I asked a local farmer: “Why are you so critical of the public extension services, when a variety of options like private agri-business companies, NGOs, producers’ organizations and input dealers can now meet your extension needs?” In the times of pluralistic extension services, his expectations from public extension services appeared to me a bit too much. He is not the only one; many other farmers are suffering with this public extension service bias across the developing world. Yet, I could figure out some farmers who are not so dependent on public extension services alone. I have blogged about such innovative, enterprising and inspiring young farmers (see sidebar of links). These young farmers build on their capacities availing multiple opportunities for acquiring knowledge, skills, logistics and resources from a variety of sources — government, private and cooperatives. These farmers can also greatly supplement the efforts of public extension agencies and assist the private sector in promoting good agricultural practices among farmers. How best can we train, retain and engage such motivated and inspiring young farmers as lead farmers in their community?
Here, I am presenting two approaches, one about engaging lead farmers in agricultural extension, and the other is tapping Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for funding agricultural extension activities. Finally, I talk about how these two approaches can reduce the strain on public extension services, while strengthening pluralism in delivery of extension services.
I am highly motivated, for instance by the network of lead farmers in Rwanda, who share their skills and help others improve their crops. Across Rwanda, a network of 600 lead farmers share agricultural skills and better farming practices with over 30,000 smallholder farmers, under the World Food Programme (WFP)’s Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) initiative. Lead farmers are nominated by their peers from smallholder organizations in rural areas. After undergoing training, they serve as community focal points, sharing information about agriculture with other farmers. Like the promoters of this concept of lead farmers, I too believe, “Sharing agricultural skills and knowledge through lead farmers could be a practical and cost-effective model for empowering smallholders.” Farmer to farmer extension approaches (F2FE) have been experimented with and promoted by many organizations across the world.
Like me, many extensionists now believe that the F2FE can help in building effective, farmer-centered extension systems and empowering farmers as change agents for improving livelihoods in their communities. It’s a matter of further research in different contexts on how effective this approach could be in agricultural technology dissemination. We at our institute tried this approach, informally, utilizing the services of innovative farmers to demonstrate and train pig and dairy farmers, sugarcane cultivators, and fruit and vegetable producers. We found it works for farmers. I believe strongly that it’s worthwhile exploring similar or even more creative ways of sharing knowledge and skills to supplement public extension services.
Farmers and other actors in the agricultural value chain are now able to enhance their knowledge and skills towards empowering themselves, thanks to the emergence of pluralistic extension services. Still, improving efficiency and effectiveness of public extension services remains a big challenge for many developing countries. How can we improve the image of public extension services? Through my experience, I found inadequate resources — especially low budgets followed by weak capacities, lack of knowledge and skills, weak infrastructure and logistics — among the main reasons for inefficiency of public extension services. Can we think of innovative ways of overcoming budget constraints? One of the ways could be tapping funds from CSR. For instance, in India, as per the recent Indian Companies Act 2013, it is mandatory for certain classes of enterprises to allocate two percent of their profit for social development activities such as education, health, agriculture, animal husbandry and rural livelihood generation. CSR also benefits corporate organizations in multiple ways like building image and reputation, enhancing community livelihoods by incorporating them into their supply chain, building trust among target communities etc. Likewise, funds available under CSR can be tapped for agricultural extension activities too. The CSR initiatives can help promote public private partnership in agricultural extension. The Indian Government has already emphasized public-private partnership in livestock extension services. We once wrote about the efforts of some Indian companies toward enhancing the capacities of livestock owners in India under their CSR initiatives.
Can you look for more and better ways of improving extension services? I would love to hear about them!