There is no doubt that agricultural extension and advisory services (EAS) have been going through a tumultuous crisis over the past years. But, from my over 25 years of experience as a farmer, agricultural extension practitioner, and ICT for development specialist, I have come to believe ICTs are tools that can enable EAS – whether they are old or new models and approaches of extension. So the question is, should development partners, donors, technology developers and researchers continue exploring new extension models and approaches or find innovative ways by which ICTs can enable any existing models? Is there a holy grail somewhere, someday to be grabbed? My position is that there is no need to continue exploring new models of EAS; instead we need to find ways of using ICTs innovatively to revamp existing extension systems. However, the use of any ICTs should be context specific; it depends on the state of the extension services in a given country. The ICT application/system that will have an impact on the extension system in Uganda may not work in Ethiopia.
Reflecting on some extension models and approaches
Over the years, several models and approaches to agricultural EAS have been promoted with different assumptions, objectives and structures, but all with the goal of improving agricultural productivity. Take, for example, the training and visit (T&V) approach. It was designed with a focus on building a professional extension service that is capable of guiding farmers in agricultural production and raising their income. While the T&V principle still stands, ICTs are being used to enhance the training of intermediaries and significantly reduce the frequency of visits made to farmers.
The technology transfer approach has been seen as a top-down approach which believes that certain technologies could revolutionise farming and therefore provides specific recommendations to farmers for adoption. New innovations and technologies move from research and development through agricultural extension services to the producer/farmer. While the technology may be new, it still takes the human component – extension personnel – for the technology to work. ICTs are increasingly being seen as a means of facilitating the functions of extension personnel.
The commodity specialised approach can be likened to the current value chain development model that focuses on promoting services peculiar to specific crops and animals. Whilst this approach may lead to availability of highly specialised extension staff for these specific commodities, several disadvantages exist. This is because farmers see extension officers as a one-stop-shop for all their information needs – from technical, through social, to economic. Specific ICTs are being used to support specific commodities, a situation that strengthens the approach.
The participatory approach to agricultural extension, such as farmer field schools, recognises the active contribution of farmers themselves. It is based on partnerships between farmers and extension agents with the goal of learning from each other and contributing to their knowledge and skills. But the concept of participation is complex and resource-intensive. Integrating ICTs in such a system can be enriching for all partners.
The farming systems research approach emphasises context and collaboration between research, extension and farmers. This approach has been seen as a means to sensitise scientists on the variability of farmers’ production environments rather than promoting blanket-type package technologies. ICTs are currently being used to avoid blanket-type recommendations of advisory services to farmers and they are tools that scientists can easily be acquainted with.
Agricultural extension is more than only information dissemination; it extends beyond collection and sharing of research outcomes or farmers local knowledge with producers. It is an advisory service that entails human interaction. It is about knowledge brokering, which involves mediation between a wide range of actors within the agricultural innovation system. Despite all these tested and workable models and approaches to EAS, the sector is still in crisis. With the emergence of new ICTs, development partners should not make the mistake of thinking that ICTs could act as the new model of extension, nor be used to by-pass the extension officer and placed directly in farmers’ hands just because the extension has become dysfunctional.
Let’s understand the context and use the technologies appropriately.