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Extension Opinion No 3: Scale up in New Ways - Not More of the Same

Everyone agrees that agricultural extension services are in a poor state. What is the plan to remedy this? It’s inconceivable to think of realising the National Development Plan’s vision of an extra one million jobs in agriculture unless extension is addressed. What’s the problem? We argue that the problem is multi-faceted: there’s too little extension, it reaches too few people, too seldom, it’s of variable but generally poor quality, and frequently inappropriate to the situations and needs of farmers. Most of the attempts at improvement over the past 30 years have tinkered at the edge of this massive challenge. 

Too little

In 2005 the national corps of public extension staff was approximately 2800. The ratio of extension staff to commercial and subsistence farmers was estimated as follows:
  • Commercial farmers: 1 : 21
  • Subsistence farmers: 1 : 857
  • Combined: 1 : 878.
These are averages. But how many people actually benefit from extension services? One  indicator on offer is from Stats SA’s 2009 General Household Survey, which found that among agriculturally-active black households, only 1.8% had had contact with an extension officer within the previous 12 months. When looking only at those black farming households that are considered smallholders (ie are farming primarily to derive a cash income), the figure is much higher – but still quite modest – at 13.6%. This suggests that, to the extent that extension services are available, they are concentrating on those who are farming primarily to derive an income, but that overall, the vast majority of black farming households are getting no benefit whatsoever from extension.

Too expensive

The biggest worry with extension is arguably the fact that small as it is in terms of footprint, it already absorbs a lot of budget. For the 2009/10, the collective expenditure of provincial agriculture departments for extension and advisory services was about R2.1 billion, in return for which about 47 000 agriculturally-active households received one or more visits from an extension officer.  This works out to R44 000 per visited household for the year, which is about three times the annual tuition for full-time study at UCT.  In fact there has been some progress since 2009, seemingly on account of the Extension Recovery Programme (ERP) (in 2011, 76 000 households were reached at an average cost of about R30 000), but the cost of extension remains very high relative to how many (few) people benefit from it. 


Not good enough

It is not only the numbers of extension staff which is the critical factor, but rather their capacity to deliver, which in turn is influenced by their level of education, their ability to advise on matters beyond primary production (e.g. farming as a business), clients’ geographical spread, and the extent to which local farmers’ groups/associations through which extension officers could operate (Department of Agriculture 2005). 

A study by the University of Pretoria, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, found that 63% of farmers judged that their extension worker had no advice of value to offer while 37% percent conceded that they sometimes have information of some value (Duvel 2003). Problems arose from the low qualification and competence of extension workers, necessitating an extensive and structured support programme.

So, the potential expansion of support to small-scale farmers raises a serious question about how suitable quality and coverage of extension would be provided. Having said that, the above-mentioned study is old, and the ERP has focussed not only on increasing the numbers of extension officers, but also improving their technical knowledge. Any yet, it is still unclear if enhancing the current approach is correct, or rather identifying a different approach altogether.  

A different approach

So we have too little extension, it’s of variable but often poor quality and, while it accounts for a large share of agricultural spending (about 25% for the 2012/13 budget year), and it is reaching only a small proportion of those who need it. 

Here’s the nub of the problem: How can we substantially scale up provision of extension services to reach most small-scale farmers, and at the same time improve the quality and appropriateness of extension advice? 

The ERP would appear to be a movement in the right direction. However, it is fundamentally ‘incrementalist’: it seeks to take the current approach to a higher level, but it remains essentially the same approach. And yet, scaling up the existing model to a more satisfactory level would be prohibitively expensive – expanding the size of the extension corps even by a factor of three, or even doubling agriculture budgets, will not reach even the majority of farmers. 

We need a different approach. There is a need to test and refine new models that make better use of existing resources, such as farmer-based extension models, and draw in non-state service providers.

First, we need to determine viable extension models. These need to be appropriate cost-effective models that provide real value added, with methods of delivery that extend impact considerably, for instance through farmer-based models. 

One way we can move forward is to commission reviews of international best practice in order to identify new approaches that can be adopted and adapted in South Africa, using innovative learning methodologies. 

As we explore and adapt lessons from elsewhere, a new approach could be geographically focused in districts with large numbers of small-scale farmers and with high potential, focusing extension efforts where there is the greatest potential for high and widely-shared payoff. 

Dr Michael Aliber is an agricultural economist and a widely published researcher. Associate Professor Ruth Hall is a senior researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

Click the image for a view of: Counting the costs of extension
Counting the costs of extension
Posted: 8/30/2012 (10:07:44 AM)


 Comments


 "This is why research has value. Mind blowing cost accounting! So how could we better spend 2.1 billion rand? Will pluralistic/privatised services be any cheaper? How do we expand the footprint"
Practitioner Posted: 8/30/2012 11:18:27 AM



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