Journal Issue
Finance & Development, June 1981

Adapting extension work to poorer agricultural areas: Do not transplant extension experience without taking into account the state of local economic development and infrastructure

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
June 1981
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John Russell

Agricultural extension can be defined as the provision of increased knowledge and skills necessary for farmers to be able to adopt and apply more efficient crop and animal production methods to improve their productivity and living standards. It depends crucially on effective communication, which has to be a two-way process between farmers and extension workers.

The Bank’s experience with the role of extension in improving the productivity of farmers in underdeveloped areas shows very clearly the key function of three ingredients of success: inputs—seeds and fertilizer—adapted to local conditions and practices; an acceptable production technology; and, once the farmer has progressed beyond the subsistence stage, a market for his products and related infrastructure. (There are other components of success, but these are supportive. Credit, for instance, may well assist by making inputs more readily obtainable for the farmer; government price and subsidy policy can likewise create vital incentives or disincentives.)

As a result of its success, particularly in South Asia, the training and visit system of extension is being widely adopted to improve agricultural practices and yields elsewhere. However, when the system is transplanted without adaptation to parts of the world that do not possess the kind of supporting services—the marketing systems, the staff, the high-quality local research—that exist in places where it has been successful, it becomes all too apparent that it is not only the extension system that leads to higher crop yields. It is the combination of a system suited to local needs, with well-developed supporting services and new high-yielding varieties of crops. Systems developed for one region do not necessarily work in another.

This article will review the constraints on extension work that exist in poor areas and will discuss how present research work and extension systems can be adapted more closely to the needs of local farmers. The fundamental problem is how the farmer can be helped to progress beyond subsistence farming and to become more productive; the solution rests largely in gearing local agricultural research to develop inputs and practices that are acceptable and usable in a particular context. This comes down to working with the local people to produce local answers to local questions. A further issue, not discussed here, is that these answers must work in the wider context of how surplus crops can be marketed. Extension work enables the wide and rapid dissemination of improved technology to large numbers of farmers, but however good it is, it cannot be effective if inputs, market infrastructure, and economic incentives are lacking.

Need to adapt

Over the past decade, the introduction of the training and visit system of extension has been particularly successful in South Asia, following its early development within Bank practice on the Seyhan Project in Turkey. This system is essentially one of management and organization according to simple principles that can be adapted readily to different conditions. It provides a framework in which all agricultural extension activities are combined into a unified service whose staff preferably devote all of their time to strictly extension activities. Work is then organized in a systematic program of training and visits, which usually has the field worker visiting farmer groups with specified farmers once a fortnight. A seasonal program of a few key practices is drawn up by research and extension personnel with farmers after reviewing their constraints. Out of a number of improvements that could be made to increase yields, a few readily acceptable practices are generally selected that are expected to have a significant impact. Depending on circumstances, these practices might vary from the use of a seed dressing to method of fertilizer placement, or from a method or time of planting to a way to identify pests. Extension specialists (known as Subject Matter Specialists) then train groups of field workers with their supervisors once a fortnight with the message for the following fortnight, and obtain feedback from farmers at these sessions. These extension specialists themselves are trained and supported by research staff, and are responsible for overseeing adaptive field trials in their own areas. The extension effort is thus concentrated, with new programs drawn up every season with farmers, consistent with the farmers’ resources and abilities, while constant feedback to and from research keeps the system dynamic.

Its success in India is well evidenced by the enthusiasm of farmers, extension staff, and research workers for the new system and the demand it has generated for both increased inputs and help in developing more sophisticated recommendations. A major reason for this success is that extension had been the weak link in the fairly well-developed agricultural sector in India; once it was improved, yields increased. There were several technical findings available on research stations that had not reached the farmer. Some required little adaptation, like the new high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. A reasonable infrastructure with innumerable retail outlets for supplies was in place. Most farmers were used to market production, and well-educated staff were available and willing to fill the village extension worker cadre.

