were not carried out due to inappropriate advice from extension officers, delays in obtaining needed inputs and communication breakdown.
Over the year, public extension services have largely been under funded while the government has focused on implementing its flagship programme in the
agricultural sector, Fisp. The programme has generated mixed results.
For example, there is the issue of low nutrient use efficiency observed among the beneficiaries, which limited the productivity and development impact of the programme. The somewhat inconsistent impact of Fisp suggests inadequate provision of information to farmers on best agricultural production practices.
Experts note that key extension workers in the country are not performing, especially in rural areas, because of lack of motivation, poor working conditions, which include poor remuneration, pressure of work due to acute shortage of staff, shortage of equipment and housing services.
Available data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development suggest that there were about 1,900 extension agents in Malawi in 2011, with 1,000 vacant positions unfilled based on 2,900 established positions.
Further, the data indicate that the farmers per extension agent ratio of Malawi was estimated to be between 1,800 and 2, 514 by 2015 – higher than in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, but lower than in Nigeria and India.
Based on its ratio, Malawi is considered among developing countries to be in the middle in terms of the size of its extension staff in relation to its farming population.
The other major issue is the large imbalance in extension staff across districts. For example, the farmer-to public extension agent ratio ranges from 811 in Karonga to 2005 in Balaka. And, if other service providers are included, the ratio is between 642 in Rumphi and 1,279 in Balaka.
Other estimates show higher farmer to public agent ratios in Salima to 3,951 in Blantyre, according to 2015 Government of Malawi and 2010 Institutional Development Across the agro food Sector statistics. The statistics further indicate that, in some areas, there are no field extension staff present.
On the other hand, the reports indicate that, out of many extension workers that graduate from government institutions, only 70 percent go to the ministry of Agriculture while others migrate to other countries or join the private sector or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for greener pastures.
Experts attribute the problem to inadequate output from training institutions which, they say, are also not fully functional because of insufficient and inadequate funding.
“These factors, combined with many new research projects and expanded NGO presence, have a net effect of siphoning large numbers of extension workers from an already fragile system,’’ says Dyborn Chibonga, National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi Chief Executive Officer.
Chibonga added that qualification and experience of those delivering extension services are other factors contributing to community vulnerability.
He says, since to discontinuation of certificate programmes of natural resources and the current delivery of modules in many agricultural colleges, the country is faced with a challenge to provide the required quality extension messages.
“In some cases, unskilled people are engaged to cover the gap. It is not right, for instance, for unskilled people to attend to farmers because that is the job of an extension worker and trained agricultural personnel,” Chibonga says.
Over the past decades, Malawi has undergone several reforms in its agricultural extension system— from the master-farmer scheme and the achikumbi or progressive farmer approach of the 1950s and 60s to farmer groups in 1970s to the training and visit system in the 1980s, to, more recently, the passage of national extension policy in 2000 which emphasises that farmers demand stakeholder accountability, pluralism, coordination and quality in agricultural services provision.
Government also embarked on recommitment programme, albeit on pilot phase, in which Malawi School Certificate of Education holders underwent on-the-job training programme at the Natural Resources College in a bid to overcome the challenge of unwillingness by some extension workers to work and live in rural areas.
But the journey continues because, despite such efforts, surveys indicate that more needs to be done. For example, the 2013 IHS indicates that 27 percent of farming households reported accessing extension services through direct contact with government extension agents, six percent through NGOs with only 2 percent receiving advice from the private sector.
But the government seems intent on making things work.
“We are aware that the extension workers are not enough. Right now, the ratio is very high, hence the government plans to bring it down to one extension worker against 40 farmers,” says Albert Changaya, the Controller of Agriculture Extension and Technical Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.
Changaya, who attributed the high ratio to, among others, population increase, disclosed that government has also embarked on a programme of recruitment and retention of current extension workers.
In early 2015, during extensive district-level consultations on contents of a draft national agricultural policy, extension services were highlighted by stakeholders as a priority area for increasing agricultural productivity in Malawi.
However, tough decision and bold action, rather than complacency and minor fixes, will be required to transform the extension system to one that contributes significantly to improved agricultural development outcomes.
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