The disruptive force of technology is difficult to predict. As those of us in the space can attest, agricultural extension is due for a transformation, but there won’t be a ‘silver bullet’. We know the future lies in different approaches for different circumstances, with each more accountable to catalysing a deeper impact for smallholder farmers.
Digital technologies have reached even the most remote corners of the world and can be a key lever for change. While it is interesting to imagine what will change for smallholder farmers a decade from now, perhaps, even more importantly, it is worth considering what will not. Smallholder famers will want to reduce their production costs, increase their returns and reduce their risk exposure. Extension services must enable smallholder farmers to achieve this.
Technology alone will not close this divide. Technology can be powerful in amplifying good, but only when partnered with organisations and individuals that realise its potential, including conventional government-run extension services, but also the broader constellation of actors, such as researchers, creditors, agro-dealers, etc.
Technology can serve as a platform to link these actors in the food and agriculture system, but exactly how varies from location to location. In the Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity project, we use the best-fit framework (Birner et al., 2009) to map the extension ecosystem across 22 countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America to identify key opportunities to catalyse change.
The Government of Ethiopia, for instance, operates one of the most intensive public extension systems in the world with roughly three extension agents for every village. But, these agents have limited resources, so trainings are often conducted in large groups. Jorge Nanesso, a 41 year-old farmer from the Becho district participated in training on a tool to create furrows for better drainage. With 70 other farmers in attendance, it was difficult to see and understand how the tool worked, so Jorge never used it. We provided Jorge’s extension agent with locally-produced videos and a battery-operated mobile projector. After attending a smaller, facilitated video screening on the same topic, Jorge grasped the concept. She applied what she learned and increased her harvest of teff from 800 kg/ha to 1,800 kg/ha.
In Bangladesh, the USAID Agriculture Extension Support Activity project launched the Agriculture Card (A-Card) initiative, a type of debit card for farmers used specifically with agro-dealers. Farmers using the A-Card have 6 months to pay back the debt at 10% interest per year. This flexibility means that farmers can hold out for better prices, and agro-dealers are ensured hassle-free payment. As exciting as A-Card is, it was made possible because of the penetration of mobile banking and agro-dealers in the country.
We have found success by remaining nimble and adaptable to local environments. Rather than innovate for the sake of innovating, we take context-specific, evidence-based approaches to make an impact. The future of ICT in extension is neither in strengthening existing systems, nor innovating new ones, but in both.