National Extension Policy
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Extension Opinion No 4: Pro poor extension

Historically, the term ‘extension’ became synonymous with extending University and research knowledge to the farmer and rural dweller. In turn Western agricultural departments (and their Colonial derivatives) have used extension to ‘extend’ departmental services and products to change farmer behaviour in a direction prescribed to by government policies. Such a ‘top-down’ approach to extension has been further reinforced by different techniques (such as the ‘Training and Visit Method’) and for decades there has been a blurred overlap between training and extension. 

Equally, the historic role of extension in SA has had a strong knowledge transfer, or even a training component. Under the country’s previous dispensation where support services were largely delivered to the established commercial farmer, there might have been justification for that. But now, with the focus being on the emergent farmer, perhaps the extension officer posts should have their largely-inherited job descriptions re-visited.

‘Training’ and ‘extension’ must be different, particularly in a development context. While training enables people through skill acquisition; extension is more about encouraging people to change their farming behaviour. However training and extension must be mutually reinforcing (e.g. it is no good motivating farmers to start using fertiliser if they don’t know about fertiliser types, crop fertiliser requirements and fertiliser application rates). And both trainers and extension workers must be competent in technical and communication skills. That is a required competency in social/community development that should set the extension worker apart in the new dispensation. 

Perhaps that is why current extension effort – largely devoid of community development competency - seems only successful amongst those emergent commercial farmers who least need to improve productivity and income (the more ‘progressive’ emergent farmer)?

Social development (empowerment) encompasses a broad concern for the development of people, for improving people’s lives, for facilitating people’s own decision making, and for allowing participation in such decisions. Outcomes of such should include a reduction in dependence, the development of initiative and motivation, and the heightening of critical awareness to enable people to appraise their own identified options. 

How to introduce this complex but needed extension skill into emergent farming? Here are some practical actions that would be worth considering:

  • Choose extension officers on the basis of displayed “missionary zeal” and a passion to help the poorest groups, rather than on technical qualifications alone.
  • Build required participative communication and people skills into extension officer training (the extension officer should be both a “giver” and a “receiver” of information).
  • The support services provided by a Department of Agriculture should be responsive to the call from an extension officer to assist with the declared needs of a target group (too often a support service is delivered independently, and driven by a separate agenda).
  • Extension officers should initially concentrate on building trust, respect and acceptance by their target groups (could a case even be made for peasant farmers to select the extension officer?).
  • The extension officer should strive to identify and target the poorer members of his/her constituency and the particular constraints that they face (too often an extension worker will concentrate on more advanced and vocal farmers who respond best to extension).
  • Farmers should be encouraged to identify their own problems and to develop their own solutions to them.
  • Always ensure that new technologies and approaches fit well and are validated on target group farms, particularly in terms of prevailing local cultural and social values, before expecting that they would be widely adopted.
  • Always allow farmers to change at their own selected pace – if change is perceived to be universally beneficial it will not be slow.
  • Remove any bureaucracy that might stultify the need for extension flexibility and creativity. 
Mike Murray is an agricultural economist who has worked in agricultural extension. He currently works as an independent consultant.

Click the image for a view of: Trust and respect are key for extension
Trust and respect are key for extension
Posted: 9/2/2012 (10:41:29 AM)


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