The ultimate goal of agricultural extension is to create change – to improve yields, raise incomes and provide farmers with new opportunities and a better life. Can ICTs transform the way farmers acquire knowledge and information, and make extension services more effective? This was the focus of Wednesday's plenary session, organised by the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS).
"The history of civilisation is the history of extension services," said Raj Saravanan of GFRAS and India's Central Agricultural University. In Ancient Mesopotamia, the medium of choice was a clay tablet; in modern India, it's a smartphone.
The first half of the 20th century was all about experimentation and learning. The 1960s and 1970s was the golden era of extension, spreading the messages of the yield-boosting green revolution. The next two decades were about decline and disappointment, as public funding for extension was slashed. Now, we are in the age of reform, with a range of players – governments, NGOs, the private sector – driving a pluralistic approach to extension.
The changes during the past two decades have been rapid and far-reaching, and Raj outlined progress in India, from the creation of village telecentres in the 1990s, through to the setting up of Web-based knowledge portals, the use of mobile phones and the social media. He identified some key lessons. Content must be farmer-friendly and ICTs should be simple and affordable. "We also need to develop the capacity of human beings," he said. "Technology alone is not enough."
This theme was explored by Andrea Bohn, Programme Manager of Modernising Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS), University of Illinois. She focused on her experience in Bangladesh. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently asked her organisation to develop an ICT strategy for a Feed the Future project. "I don't want to be too critical of the project managers," she said, "but we learned some important lessons about the use of ICTs in agricultural projects."
The project managers were committed to developing a certain ICT tool, and failed to understand the needs and capabilities of their clients. "They were putting the cart before the horse," said Andrea, "and they were filling the cart with content before they knew where the journey would take them." The technologies they used were developed in-house, and they resisted collaboration with others.
So what needs to happen to ensure that the horse goes before the cart? Project managers need to understand their clients' abilities and needs. They shouldn't pre-commit to specific ICT apps. When defining messages, they should take into account literacy, education and gender. Content should be valued, valuable, localised and trustworthy.
ICTs alone are not enough, suggested Andrea: "They should complement traditional methods of extension and demonstration." Project managers also need to understand what other factors need to be in place to ensure that their clients benefit from the information they receive.
Máximo Torero, Director of Markets, Trade and Institutions at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), focused on the three Cs: connectivity, compatibility and content. There are now almost as many mobile phones in the world as there are people, but great variations in access to mobiles between different parts of the world. In many developing countries, the percentage of households with mobile phones is far greater in urban areas than in the countryside. There are also considerable variations in terms of cost. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people with access to broadband services remains extremely low.
There is a positive correlation between the provision of mobile services and economic growth; this is particularly pronounced in middle-income countries. Máximo also discussed the role of institutions. Governments have an important role to play in terms of creating broadband infrastructure, especially in remote areas. However, the private sector also has a key role to play, and deregulation creates efficient competition.
"In terms of content, quality is crucial," said Máximo, "and the greater the penetration, the more important the quality of the content." ICTs should not be seen as a panacea, but they can bring many benefits, for example by linking smallholders and SMEs to markets.
Benjamin Addom, ICT4D Programme Coordinator at CTA, provided a brief overview of CTA's thinking about the use of ICTs in agricultural extension. Referring to his experience in Ghana, he described the changes that had taken place over the last few decades. "We've moved from a centralised system of providing information to a decentralised system, and the provision of information has been democratised," he said. Many farmers now use videos and mobile phones to receive and transmit information.
In 2011, CTA organised a major conference on agricultural extension in Nairobi, and since then it has continued to explore the subject, both at conferences and in research programmes.
"So what lessons have we learned?" asked Benjamin.
In the business world, the client is the king, but in the world of agriculture, farmers are often seen as servants, and subject to manipulation. "One of the lessons is that farmer should be king," said Benjamin, "and receive much greater respect than in the past."
Effective extension services rely on partnerships. Indeed, establishing partnerships has been at the heart of CTA's endeavours. Extension policy should be aligned with those of other sectors. Finally, said Benjamin, ICTs should be used appropriately and innovatively, and integrated with other traditional means of communication, such as the radio.
During the course of the plenary, there were some stimulating interventions from the floor. Alan Johnson of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) said that we shouldn't ignore the issue of cost. Andrea Bohn agreed. "A lot of ICT innovations are project-based, and project are quite often wasteful," she said. "I would love to have business models and data on the costs of disseminating information."
Raf Somers, co-manager of the programme Market Oriented Advisory Services and Quality Seeds in Rwanda, emphasised that the goal of extension is change, and it comes in three distinct stages: being aware of the changes you can create; being committed, and making the change. "We need to use different tools at different stages," he said. "For example, in terms of creating awareness, radio has the greatest coverage in Africa." He added that on-the-ground extension workers are still key to change, and we need more of them.
A delegate from the Grenada was concerned about relationships between those providing information and those receiving it. "Is it possible that using ICTs to provide information will mean that farmers lose out, because they don't experience the personal touch that comes with face-to-face encounters?" he asked. Raj Saravanan thought this was a good point. "Yes, we must remember that the human element is very important," he said.
And indeed, this was one of the main messages of the plenary: ICTs have great potential, but they must be used as part of a package of information delivery, not as a stand-alone panacea. Another message was that there needs to be much greater emphasis on getting feedback from farmers about the usefulness of the services they receive.
The parallel sessions
Following the plenary, there were eight parallel sessions. They focused on the three conference streams: emerging innovations in ICTs; capacity strengthening and stakeholder empowerment; enabling environments for the agricultural sector. The sessions covered a wide range of topics, including 'Driving livestock development with ICTs'; 'Broadband strategies and agricultural development'; 'ICTs for climate-smart agriculture and resilience to crises/threats'; and 'ICTs/mobile apps for access to financial services and insurance.'