Extension Strengthening through Improved Accountability and Data Validation: The Extension Helper App in Action
During a typical Tuesday morning, Gloria — an extension coordinator for her community — is getting ready to meet with her team of frontline staff at the community’s extension center, an area stakeholder platform (ASP) in Malawi. This morning, she will be visiting farms, conducting household surveys and then attending an ASP meeting in the afternoon; Gloria has a full schedule ahead of her and so does much of her team of 16 extension workers. After a day in the field, her team will deliver paper reports, many of which require her to aggregate numbers and share insights with the district agricultural office. "It’s a normal Tuesday!" she adds, positively.
In Africa, digital tools for agriculture are often more farmer-oriented. Existing mobile apps provide market location and price information, connections to farming equipment, weather predictions, soil maps, pest management and crowdsourced answers to technical questions. Farmers benefit from these approaches, yet information and communication technologies (ICTs) also have the power to contribute more to agricultural extension planning when frontline extension workers are equipped with these digital tools.
AgReach — a research program based at the University of Illinois that focuses on reducing gaps in agrisystems — recognizes that digital tools can play a strategic role in extension strengthening, equipping public extension systems with the ability to validate data and streamline reporting. At the field level, mobile digital tools can amplify extension messaging to reach more farmers and enables management to improve coordination of diverse service providers with the right type of data aggregation.
As such, AgReach has developed the Extension Helper App (EHA), a digital package including an app-based data collection tool for frontline extension workers paired with a web-based dashboard for their superiors to see and manage field data, oversee worker productivity, manage resources, view farmer data trends and support decision-making.
Gloria has managed the portal for the EHA ever since it was rolled out in February 2021. Through the portal, she can monitor her frontline staff’s individual farmer, farmer groups and stakeholder platform visits. Her staff collects data during these visits and then syncs the data to a cloud storage system at least once a month. Gloria can then view progress on the management portal overseeing the broader extension planning area (EPA) and can generate field staff productivity reports for that month. The EHA has reduced the use of handwritten reports during field visits, improved the quality of collected data and increased the frequency of field visits for her staff. The EHA’s landing page shows frontline staff their visit targets every month, a function that can ensure service delivery and coverage and improve the quality of extension for her area stakeholder platform.
The EHA targets extension strengthening at the farmer level through the creation of a database tool that aggregates farmer information, including yields, gender and persistent problems, records contacts with extension workers and geolocates farmers and farmers’ groups to ensure services are more equitably distributed. The EHA supports frontline workers by streamlining the data collection and reporting to reduce the burden and time committed to monitoring and evaluation, improving location tracking of service provision, providing teaching and learning tools for use with farmers and to build frontline workers’ own capacity, and providing accountability mechanisms that recognize high performance. The management side of the EHA is key in strengthening the system by improving coordination through sharing of data, maps and reports and by documenting stakeholder platform meetings to improve demand-driven mechanisms.
AgReach has been working with the Malawi government to strengthen the country's extension system through the Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension (SANE) activity for the past five years. Thanks to a strong partnership with the Department of Agricultural Extension Services (DAES) in Malawi, AgReach has recently rolled out the EHA to 200 extension workers and extension managers within the USAID zone of influence.
For SANE, the rollout of the EHA paired with the leadership roles that extension coordinators have been taking during the current rollout are key to institutionalizing the work that has been done. This includes improving communication and linkages among all stakeholders in the system. Now that farmers are better able to aggregate their needs and demand services, the EHA helps to coordinate the response at both the district and national level, by providing validated data for evidence-based planning.
Dashboard data can be broken down into categories of information from types of actors to types of visit and number of visits per district. The management portal is key to interpreting and analyzing data collected from the field. This data can assist program managers in targeting interventions where services are most needed and reducing areas of oversaturation, thereby improving cost-effectiveness and impact.
One extension worker from Balaka district said he felt motivated to go to the field and engage with clients, having realized the usage of geolocation and GPS pins documenting farmer visits.
"This app is encouraging me to visit farmers in my section because, with the usage of GPS, my supervisor is able to see my visits in the management portal, unlike in the past, where I would provide paper records of field visits conducted,” he added.
Extension workers in Malawi take pride in their vocation; some have even shared their excitement at incorporating technology and modernizing their workflow. Extension workers were also excited that their supervisors could compare their work to that of their peers. Using technology is perceived as bringing their work up to speed with the increase in technologies being used in other sectors. When extension workers are seen using technology, farmers are more trusting, and their relationship with their frontline extension worker is improved. Commending good work done by extension workers will encourage them to continue their work, resulting in quality services being delivered to their community. SANE will continue to support the rollout in Malawi and collect data, which will be analyzed and presented in a forthcoming study.
Disclaimer: Some images were taken during field work in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.