National Extension Policy
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Extension Opinion No 8: Extension needs to be more about livelihoods

There is widespread consensus that the agricultural extension services in South Africa are failing to have much beneficial impact on agricultural practices, sustainability or income.  A variety of contributing factors have been identified, such as poor visibility and presence on the ground, insufficient or inappropriate training, weak or absent management, inadequate vision, lack of commitment, neglect of the poorest and most constrained farmers in favour of the already successful farmers, and more. The relative magnitude of these different factors varies from place to place. Similar comments have been made about the forestry extension services.

Debates around what needs to be done to address these shortcomings focus largely on technical or financial fixes to deliver more of the same. There are some voices for a total overhaul and transformation of the extension services, typically centred on a pro poor orientation. Such a goal is obviously attractive and a clear rationale is not hard to develop.  Yet, the discourse remains sectorally divided, focussing either on agriculture or on forestry or on fisheries (as does this invigorating conversation promoted by Phuhlisani).  This contradicts of one of the most central tenets of rural livelihoods and existence in South Africa, namely, that livelihoods are diverse and that very few households relay solely on just one livelihood strategy or income source (cash and non-cash). Thus, I suggest that extension services orientated on optimising farming or forestry will be doomed to failure as they will not be offering knowledge, innovation and advice on how to reduce poverty in all its dimensions or improve livelihoods generally because they are dealing with only a subcomponent at any one time. 

Livelihoods of the rural poor in South Africa are diverse. Cash and non-cash income includes arable cropping, livestock husbandry, home gardening, collection of multiple natural resources (such as firewood, medicinal plants, wild foods), local casual wage labour, petty trade, migrant wages, state grants and remittances.  An extension service needs to focus on the land-based strategies of arable cropping, livestock husbandry and natural resource use, but not individually and sectorally, nor in ignorance of other livelihood needs and incomes because the mix of the three land-based strategies will vary in relation to the magnitude, reliability and nature of other household income streams.  

Of particular interest to my co-workers and I over the last couple of decades has been the contribution of natural resource consumption and trade to livelihoods, incomes and poverty alleviation.  There is now a wealth of data, information and understanding on this contribution, demonstrating that natural resource use typically contributes about one-quarter or one-fifth of total livelihood accruals, not to mention their invaluable role as safety-nets in times of shock or adversity, and the importance for cultural traditions and ceremonies. For many households and regions the income contribution from natural resources it is greater than either arable cropping or livestock husbandry, and at times both combined. Therefore, an extension service focussed solely in agricultural activities will always be neglecting, and at times perhaps even undermining, a large component of local livelihoods. Currently there is no extension service to support the productive use of such resources. Neither agricultural nor forestry extension officers are trained or knowledgeable about how to advise on sustainable harvesting practices or limits for different natural resource types or species, on propagation or management approaches, on value addition options, or on markets for natural resource products. Yet, if the supply of such resources is compromised in some way, perhaps by land alienation, land transformation to agriculture or infrastructure, over harvesting or uninformed harvesting restrictions, then local livelihoods are negatively affected, poverty potentially deepened and adaptive capacity compromised. People in such situations must adapt to coping with less, travel further to harvest what they need, or use scarce cash resources to purchase substitutes.  All because decision-makers, development planners, and of pertinence here, extension officers, are too often blind to the value, multiple roles and importance of these resources in rural livelihoods. 

In summary, an extension service of the future needs to:
  • Be focused on livelihoods rather than on land use production sectors
  • As such, be:
    • integrative across all livelihood sectors
    • adaptive to changing livelihood needs as local and external opportunities come and go
    • sensitive to resource and environmental sustainability as it underpins all land-based livelihood strategies
  • Have a pro poor  focus
  • Be grounded on securing livelihood and  food  security as the basis for promoting sustainable livelihoods, especially of the poor
  • Build and promote agency, diversity and adaptability within households 
  • In communal areas, encourage local communities to develop secure, viable and locally supported governance mechanisms for land and natural resource use 
  • (as an aside! - Be climate change smart)

Click the image for a view of: Households draw on social and material assets to engage in multiple livelihood strategies
Households draw on social and material assets to engage in multiple livelihood strategies
Click the image for a view of: Extension should adopt a livelihoods approach
Extension should adopt a livelihoods approach
Posted: 9/17/2012 (4:05:53 AM)


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