Feed the Future
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Scaling up Digital Technologies for Extension and Advisory Services Part I: Digital Extension Typology

This post was written by Judy Payne, Kristin Davis and Suprita Makh.

Today, almost every effort to provide agriculture extension and advisory services involves digitally-enabled tools or services and there is plenty written on the topic.  There is even some evidence of what approaches work. But there are still many questions to answer, such as which digital tools or services are cost-effective, work best for reaching women and youth, give farmers voice, or can be sustained and scaled organizationally and financially. To answer these questions, we propose a common framework to help extension providers determine which digital tools and services to use to best complement traditional extension. 

We know that conventional, face-to-face agricultural extension works. Unfortunately, we also know that face-to-face approaches require resources that no public or private extension program has. Digitally-enabled extension can complement tried and true approaches to reach more farmers cost-effectively in a way that maximizes accountability and increases impact.

To categorize digital tools and understand which tools may be better for which advisory method, it is useful to understand how extension addresses farmers’ concerns.  Thus as a first step in defining a digital typology, we divide extension functions into six steps: 

  1. Diagnose problems that farmers face. 
  2. Make farmers aware of improved practices.
  3. Persuade them to try new practices. 
  4. Teach good practices.
  5. Remind farmers what they’ve learned—with reminders timed to the phase of the crop cycle and weather, e.g., when it will rain. 
  6. Get feedback from farmers regarding what they don’t understand and additional information they need and adapt accordingly.    

Next, we categorize four types of digital tools for extension:   

  1. Short text or audio messages can be “pushed” or “pulled”.  Audio messages that are “pulled” are often arranged in a “tree” in an interactive voice response (IVR) service where a user calls, then selects “branches” in the tree, eventually getting to an audio message with information.  For example, a farmer may select “1” for maize or “2” for rice, then in the next level “1” for seed varieties and “2” for “pests.” Remarkably, some now use IVR for short dialogs or storytelling. 
  2. Visual delivery via mass media (TV); video (including animation) varying in length from 1 to 30 minutes; sometimes linked to digital tools for links to viewers. 
  3. Audio programs (e.g., radio with digitized programs or a talking book), ideally combined with digital interactive tools.
  4. Digital applications on a smart phone, digital tablet or the Internet used directly by a farmer or indirectly by an extension agent, lead farmer, or farmer group leader. 

Combining this list of types with the six steps outlined above can guide implementers to think about which digital approaches may be best suited for farmers’ needs. When we do so we also should consider whether information is “pushed” or “pulled,” whether it’s shared with individuals, groups or the public via mass media, and the length of the message. For example, it is very difficult to teach a farmer to graft a tree using text messages, but texts are well-suited to remind a farmer what she learned from an extension agent (or video) regarding what to do if a graft starts to change color.  Of course, all these tools complement face-to-face extension services; vary dramatically in costs; and require careful design following the principles for digital development.

The following table summarizes the digital tools that are the most appropriate depending on the type of information provided to farmers. The likely better matches are indicated with an asterisk.

Extension Steps

Short Text or Audio Messages

Visual Delivery (TV, Video, Photos)

Audio Programs (Radio, Talking Book)

Digital Applications


Perhaps IVR but cannot convey much information

*May be good to teach diagnostic approaches or diagnosing specific problem/pest

Some potential if dealing with general problems, or if interaction with expert available

 *Excellent with well-designed application leading farmer through questions tailored to responses


Perhaps IVR but cannot convey much information

*Demo plots combined with TV or video

Well-designed radio programs

Potential if well-designed application


IVR if designed expertly

*Persuasive radio programs, videos, (non-digital), theater using social behavior change techniques


Potential if well-designed application



*Can be combined with demo plots and group viewing

Well-designed radio programs 

Potential if well-designed application; may be best for prompts after learning using other means


*“Push” text or audio message timed for crop cycle, weather


Short radio “clips”

Can combine with “push” voice or text


*“Pull” text or voice from farmers

If TV combined with “call-in/text in” capability; if video shown in groups with moderator

If radio has “call-in” or “text in” capability

Yes, if target farmers have access to devices 

Adapted from Mark Bell and Judith Payne (2011). Original found at www.meas-extension.org/resources/ict  

Clearly, regardless of the typology, digital approaches are often combined to good effect. Our next blog in this series will focus on what we are learning about this through the Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity Community of Practice.


Please note the correct URL for the Bell and Payne (2011): https://meas.illinois.edu.