Assessment of Agricultural Extension, Nutrition Education, and Integrated Agriculture-Nutrition Extension Services in the Feed the Future Focus Districts in Malawi
In April 2014, at the invitation of USAID/Malawi, a MEAS team conducted an assessment of agricultural extension, nutrition education, and integrated agriculture-nutrition programs and systems in Malawi. An overarching purpose of the assessment is to investigate these programs and systems across public, private, and civil society sector providers with the aim of informing the design of an activity that will strengthen delivery of extension and nutrition outreach services in the seven Feed the Future focus districts in a coordinated and integrated manner.
The assessment methodology includes literature review, interviews and field visits, and an assessment review workshop. The team reviewed agriculture extension, nutrition, and integrated programming literature; carried-out over 55 individual and group interviews; and made field trips to three districts. The review workshop, in which over 25 stakeholders from across sectors participated, was held to present preliminary findings of the assessment and obtain further input from stakeholders.
The structures of key government agencies involved in agriculture extension, nutrition, and integrated agriculture-nutrition programming are assessed. This includes the Department of Nutrition, HIV and AIDS which is the national coordinating body for the global Scaling Up Nutrition movement and the four ministries dealing with agriculture and agricultural extension; health; local government; and gender, children, and social welfare. Each of the five agencies assessed has a structure that reaches from the national to the village level, most having staff or volunteers at the different levels, although there are typically numerous vacancies at the different levels. The levels are not the same across agencies, which contributes to coordination difficulties. Only three of the five assessed have staff at the field level with field level being the lowest level at which the agency operates, such as a village or a grouping of villages. The agriculture; health; and gender, children, and social work ministries have staff at the field level. Again, many of the established posts at this level are vacant.
While having some overlapping elements, the assessment identifies six distinct delivery systems used in the delivery of agricultural extension, nutrition, and/or integrated programing:
- The Department of Agricultural Extension has a well-articulated system which is put in place to facilitate a pluralistic, demand-driven extension system. The system builds on local government structures and adds stakeholder panels which are the primary mechanisms through which farmer demands are to be articulated through to those who can respond to demands and services responding to demands are channeled back to those articulating demand. The system also has a committee structure designed to bring all agriculture extension stakeholders at the district level together to coordinate and harmonize their activities within the district. Among others, the Department has championed lead farmer and model villages as components of its service delivery system.
- The Care Group system focuses on children under five and pregnant/lactating women. Community volunteers are trained and supported to work with groups of women to promote nutrition at the household level. This may include for example, home visits, education on essential nutrition actions, and home gardening. Volunteers are organized into groups to facilitate their supervision and training.
- Positive Deviance/Hearth is a nutrition program targeting children who are at risk for malnutrition. The system identifies uncommon, beneficial practices by mothers of well-nourished children from poor families. The “hearth” is the venue where these practices are subsequently replicated through nutrition education with mothers of at risk-children and where supplemental feeding occurs.
- Farmer Associations are supporting farmers to progressively organize from the individual farmer to groups and clubs to larger organizations to facilitate delivery of extension advice from association extension agents and place farmers in better position for bulk purchase of inputs and marketing. In this system, which is primarily agriculturally-focused, nutrition education and messages are included as they relate to the primary focus.
- Linkages between agriculture and nutrition at the community-level are being built by combining aspects of the Care Group system with the Farmer Association system. Care Groups are explicitly linked with activities of farmer associations to create synergies among the two.
- A hybrid system, which utilizes both public and private sector agricultural extension providers, is being tried in Malawi. Public providers focus on agriculture production while private providers are supported to offer farmer skill development on a fee-for-service basis in areas such as farm finance and marketing.
A wide-array of entities in the public, private, and civil society sectors in Malawi provides agricultural extension, nutrition-related, and/or integrated services. There are also various actors who support these providers such as educational and research institutions, technical agencies, and donors. The thematic focus, programs/services, capacity, district coverage, and linkages for numerous of these entities and supporters are assessed. The public sector Department of Agricultural Extension is by far the largest provider of agricultural extension services and is also engaged in nutrition extension. At the field level, its capacity is significantly constrained by the number of vacant positions, limited opportunities for refresher training including limited training in nutrition, and poor conditions of service. The private sector—farmer unions and associations and private agriculture firms—are engaging in various nutrition-related activities. Their capacity varies but there is opportunity to further involve the private sector in integrated activities. The majority of civil society sector providers assessed are NGOs with many providing services across several sectors and sub-sectors such as in agriculture, food security, nutrition, health, women’s empowerment, and WASH. Most have significant experience working in Malawi. Their capacity is considered as the extent to which they field their own front-line workers or utilize government extension staff to implement at the field level. Results were mixed as most report both using government extension staff and hiring their own staff. The assessment was tasked with reviewing the effectiveness of programs examined. More time than was available to the team would be needed to rigorously carry-out this test. However, service providers were asked to self-assess their program effectiveness. Most responses indicate providers believe they are providing effective services but they also identified various constraints and challenges they face in doing so. Effectiveness from the perspective of beneficiaries was elicited by asking them what they learned or how they benefitted from program participation and for their comments on weaknesses of activities. Responses given suggest many were able to identify specific practices they learned such as composting, early planting, soy processing, and exclusive breastfeeding. The major benefits mentioned were early planting results in higher yields and higher incomes and the ability to access loans from their savings and loan group. Comments regarding weaknesses included: seed comes late, we receive messages once with no follow-up, trainings are too infrequent, and there are too few nutrition promoters.