The success of extension work in India was built on the three key ingredients: well adapted inputs, suitable technology, and workable marketing systems. If we turn to agriculture in other developing areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, we find a very different state of affairs. A market-oriented agricultural economy has only developed in certain places and sometimes only with certain types of farmer. Research, essential to the development of locally suited inputs and technologies, is almost nonexistent in some countries. In Sierra Leone, for instance, the only relevant agricultural research being done until recently was on rice. In some countries the quality of research has deteriorated or the research itself has become restricted to the confines of the research station. Thus, the results of agricultural research, where they exist, are often poor and are not well adapted to varying ecological zones or types of farmer.

Sometimes causing, sometimes compounding the isolation of research, agricultural extension in developing countries has tended to emphasize the passing of information from research to the farmer and has insufficiently involved farmer participation in passing information back to research. Far too many research activities go no further than how to obtain optimum yields from a given crop or enterprise, rather than actually to address the reasons why farmers are not able to improve yields.

This one-way flow of information has meant in many poor areas that mainly the richer farmers benefit from the technology and expertise that does exist. Since the type of research carried out in most developing countries optimizes returns to particular crops, its recommendations may be difficult for a small farmer to apply, since in many cases he plants most of his crops in mixtures to minimize the risk of one of the crops failing. His first concern is subsistence; he usually only has his own family labor available and so wishes to maximize returns to his scarce resource, which is often labor rather than land. A large farmer, by contrast, is able to come closer to the conditions existing on the research station because he has better access to all the factors of production. He can more readily add labor to change planting dates and can risk changing part of his cropping pattern, as he has either other enterprises or resources as an insurance in the event of failure.

And finally, as might be expected in areas emerging from a largely subsistence agriculture, the extension services themselves are generally provided on an ad hoc basis and are subject to political and administrative abuse. In the absence of an organized program, there is no regular service to farmers, and no systematic advice is given. The extension agent rarely has extensive farming experience and often tends to be a young man; and his advice, therefore, is generally not highly regarded by farmers. Since he has no backing from an efficiently organized research service, he has no means of convincing the farmer that his extension messages have something to offer.

Adapting research

The first step in improving extension work in developing areas is to improve the quality and relevance of research. Since some research capability exists in most areas, improvement usually comes down to developing closer links between the research work and the farmer. Research is often organized nationally in separate departments, ministries, or parastatal agencies and has no link with extension at regional levels or below. One of the biggest advantages of the methodology developed under the training and visit system in South Asia was this: when carried through to its logical conclusion, it benefited the farmer by bringing research to him and involved the research worker intimately in farmers’ problems.

Linking research with extension work not only involves doing adaptive trials on farmers’ fields but also implies gradually changing an approach. It is generally agreed that proven recommendations are most appropriately introduced to farmers by demonstrations on their own fields carried out by themselves. At the same time, adaptive research trials should test new recommendations before introducing them to farmers. Such trials need to be designed to answer key problems that emerge from local farm experience within the limitations imposed by other factors (such as funds or staffing). At the same time, trials should be dispersed throughout the project area, and field days should be held on them to discuss findings with farmers.

Closer links with the farmer will tend to emphasize the analysis of farming systems, which are far more important for the small farmer than the large, since the former has many more constraints to be considered. An extension service has to look at improvements for the small farm in the context of the farmers’ own priorities. For example, in one area of northern Nigeria small farmers would always plant a recommended long-maturing variety of seed cotton four weeks late and get yields of 250 kilograms per hectare. If they had planted on the correct date, the variety would have yielded 650-800 kilograms. In fact, the farmers always planted late in order to get their subsistence crops in first. They would be far better off if research developed for them a shorter season variety, giving returns of say 450-600 kilograms, which would be more appropriate for their planting priorities and labor constraints and yet give them higher returns than their present practice.

A classic example of the need for adapting existing programs to the small farmer is the common practice of recommending only one level of fertilizer to be applied to obtain an “optimum” yield. What is actually needed by the small farmer is an initial recommendation for a minimum amount and type of fertilizer sufficient to obtain a significant increase in production and then a series of recommendations to enable him to increase his yields gradually up to the optimum, while minimizing the risks involved. This has been a key finding in evaluating the training and visit system in India; it is certainly even more relevant to other areas of the world just emerging from subsistence farming.

