‘Extension workers need to be part of a team that includes policy makers, researchers and communities.’ Myra Wopereis-Pura, director of knowledge at FARA
Most farmers in ACP countries learn their trade from an early age, by listening to and watching their parents, grandparents and others around them. They continue to improve and adapt their skills over the years through practice and experimentation, and from sharing experiences and ideas with fellow farmers. They rely on this mix of information when they have to make decisions that will affect their limited resources. It is essential, therefore, that they have confidence in the information they receive.
Farmers often listen to radio, join community discussions and, in recent years, use cell phones to access advisory services. Telecentres equipped with computer and internet access are also spreading across Africa. And most farmers are open to exploring new methods and innovations that could improve their productivity and income.
However, technological advances should only be seen as a tool to improve the delivery of advisory services. ICTs cannot replace the traditional system of face-to-face interactions between farmers and extension workers. These tools make it possible to give farmers information quickly, when it is needed, but it has to be in a format that can be easily understood and applied.
FARA, for instance, has developed a system to facilitate the exchange of agricultural information and innovation. RAILS (regional agricultural information and learning system) encourages those involved in agriculture - from farmers to extension workers and researchers - to continue learning more about the subject.
The information systems used are practical and focused on how people can apply them, and the various methods are only adopted and promoted if they meet the specific needs of the farming community. The intention is to develop the skills and knowledge of the community so that they will be able to operate beyond the support of the project.
RAILS is now entering a new phase where it is investing in methods other than the internet to reach farmers. FARA has worked for several years to establish national learning teams that can encourage information exchange, and promote agribusiness opportunities and investments. The project is building on the ‘question and answer’ service developed by ISICAD and CTA. The intention is to connect farmers, extension and agricultural researchers through targeted services. For example, an individual farmers can ask a specific question to a trained extension worker, who then sends emails or calls a number of research institutes to find the most relevant answer. The farmers pay for the service based on their level of satisfaction with the responses.
This method uses technology to access a combination of indigenous and scientific knowledge. Farmers are provided services through social contact – the extension worker – which gives reliability and accountability. The extension workers are able to reach more farmers with reliable and current advice as research partners regularly update their information in a format that is readily applicable to the situation found in many communities.
As the extension workers reach greater number of farmers, they are also linked with colleagues working elsewhere in the country and across the continent, along with researchers and others in the agribusiness sector. The extension worker, therefore, becomes part of a larger team, providing the link between researchers and policy makers and the communities.
But the most promising aspect of the RAILS expansion, known as eRAILS II, is the involvement of young people in the provision of agricultural advisory services. They have the potential to develop more integrated extension services using ICTs as they are often more tech savvy and open to learning new ways. As such, eRAILS is currently working with agricultural college graduates who can act as national facilitators of advisory services to communities. They provide a communication link between farmers and researchers, and can assist farmers to make better use of the opportunities afforded by ICTs.
FARA is encouraging African governments to invest more in an integrated system that maximises the combined use of research and extension. It also encourages the private sector to provide targeted advisory services to rural communities. There are several examples of businesses already providing such services, using ICTs to deliver agricultural advice and market data, and there are even some communities who have decided to develop their own information networks [see article 'Technology retains talent'].
There is, of course, no single solution to providing improved extension services. It is not a matter of simply delivering tools and services through internet, radio, or cell phones. We have to use all the available tools and make them part of the mix of resources that the farmers already know and trust.