Funding for the various areas under assessment is explored. A majority of government funds for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security are allocated to the government Farmer Input Subsidy Program. Agricultural extension is underfunded and this is viewed as a pervasive problem, particularly over the past several years. However, some donors are investing in agricultural extension and it is receiving more attention and support than it has in the past. Although several donors fund food security initiatives, fewer support nutrition in specific. A group of seven donors have formed the Multi Donor Trust Fund as a funding channel to the public sector while the Donor Committee for Agriculture and Food Security aims to coordinate and harmonize donor support.
ICT is being embraced by all sectors in Malawi. There are examples of various uses of ICT but growing the most rapidly is the use of SMS through cell phones. Radio programs are being synced with SMS messages reminding people of when to listen to programs. The primary platform in place for SMS can be used to send/collect information customized according to users’ needs. ICT is being used to track the distribution and stock of fertilizer in the Farmer Input Supply Program, to provide market information, distribute salary payments, and refer health system clients to services they may need from other sectors and sub-sectors such as nutrition or agricultural extension.
Gender is reportedly incorporated, integrated, or a cross-cutting issue in the programs, projects, and activities assessed. However, the level of gender-responsiveness varies. There are issues related to the number of women in the various service provider organizations and the number of women provided services. For recruiting, men often have overall higher levels of education than women and are thus able to meet the higher educational requirements for job placement. The dominant, yet insufficient, approach to gender in service provision is to increase women’s participation in project activities such as trainings or meetings, or increase the number of women in farmer groups.
Malawi is not lacking in policies and policy-related documents to guide the agricultural and nutrition sectors, although some would benefit from review and revision. There is an overarching medium-term strategy guiding Malawi’s growth and development; an agricultural investment program articulated through a sector wide approach document; an agricultural extension policy; a food security policy; a national nutrition policy; a strategy for nutrition education and communication; and a gender, HIV and AIDS strategy for the agriculture sector. Given existing human and financial resources and capacity, the overwhelming challenge is the implementation of these policies and related strategies and approaches.
For the assessment, stakeholders identify challenges and opportunities. This resulted in comprehensive lists which are organized by personal and related support issues, program capacity, infrastructure and budget, and program quality and reach. For personnel, the greatest challenge is the limited number of public sector field level agricultural workers, their limited capacity, and the poor conditions under which they work including inadequate housing and transport. Program capacity is being supported by various committee structures and educational institutions but overall the quality and quantity of training for field level staff in particular is inadequate. This includes training for agriculture and health staff involved with nutrition. Shortage of funds is identified as a critical and on-going challenge. Program quality and reach is challenged by a number of factors already described. Across all sectors and providers, poor coordination and harmonization is identified as one of the greatest challenges to effective program delivery.
To begin addressing these challenges, the assessment overall recommends:
- Revisiting and pursuing earlier recommendations indicating the need to review government’s agricultural extension program in light of resources available as too much is being attempted with too few resources.
- Recognizing that if government agricultural extension is to further integrate nutrition into its activities, its capacity as an institution and of its staff needs to be fortified. Adding further nutrition-related responsibilities to a weak system will not result in the desired impacts. Investment in an institutional and capacity development initiative is recommended.
- Revising Malawi’s current agricultural extension policy, written in 2000, in light of current challenges.
By category of challenges, the assessment further recommends:
Personnel and Support Related Issues
- Developing policy addressing the government and NGO working relationships and conditions.
- Investigating re-establishment of government field-level technical assistants posts to address the shortage of field level staff.
- Focusing on increasing female staff at the area level rather than the extension planning area level.
- Studying costs of developing a fully-staffed and equipped district to provide a baseline from which to advocate for funding.
- Finalizing or improving various nutrition-related training materials; reviewing educational institutions curricula with the aim of further integrating nutrition content
- Focusing on training front line workers, particularly government agricultural extensionists but also those from health and those working in community development.
- Building Malawi’s “Center of Excellence” capacity to integrate agriculture and nutrition programming.
Infrastructure and Budget
- Revitalizing selected day and residential training centers to provide a clean, safe environment for nutrition demonstrations and meetings.
- Increasing budget advocacy skills among senior agricultural extension staff.
Program Quality and Reach
- Applying the widely-accepted ten guiding principles for integrating nutrition into agriculture programming and pathways analysis to reviews of existing programs and in the design of new ones.
- Broadening gender-responsiveness in program design and implementation.
- Investigating ways to improve quality of lead farmer performance.
- Expanding reach through further support to ICT.
Coordination and Harmonization
- Building public sector agricultural extension capacity to coordinate a pluralistic, decentralized extension system including their stakeholder panel and other coordinating committee system
- Establishing a district and lower level coordination fund to specifically support across sector coordination and harmonization effects at this level
- Encouraging the key entities involved in integrating agriculture and nutrition to evaluate the current committee structures and consider realignment and merging of committees
Lastly, the assessment recommends that three promising approaches and concepts be further investigated for potential refinement and scaling up. These are: farmer association and care group linkages; model villages; and agriculture-nutrition integration via the Farmer Input Subsidy Program.