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Rethinking Africa's over-extended extension services

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 17 Dec 2012 23:12 GMT
Author: Manyewu Mutamba and Caity Peterson
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By Manyewu Mutamba and Caity Peterson

Butter spread too thinly makes for an unappetizing breakfast. Likewise, smallholder farmers without adequate extension services to offer needed agricultural advice and expertise are more or less…toast.

As the need for knowledge transfer on how to adopt climate smart farming practices grows, the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) is tackling the faltering governmental extension services that are charged with taking the knowledge to the farmers—and instead letting farmers transfer it themselves.

Climate change is expected to have the greatest impact on poor, smallholder farmers who lack the resources or knowledge base to respond adequately or take advantage of new environmental circumstances. Changes in the suitability of certain crops, new pests and diseases, increasingly erratic rains and shorter growing seasons in some areas are all challenges that small farmers will be facing in the near future[i].

Farmers need relevant and timely advice to achieve the triple-goal of food security, climate change adaptation, and climate change mitigation promised by Climate Smart Agriculture, a service which is supposedly the mandate of public agricultural extension officers.

What’s more, African countries are missing out on the carbon sequestration potential of practices such as agroforestry and improved livestock management because of lack of investment and institutional support. So why are these farmers so often left out in the cold? Or perhaps in this case, the heat?


Inadequate funding, poor linkages with agricultural research and higher education institutions, and ineffective delivery of messages to farmers are some of the key constraints of the governmental extension system in Africa, and the reason that many of these systems are currently failing.

 Take, for example, the case of Malawi, which has struggled for years to convert a bulky and un-trusted extension program leftover from colonial days into a more decentralized, pluralistic model. Theoretically a pluralistic model would be highly efficient and demand-driven, that is, responsive to the actual needs of farmers, because it relies on private and non-government-organisation-based extension services in addition to those provided by the government. But in practice the new Malawian extension system still leaves much to be desired.

A recent review on the performance of the converted extension system in Malawi reports that government extension services are characterized by limited resources and an over-abundance of under-educated field staff. Non-governmental extension organizations, on the other hand, have limited staff but only at higher levels, thus thrusting the responsibility for grassroots connections onto government officials once more.  For both, linkages with education and research institutions are very weak, which begs the question: Just where are extension officers in Malawi getting their advice from?

Most dubious of all, the majority of these extension organizations are working in a top-down fashion with decision-making and prioritization coming from those in power, quite opposed to the objective of farmer engagement and empowerment desired by Malawi’s new extension policies. It is unlikely, assert the authors of the review, that the demands of smallholder farmers are being met using such methods.


In lieu of more effective government and institutional extension services, SACAU proposes a strengthened focus on community empowerment to fill the gap in climate smart agricultural knowledge transfer, making it more relevant and demand-driven.  To that end, SACAU is launching a farmer based — not extension officer based — program to support the scaling up of climate-smart agriculture in southern African countries.

Giving farmers the responsibility for management of agricultural extension efforts is a way to make these programs more sensitive to unique local conditions, and also, says the FAO, more accountable, more effective, and more sustainable.

SACAU’s method is based on farmer-to-farmer learning and exchange using the Lead Farmer approach, in which lead farmers (those that are already successful innovators trusted by other community members) are given incentives to act as role models, or hubs of research, exposure, and learning. Lead farmers also serve as platforms for aggregation of services, technology, inputs and products, thus enabling the adoption and maintenance of climate-smart practices on smallholder farms.

The hope is that, by learning from their peers and by taking a hand in the collection and distribution of agricultural information, smallholder farmers won’t get left out of the climate-smart picture.

Manyewu Mutamba is an analyst for economics and policy at SACAU.

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