Producer Organizations are Key to Extension Relevance — Here's Why
Gary Alex is a former Feed the Future Program Manager at USAID.
My crystal ball is fairly cloudy as to the future of extension and advisory services. But, it seems most likely that extension will remain or increase in importance and that extension systems will become more institutionally diverse. Such systems will have to remain relevant to farmers and engage more effectively to meet changing needs. Producer organizations are likely to be key to extension relevance and efficiency.
Producer organizations have long been neglected. This is surprising as the US extension system – which inspired development of many extension agencies – grew with strong symbiotic links with producer groups, especially with Farm and Home Bureaus. Even though often under-appreciated, producer organizations play an important role in extension. Internationally, a review of USAID extension activities in 28 countries found that 93 percent included substantive participation by producer organizations. Despite this there is little coordinated support for producer organization strengthening.
Producer organizations often collaborate with extension providers to reach larger numbers of producers in training sessions, demonstrations, farmer field schools, or other activities. Ideally, they can also play a role in governance and quality control to ensure relevance and effectiveness of services. More formal, established producer organizations may finance or deliver extension services to members, especially for export crops and commercial farming systems. Producer organizations are also a client for extension services to facilitate collective marketing, resource management, or other objectives. Innovative producer organization extension activities reflect country-specific opportunities.
In Guatemala, community farmer groups called CADERs (Centers of Learning for Rural Development) use local volunteer promoters in a farmer-to-farmer extension approach. CADERs operate at different levels of formality, with many remaining as informal community groups and others moving on to register as associations or cooperatives.
Mali has nearly 15,000 producer organizations in the agricultural sector with a wide range of capabilities. They are well-accepted as an institution for community action. A project model embedding teams of two local community agribusiness agents per cooperative to provide extension proved very effective in facilitating technology diffusion, organizing group input purchases, and coordinating collective marketing.
Rwanda’s extension service “Twigire Muhinzi” integrates farmer field school groups and a farmer promoter approach. Both rely on farmer leaders at the community level, with farmer field school groups facilitating experiential learning and farmer promoters mobilizing Twigire groups to organize production demonstrations and facilitate links to inputs and markets.
In the Senegal River Valley, 123 farmer groups – called Consolidation Networks – contract field agents to provide extension services. The Networks also coordinate input procurement; track production and loan repayment; and monitor rainfall. Each Consolidation Network has a team of Lead Farmers, Field Agents, and a Database Manager to manage the data collection and analysis efforts. The Networks facilitate contract farming arrangements.
Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers illustrates how far producer organizations can go in serving members. The country’s 2.2 million coffee producers receive most of their extension services from the Federation.
It is time to take producer organizations more seriously. Producer organizations vary from informal, ad hoc interest groups to formal cooperatives, umbrella networks, or registered associations. Roles and potential will vary according to local situations and type of organization. Many may fail – as do many private businesses – but this does not abrogate their short-term benefits and long-term capacity and market development contributions. Producer organizations’ roles in future extension are likely to increase as:
- Producer capabilities and sophistication improvements enable them to assume greater responsibilities and manage more complex institutions;
- More commercialized agricultural systems require more technical support and better mechanisms to ensure responsiveness to the farmer client needs; and
- Needs of niche groups – youth, women, minorities, specialized product growers – demand services that are difficult to provide through general public extension or private commercial extension services.
Early extension emphasized scientists and focused on what researchers could give to farmers. More recent programs emphasized agribusinesses and extension promotion of what they wanted to sell to or buy from farmers. The future should see extension services that focus more on producer interests and give them greater voice. Greater producer organization participation in extension is likely to be an important means for extension systems to provide what producers want.