Adapting services to the small farmer requires a conscious effort. In Brazil, for instance, a major task of extension workers has been to prepare farm plans and credit applications for farmers, particularly the larger ones. In many states, as the extension service obtained a percentage of the interest rate from the credit agency for providing the service, it became a major source of funds and hence more attention was given to this aspect of extension work. To overcome this inequity, the state extension services are now changing their approach, and programs are being introduced to reach all types of farmers, including sharecroppers. The Bank-sponsored Ibiapaba Project in Ceará has been a pioneer of such new extension approaches.

The program is working well but still inevitably has a built-in bias for helping the larger farmers. The area incorporates a transition from a humid through a sub-humid to a dry zone over a few miles and includes large and small landowners as well as sharecroppers. Cropping programs are easier to improve in the wetter zones and these naturally tend to receive more emphasis and are more easily adopted by the larger farmer, for reasons already mentioned. Moreover, given the wide variety of crops on which research is needed, it is difficult to give priority to the lower value cassava, bean, and maize crops, which are the main, if not only, crops planted by sharecroppers in the drier zones, on which in any event few improved practices have yet been identified. An effort is now being made to rectify this in the design of quarterly research and extension programs.

Adapting the system

Most extension in developing countries could be improved by being made more systematic. Under the training and visit system the approach is to demarcate clearly the area each field worker is responsible for covering and establish by a simple survey the number of farm families in the area. If appropriate, at this stage, some “stratification” of farmers by size and type of farm should be made, so that seasonal extension programs can be designed to appeal initially to the largest number of farmers, and later be revised in the light of experience, with the addition of special programs for different types of farmers.

Reorganizing field workers and developing farmer groups, who themselves assist in selecting contact farmers, are essential steps in revitalizing an extension service. However, it cannot stop there. The system can only work if there is a well defined program of the key improvements that can be made initially on the major crops planted in the area. Then it must put in place, at district or subdivisional level, extension specialists who will carry out regular training of junior extension staff at the field level throughout the growing season, oversee an adaptive trials program, and themselves be trained and supported by research specialists.

Apart from making these rather general exhortations to be more systematic about extension work, it is difficult to lay down hard and fast rules—or even to give widely applicable recommendations—for adapting extension work to underdeveloped areas. So much depends on nonagricultural factors.

A major problem, for instance, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is the recurrent cost of maintaining a large extension service. It is certainly not worth setting one up if there are only funds to pay salaries and not to cover other operating costs needed to make it effective. The caliber and qualifications of extension staff also need careful assessment. Too often staff with overly high education levels are not prepared to live in villages. Often a person with six to eight years of schooling, selected by his own village for training, makes a better extension worker. In India, the training and visit system benefits from being able to recruit and use college graduates as extension workers; it will be a long time before this is possible at the field level in most of Africa.

Multipurpose extension

It is, too, somewhat sterile to discuss in principle the important issues of whether or not extension workers should only concentrate on giving extension advice. Ideally they should, providing other services are effective; even if they are not, it is preferable that agricultural services be provided separately. For reasons of cost, institutional weakness, and poor coordination, however, this is not always feasible or desirable. Certainly in India, limiting extension workers to extension activities has been beneficial (though with considerable opposition in some states). On the other hand, if other services are nonexistent or weak, the introduction of an extension service might well be counterproductive. For however well trained the staff may be, and however good their links with research, without a supply of inputs and a marketing infrastructure, the credibility of the extension worker will soon be lost.

It is thus not surprising that the initial success of the Minimum Package Program in Ethiopia was largely due to a better supply of fertilizer and marketing facilities, in which extension and supply of inputs were joint functions of extension staff working alongside marketing/credit assistants within the same organization. Only now are the two being split, with marketing and input supply being handled by a new marketing agency. A similar approach was used in Malawi, where the supply of inputs and marketing facilities were integrated closely with extension, though with separate staff under one management system. Once the new system was soundly established, it was handed over to an agricultural supply and marketing organization. With the improved input supply, marketing, and infrastructure in place, Malawi can now benefit more readily from improved extension.

