Q&A: Trends in agricultural extension and ICTs

Agricultural extension finds itself at a time of crisis. Many of today’s agricultural extension services are suffering under bureaucratic centralized management structures. Squeezed by decentralization policies, diminishing public funds and the privatization of public services, they are urgently in need of change. To what extent can ICTs help shake off the yoke of training & visit (T&V) programmes and help to reinvent agricultural extension? Will ICTs alter the kind of information that is being disseminated to farmers?

These and related questions were the central themes of CTA’s ICT Observatory workshop ‘ICTs – transforming agricultural extension?’ in September 2003. Among the participants were Joseph Kiplang'at of Moi University in Kenya; Don Richardson and Ricardo Ramirez of the TeleCommons Development Group; Tunji Arokoyo of ABU/IAR in Nigeria; Marc Bernard of InfoSys; Clare O’Farrell, communication for development officer at FAO; and Ajit Maru, a research officer at ISNAR. Here are some brief excerpts from their discussions.

From your own experience, what processes are currently shaping agricultural extension in ACP countries?
Joseph Kiplang’at: Decentralization – the delegation of services from central government to regional and local authorities – is already having a major impact on agricultural extension. With the rationalization of public sector staff, the ratio of extension workers to farmers is rapidly worsening. At the same time, ICTs are becoming increasingly important because they enable extension workers to reach many more farmers simultaneously.
Clare O’Farrell: Privatization is another key development, in which agricultural information is rapidly becoming a ‘commodity’. This process directly impacts the different kinds of information and services that are made available to farmers – with a strong bias towards information that meets the needs of wealthier farmers.
Ricardo Ramirez: In the next ten years, we can expect to see a range of information service delivery systems that respond to the needs of different types of natural resource users. We can expect a division between privatized extension systems that serve farmers who produce cash crops, and small public extension systems for those who do not. A third type of extension system will address environmental stewardship and collaborative resource management. The first system will address farm challenges and will follow a demand-driven and contractual approach, focusing on production, processing and marketing. The second system will focus on community challenges and may follow a ‘sustainable livelihoods’ approach, looking at how to support existing multiple survival strategies, not just production-oriented ones. The third type of extension system will address watershed/ecosystem challenges and embrace collaborative management approaches.

How might these processes affect the use of ICTs by extension workers or their clients?
Marc Bernard: A decentralized working environment promotes the use of ICTs. First, ICTs lower the transaction costs for existing services. Second, they will improve efficiency, as extension workers can use modern media as everyday tools to step up their networking activities. Eventually, ICTs may help to replace existing hierarchical organizational structures with more flexible and decentralized networks of agricultural extension experts who can liaise directly with clients, according to demand and on an individual basis.
Tunji Arokoyo: Privatization and decentralization represent positive developments in many ways, but we are also seeing some unexpected negative impacts. In Nigeria, for example, the decentralization of agricultural farm radio programmes took place at the same time as the privatization of state radio broadcasting stations. These stations then started to charge commercial prices for radio broadcasting time-slots. Many of the decentralized farm radio programmes, with much smaller budgets than those of the former national programmes, could simply not afford these prices. As a result, most Nigerian farm radio programmes were discontinued.
Don Richardson: Hopefully, the demand for information, the challenges of decentralization and the lack of resources for extension will stimulate increased attention to more basic issues. These include universal access, telecommunications policy and regulatory reform, and the ways in which they impact on the lives of farmers and remote rural communities. Far too much attention is currently being paid to fancy ICT tools and gizmos, and far too little to telecom policy and regulatory reform. People in rural areas need basic telephone connections to benefit from the promise of ICTs. In fact, easy and affordable access to telephones is the ‘killer app’ when it comes to rural ICTs because without telecom connections most ICTs do not work. This is of critical importance to agricultural extension, yet most organizations involved in food security and improving rural livelihoods tend to be extremely far removed from policy debates regarding telecom policy and regulatory reform that will help rural people access telephones and other telecom services.
Ajit Maru: Also, as Ricardo pointed out, broader access to more sophisticated and integrated ICTs will require new services, which are not provided at present by public sector agricultural extension systems. The entry of the private sector in agricultural information and knowledge sharing at the local and global levels will change current communication concepts in agricultural extension. In particular, the existing ‘stand alone’ agricultural extension institutions that depend on T&V and similar linear information flows, and provide only agronomic advice, will not survive. Their place will be taken by institutions and organizations that effectively use information flows, especially through ICTs, to add economic as well as social and political value to both individual and communal activities.

 

For a summary of the online discussions, click here.

30 October 2003

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