Extension is as old as agriculture itself. With shifts in agricultural trends, the emphasis on extension has also varied. Initially, agricultural extension was part of the research-extension-farmer triangle. During the training and visit (T&V) era, communication of innovation was the key concept and extension’s role was to effectively disseminate innovations.
However, after the green revolution, the gap between resource rich and resource poor farmers widened with information and extension going to a select few. With the conceptualisation of new models, like Agricultural Knowledge and Information Systems (AKIS), extension changed in nature to facilitation; the collectivisation of farmers into groups became the focus, and the system emphasised the process of mobilisation and extension. In time, the private sector also entered the agricultural landscape, introducing the concept of pluralism in extension. Emphasis on mass media also increased.
More recently, Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS) theory was introduced within the innovation systems framework. It focused on the actors, their interactions, the institutions, and the policy environment to support or hinder it all. Communication for innovation was the key AIS concept, which tried to identify the actors in systems, their core activities and bring them into an innovation platform for effective service and successful innovations.
While all the models discussed have been theoretically sound, implementation has been a different story altogether. Extension was once merely a mouthpiece of research; it ignored resource-poor farmers during the green revolution era, mostly because it was not equipped to communicate on a mass scale. While T&V was an acclaimed approach, reaching the grassroots became very costly and, without international funding, had to be abandoned. In the AKIS model, the last mile was still unreached and collectivisation was also happening at a very slow pace, further marginalising marginal farmers. With pluralistic extension, the duplication of efforts occurred because of a lack of communication among stakeholders. In the AIS model, convergence remains a lacuna (unfilled space) because of the lack of a common platform for research, innovation and dialogue.
Effective communication and reaching the last mile are still major hurdles in extension models, which makes it vitally important to focus on appropriate technologies and available forms of ICTs to reach, communicate, converge and improve on extension to farmers instead of investing in the development of new models of extension. Models like the Agricultural Technology Management Agency in India, implemented with the aim of increasing convergence and reducing the duplication of efforts in agricultural development, have failed to achieve the desired success. To a great extent, this could have been avoided with the proper use of ICTs and creating a knowledge network.
The use of ICTs cannot be a silver bullet with blanket recommendations, as the efforts and effects will be entirely context specific, but exploring new ways to integrate them in the development sector might help better reach the last mile. The agriculture and rural development sector is highly context dependent and the situation and solutions are also dynamic depending on the socio-economic and psychological background of the people. The ways of using ICTs will also vary completely within these settings and so should only be based on research-based solutions.
However, it also needs to be emphasised that the personal touch in extension systems cannot be completely replaced by using ICTs. Technology on its own can only go so far in the development sector but it can be a very powerful aide for starting a dialogue, reaching the clients effectively, mobilising people and resources, and bringing about faster change in the current context of low and middle-income economies, rather than investing in exploring new models and approaches in extension.
This blog was written in collaboration with Suchiradipta Bhattacharjee
Suchiradipta Bhattacharjee is working as a fellow at the Centre for Agricultural Extension Innovations and Reforms at MANAGE, Hyderabad, India. Her specialisation is in agricultural extension and her research interests are agricultural innovation systems, ICT4Ag, mExtension, and rural development.