Yuan Zhou defined agricultural extension as, “the function of providing need and demand based knowledge in agronomic techniques and skills to rural communities in a systematic, participatory manner, with the objective of improving their production, income and (by implication) quality of life.” Extension services are important as they ensure smallholder farmers have easy access to good, credible and actionable information.
While the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends that the extension services to farmer ratio ought to be 1 extension officer to 10-50 farmers, a recent study conducted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) found that in most sub Saharan countries this ratio stands at 1 extension officer to over 1000 farmers.
The ratio in Kenya is so lopsided (the most populous region in Kenya, Rift Valley, only has 90 extension officers) most farmers think the government abandoned the extension services policy and attribute lack of access to quality information as one of the major causes of poor yields in their farms.
Employing of extension officers by the government may sound like the most obvious answer but realistically this may prove to be more difficult than first perceived. Countries such as Kenya are already experiencing problems occasioned by a ballooning wage bill and it is unlikely that the government would opt to pile more pressure to this problem by employing more extension officers.
While the internet could also be perceived as a possible solution to this problem, studies conducted by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) would differ. In 2015, KNBS found that out of the over 50 million Kenyan population, only 22.3 million had access to the internet. Furthermore, KNBS found that a majority of the 27.7 million individuals with no internet access are smallholder farmers in rural areas. Relying on the internet, though convenient, may prove to be impractical.
Could technological solutions not reliant on the internet offer potential solutions to the extension services problem? Yes, I believe they can. According to data provided by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) and KNBS in 2015, while internet penetration in Kenya stood at 54.8% that of mobile penetration stood at 80%. Based on this data, it may be argued that the use of mobile technology solutions is likely to have a much greater impact on smallholder farmers compared to internet solutions because there is a higher likelihood of smallholder farmers having mobile phones compared to them (smallholder farmers) having accessing to the internet.
Let us take the mobile technology solution WeFarm, for example. It is a free peer-to-peer service that enables farmers to receive and share agricultural information via SMS, without having to leave their farm. By using WeFarm, a farmer transforms their phone from simply being a handheld device to an extension service provider at the palm of their hands. If a farmer has any question(s) concerning seed and plant varieties, what fertilizer to use and when to use it, information on climate and weather forecasts, pricing information about their produce, best crop management practices, or any agricultural related question, they can send an SMS to the WeFarm number with the question and receive responses from trained agricultural officers as well as other farmers directly on their phone. A farmer who has a query can receive a response to their question within minutes.
Joseph Mvunga, a coffee WeFarmer in Kenya, was thinking of rearing rabbits to supplement the income he generated from coffee but had no idea of where to start. He sent a text message to the WeFarm number asking for advice on how to rear rabbits. His question was sent to rabbit farmers around the world, one of whom was Lido, a farmer in Peru, who had been keeping rabbits for more than 20 years. Lido not only answered Joseph’s questions, he also gave him advice on the best breeds, the type of feeds to give to his rabbits and how to raise baby rabbits.
Relying on this information, Joseph started off by buying a few rabbits and in under 6 months he had raised and sold over 50 rabbits. Easy access to information gave Joseph an opportunity to earn more money for himself and his family. It goes without saying that extension services were and still are a crucial component to the success of agriculture in any country.
How extension services are delivered to farmers, however, is what may be forced to evolve in order for it to be effectual to farmers. Innovation and technology can help revive the vital extension services that are so desperately needed by farmers.