A common question is how many extension workers should cover a given number of farmers. Again, there can be no hard and fast rules. There is no point in trying to set up comprehensive extension coverage if a viable local basis of usable inputs and practices has not been developed. Thus, in the proposed Koudougou project on the Mossi Plateau of Upper Volta, where these still have to be developed, it was realistic to accept a 1:800 ratio of workers to farm families, since initially only a small proportion will be reached. But in the Bougouriba project in the same country, where a viable “package” is available, a ratio of 1 worker to 250 farmers seems acceptable.

There remains the issue of selecting contact farmers, who are important in enabling extension workers to reach larger numbers of farmers by a group approach. Traditional village leaders should be consulted in setting up farmer groups, but it is important to choose as contacts typical full-time farmers who are representative of their peers. In India, contact farmers are often used to train other farmers; in Africa and Latin America, by contrast, it seems preferable to rotate contact farmers among different members of the group. Likewise, while it is socially effective to deal just with male heads of households in India, it seems more appropriate to reach both husband and wife in Africa and Latin America because of the varying organization of the family household in managing the farm system.

Making extension work

The format of extension essentially needs to be pragmatic. A programmed disciplined approach is needed through a unified service. Development has to be integrated, key constraints defined, and the strengths and weaknesses of existing institutions taken into account. A major need is to ensure effective monitoring and evaluation. In the short term, it is vital to assess how far farmers are adopting the key lessons selected for a season, so that problems can be addressed through appropriate research and changes in extension approach in a subsequent season, which will keep the whole system dynamic.

At the same time, the overall impact of extension needs to be evaluated before changes in the system are widely replicated. It is important that new advances in methodology for evaluating the impact of extension are regularly reviewed, particularly as it is so difficult to isolate the part played by extension from other key factors.

This article has demonstrated that extension systems evolved for one region of the world cannot simply be transplanted and be expected to work in another. In moving from Southeast Asia to, say, sub-Saharan Africa, one goes from a relatively rich and well-developed agricultural environment to one where few of the key factors that facilitate high returns to improved extension exist. This has implications for research, for the way the system is organized, and for what it aims to achieve. Because the research base is much weaker, initially extension work has to be limited to improvements that bridge the gap between what is achieved by a few better farmers and what the rest practice. Most extension systems are hierarchical, and a major change is needed to shift them to a system in which farmers and extension workers act in partnership. This shift implies not only a change in the attitude of extension staff; it also implies an equally difficult change in farmers’ attitudes.

The constraints on extension that exist in poorer agricultural areas imply that extension systems should incorporate a longer time horizon than is appropriate for other parts of the world. Targets should be more modest, and programs should be based on achieving them over a relatively long period. What has been achieved in extension work in India in one decade will need a longer time frame in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Against this background, the challenge of the 1980s for extension work with the small farmer will be to restructure research. This will need to combine the difficult study of farm systems with the longer iterative approach of greater participation by farmers in planning and evaluating as well as implementing further improved practices that are already being developed.

Related reading

    DanielBenor and James Q.HarrisonAgricultural Extension: The Training and Visit System (Washington, DCWorld Bank1977).

    MichaelM. Cernea and Benjamin J.TeppingA System of Monitoring and Evaluating Agricultural Extension Projects (Washington, DCWorld Bank Staff Working Paper No. 2721977).

    “Economics of Investment in Organization of Extension Services in Agriculturein the Conference Number of Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics (October/December1979).

    Sister NoraMcNamaraThe Psychology of Agricultural DevelopmentElaeis Ig-alaland JournalAyangba Agricultural Development ProjectNigeria (Vol. 2 No. 21980).

    Arthur T.MosherGetting Agriculture Moving (New YorkPraeger1966).

    DavidRohrbachDiscussion of Issues Relevant to the Development and Implementation of a Farming Systems Research Program (Washington, DC, U.S.Department of Agriculture/Office of International Cooperation and Development, forthcoming)

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