HomeOpinion & AnalysisEconomy redefining the meaning of agricultural extension

Economy redefining the meaning of agricultural extension

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BY Charles Dhewa
WHEN there is nothing new to train farmers, the onus is on agricultural extension services officers to re-imagine how else they can remain relevant. This is what is happening in many African countries where farmers have either been over-trained or they have mastered enough skills on how to seek knowledge from markets and other sources.

Instead of continuing to teach farmers what they already know like how to produce crops and livestock, the daily work of an extension officer should evolve towards collecting information from farmers and consolidating such information into community knowledge resources that can speak to domestic and foreign markets.

Digital tools and software like Open Data Kit that can be used to collect data in a fluid manner.  However, resistance to change has seen some extension officers continue to teach farmers what they already know instead of being creative with existing information.

Farmers and communities have abundant knowledge and information

When you start talking to farmers, rural communities and traders that is when you realise how much is already known but remains undocumented to inform local development and policy formulation or review. There is no reason why African policies continue to be top-down and instruction-oriented when local people have so much valuable knowledge that can be used to make a difference.

Most of the coping mechanisms against drought and other shocks are based on local knowledge including indigenous knowledge systems. Such knowledge is not found in organisational policies, procedures and regulations that are used for formal institutions like government departments.

Imagining a new day in the life of an extension officer

In the new knowledge economy in which data is now the most important resource, the daily work of an extension officer should revolve around collecting data from farmers, markets and food systems. The extension officer can start by simply inviting farmers into a classroom or a local community meeting place and start discussing with farmers, traders and communities the kind of data they should collect.

Such data can then be handed over to the extension officer for capturing onto a laptop and consolidating into a solid collective record of community food systems. This will ensure data does not remain scattered either in farmers’ heads or in different records with no consistent structure from which useful insights and trends can be discerned in real-time.

Using data to identify junk food in local markets

Most of the questions that have remained unanswered among African farmers relate to markets – where do we find better markets for our goats, chicken and seasonal crops like sweet reads and indigenous fruits? This is the kind of data that should be collected and used for making decisions on community food systems. Collecting data is one of the mission-critical work for extension officers and can contribute to saving the planet.

How do we save the planet when we do not collect data showing what is going on well and what is not going on well in our communities?  Without data it is impossible to identify situations where the market is full of junk food which is unhealthy for the population.

Readiness for data collection roles

So far, the majority of African agricultural extension services departments are not ready to ride on digital technologies in collecting data on a daily basis. Very few extension services departments have people with strong information communication technologies, data collection and analyses skills. Once tonnes of data start flowing into digital gadgets, there is need for back-stopping and trouble-shooting support which is currently lacking.

Having been trained to work with farmers as their students, very few extension officers have been trained to work with other key value chain actors like traders who handle food in African markets and local authorities who are often the owners and managers of food markets.

Building relationships with several value chain actors is a new skill for agricultural extension officers who have spent most of their working life on the supply side.  The demand side requires a new set of skills.

The fact that local authorities are often under a different government department means there is no direct relationship between agricultural extension officers and council or municipal officers who work in food markets. In such cases, municipal officers do not take orders or instructions from agricultural extension officers who also often have no clue how food is handled in the market.

This is where knowledge brokers like eMKambo become critical in brokering relationships between extension officers and other government departments including defining roles for different actors as well as positioning them in the food system.

While extension officers work with farmers and input providers mainly on the supply side, markets work with more diverse actors such as different classes of transporters, diverse consumer classes, small and medium enterprises, those responsible for packaging and many actors from other markets, among others. Harmonising all these diverse needs and expectations is a unique skill that is often acquired through working in the market.

If local authorities are to be persuaded to participate in data collection, they have to know why data should be collected. Otherwise, if they suspect that data will be used to monitor their work, they will undermine data collection efforts. The most important stage after data collection is analysis and interpretation.  It does not help to collect data and not interpret it to figure out meanings hidden within the data.

The private sector can build resilient supply chains

The private sector is better positioned to unlock value in agricultural commodities and supply chains.  There is a limit to which government can, through extension services, drive profit-oriented interventions like working with agricultural markets and supply chains. In most African countries, local authorities are also struggling to build profit-oriented agribusinesses.

It is private sector knowledge brokers like eMKambo that can easily build win-win platforms that provide balanced price information, sources of commodities, volumes and other aspects that are key in building resilient food systems.

Knowledge brokering is a relatively new field in African agriculture.  Who is going to engage the private sector on behalf of farmers and other value chain actors?  Is it the role of government to look for markets for farmers? This should be the role of the broker or private sector with government providing a conducive environment.

While government, through extension services, can focus on food security-related data and ensuring food reserves are full, market data generated by knowledge brokers is about livelihoods, sources of income, food security in cities to reveal poverty levels in urban areas by comparing the cost of food with existing income levels and sources.

Analyses like market prices versus income levels can show the disparities in urban income levels when compared to prices of so-called basic commodities.

  • Charles Dhewa is chief executive officer of eMKambo — an interactive mobile, physical and web-based market for agriculture

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