Southern African News Features                                           SANF 11 No 34,November 2011

Agriculture support services are key to boosting food security

by Kizito Sikuka

Developing countries could achieve food security as well as promote rural development if the right agricultural policies on extension services are enacted and fully implemented.

This was said by agricultural experts from Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) regions, who attended a recent international conference on Innovations in Extension and Advisory Services in Nairobi, Kenya.

The experts noted that most farmers, particularly smallholder farmers continue to experience challenges in accessing timely and adequate agricultural support service yet such support is critical in their daily work.

For example, appropriate and sufficient extension services allows the farmer to try out new crop or livestock enterprises and then work out the production practices that are most suitable in supplying specific markets.

Extension service also enables farmers to decide whether it would be possible to upscale any of these enterprises to community and national level.

Kenyan Assistant Minister for Agriculture Kareke Mbiuki said at the official opening ceremony that it was time developing countries come up with vibrant and viable strategies to improve agricultural extension services.

“Member countries need to improve the farmer to extension ratio,” he said,” adding that at the moment, most countries are struggling to meet the demands of their farmers.

In Africa, for instance, he said the ratio was about one extension officer to about 4,000 farmers. The ratio is further being worsened by the massive exodus of skilled extension personnel for greener pastures as well as the resignation of experienced officers due to low morale.

“This negligence is the root cause of the poor agriculture system and failed agriculture sector in the continent,” he said.

Antigua and Barbuda permanent secretary for Agriculture, Zane Peters concurred and urged relevant stakeholders to work together in addressing shortcomings in extension and advisory services.

She said while national governments have the full responsibility of making sure they provide the right environment for the development and improvement of extension services, they could not solve the challenges bedeviling the extension industry on their own.

“Partnerships are important. The private and public sector should work together to improve agriculture extension service,” she said.

Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation (CTA) director Michael Hailu said the ACP regions have vast amount of natural resources to become global players in the agricultural sector. However, poor agricultural policies were hindering the regions from achieving such a feat.

He said for the regions to boost food security there is need to equip farmers as well as ensure that that farmers have easy access to knowledge, technologies and financing required to increase productivity.

“There is no point in developing new technologies or environmentally friendly, climate-smart systems if the farmers are not consulted and the outputs are not widely disseminated and practiced,” he said.

Executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) Monty Jones also said national governments should review their policy extension service, which tends to adopt a teacher-student approach where the extension worker only “feeds” the students with information.

“The whole process should be all-inclusive so that extension workers and farmers interact,” he said.

On gender empowerment, president of the Women in Agriculture Development Foundation of Papua New Guinea, Maria Linibi said that special focus must be accorded to women since they make up the majority of farmers.

She said compared to men, women are marginalized in extension services mainly because a number of them are illiterate while most cultures also tend look down upon women.

Other key issues that were raised at the conference include the need to harmonize agricultural extension and advisory services in the region.

Participates also urged farmers to take the lead in advocating for adequate and timely extension services since most government prefer to listen to a more organized body rather than a disjointed one.

With regard to the transfer of research information, a communication specialist with the Farmers Union of Malawi, Catherine Mloza-Banda said in an interview that if governments developed an appreciation for the agricultural innovation systems concept, it would assist in the flow of information amongst farmers, research officers and other actors in the value chain.

“Extension is basically a potential channel to facilitate innovation platforms where various actors within the agricultural sector can communicate for agricultural development and the common good,” she said.

For example, community radio can help in spreading the information to farmers as well as facilitate information sharing with researchers, experts, agro-dealers and policy makers.

Radio also creates a platform that serves everyone across the value chain and would give extension workers the opportunity to not only send information, but also receive feedback for the various technologies that are being passed on to the farmer.

Investment in new technologies such as mobile phones gives farmers the opportunity to have timely and convenient access to market and technical information directly from the market, thereby minimizing exploitation by middlemen and encouraging interaction between them and the buyers.

The conference held on 15-18 November ran under four cross-cutting themes -- policy, tool and approaches, capacity development and leaning networks, and aimed to provide a space for sharing current thinking and practice and building coalitions of farmers, practitioners, policymakers and other actors to advocate and implement policy reforms and innovations in extension and advisory services.


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