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4. Research and extension services

Possible policy indicator questions: Research and extension services

  • What percentage of overall agricultural investment is directed towards research and development?
  • Are incentives in place to attract and facilitate private sector investment in research to help bridge any funding gap? Are clear guidelines in place to ensure such research takes account of the needs of smallholder farmers, not just large-scale commercial producers?
  • What support and incentives are in place to encourage research into sustainable agriculture including agro-ecological production, fertilisation and pest management approaches and participatory breeding of climate-adapted seeds?  
  • What platforms are available for smallholder farmers to provide input into research agendas?
  • What is the extension coverage? Are incentives in place to encourage alternative models of extension service delivery where public provision is inadequate?
  • What measures are taken to ensure extension curriculums are up to date and meet the needs of smallholders – for example, that they incorporate modules on new innovations in climate sensitive agricultural practices, access to markets and gender equity?

4a. Research

102. Agricultural research is an essential factor underpinning agricultural development and growth, and evidence confirms that local research and extension was present in almost all areas where the green revolution was successful in transforming agriculture and reducing poverty (Dorward et al 2004 in Conway 2012).

103. Juma (2013) argues strongly for scaling up investment in agricultural research to facilitate the kind of technological innovation that is critical for dealing with the challenges to Africa’s agricultural growth presented by climate change. According to Juma “(s)ustainable agriculture needs to be recognized as a knowledge-intensive productive sector that is mainly carried out in the informal private economy”.

104. It pays to invest in agricultural research.  Based on the Asian experience Wiggins suggests that such investment could deliver returns of up to 1:20 (in ThisisAfrica 2012). Across many studies comparing returns to investment, based on various methodologies, research and development investments often have the single largest effect on sectoral growth - even more so when considering long-run effects.

105. Yet public spending on agricultural research in Africa comprises only 0.7% of agricultural GDP on average, compared to an average spend in developing countries of 2.5% of agricultural GDP (UNECA 2009; worldwide the figure is around 1%). Conway (2012) reviews evidence from IFPRI which finds that a doubling of investment in public agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa could increase growth in agricultural output from 0.5% to 1.1% and reduce poverty by 282 million people.

106. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa still rely overwhelmingly on public sources for funding agricultural research (UNECA 2009). The UNECA report also notes the substantial decline in donor funding for agricultural research during the past 3 decades, falling by more than 50% between 1980 and 2006, while World Bank funding dropped more than 70% between 1980 and 2004.  Despite its growing presence in the agricultural research space in industrialised countries (Von Braun and Diaz-Bonilla 2008), the private sector has to date not stepped in to fill this funding gap in Africa, with the UNECA research finding that only 2% of African agricultural research is currently funded by the private sector.
107. Inadequate investment is not the only problem facing the agricultural research sector. Most agricultural research tends to focus on single crops and is not well-tailored to the complex needs of the average smallholder farmer. Ensuring that research findings are shared with smallholders has also proved to be a significant challenge. Extension services frequently do not act as an effective link between researchers and farmers (ASFG 2010). There is a growing interest in ‘innovation systems’ which run in parallel to market systems, and look at all the actors and issues needed to make specific systems resilient and adaptive, including the levers and incentives to encourage investments in relevant research.
108. Smallholders tend not to have any say in the design of research programmes, although both the CFS Voluntary Guidelines and the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) acknowledge the importance of recognising farmers’ rights to influence agricultural research decision making.
109. Farmers operate in a dynamic environment and research needs to adapt to reflect these changes.  As challenges associated with increasing commercialisation of agriculture, climate change, resource depletion and growing global demand for food mount, there is an urgent need for more research on sustainable intensification and agroecological farming methods.  More research is also needed to improve indigenous crops in support of efforts to promote greater crop diversification, which is a crucial strategy for increasing resilience against climate change and price and weather shocks.  Funds for this research will have to come from the public sector: given that these methods tend not to involve large-scale application of inputs typically provided by the private sector, such as hybrid seeds or chemical fertilisers and pesticides, it is unlikely that the private sector would invest in researching these approaches.  Governments need to direct more of their research budgets in the direction of sustainable agriculture; there is also a role for support from donors and the development community to ensure sufficient funds flow towards this area (Toulmin 2013).
110. Research, training and extension can play a powerful role in helping narrow the gender gap in agriculture.  At present, it tends to contribute to women farmers’ exclusion as their particular needs and challenges are not taken into account in the design and delivery of these services, with the result that they are often not well-suited to women farmers’ practices. In order to develop gender-sensitive technologies, women farmers should be involved when priorities for agricultural research and technology are being debated and decided. (IAASTD 2009).

4b. Extension services

111. A strong extension system is essential for moving research from the lab to the field, not only in order to help farmers improve their productivity, but also to ensure that more research takes place with farmers in the field.  But in Africa, prolonged under-investment has resulted in very low average extension coverage; and extension services provided during the last two decades are largely perceived as unsuccessful in supporting smallholder farmers in adapting to increasingly challenging conditions (Kahan 2007).  According to the FAO, investment in agriculture extension services needs to increase to 3.5% of the agriculture GDP in order to achieve the necessary coverage, though at present no African government is spending even a tenth of that amount (Waruru 2011).
112. The renewed focus on agriculture has also seen fresh interest in extension, although the emphasis has shifted to pluralistic and demand-led approaches. The monopoly public services model for extension is obsolete in the competitive, market-oriented climate of today’s agriculture. The new approach recognises that there are now many other actors in the system beyond the traditional public extension agencies. Programmes are moving from a delivery model - a top-down, prescriptive technological practice model - to an empowerment model focusing on capacity building. One requirement of these new approaches is the need to be more cost effective than the traditional Training & Visit (T&V) model and Farmer Field Schools, which have proved unaffordable and hence could not be sustained. Different approaches are now often found alongside each other, in a shift from a “best practice” or “one-size-fits-all” to a “best fit” approach to particular social and market conditions (IFPRI 2006).
113. Despite progress in the design of extension services to be better suited to modern needs, they remain severely underfunded and limited.  Extension services need to be scaled up, better funded, and provide improved services alongside other actors.  Other than those farmers who can access extension through their participation in contracts with corporates, publicly funded extension continues to be a key pillar supporting increased production and market entry. Affordability is an issue with demand-led extension, as the high costs many farmers face in accessing those services, such as travelling to a regional town or city, can act as a strong disincentive to seek out advice and support. 
114. Extension services no longer have a simple technical agenda.  Given the dual challenge of supporting market competitiveness for commercial agriculture while also addressing poverty in rural areas, the agenda for many programs needs to shift from an exclusive focus on agricultural production to a broader range of services relating to demand-driven production, marketing, savings and credit, natural resource management and poverty reduction. There are also calls for extension services to cover issues relating to nutrition, climate adaptation and gender equity.
115. Women farmers' participation in extension is limited by traditional, social and institutional factors which create barriers for their involvement. Extension workers need to be aware of these factors and adequately address them in planning extension activities.  Male extension officers are not always best placed to reach women farmers – the IAASTD found that over 80% of extension workers in Africa are male, and many of them may not be able or willing (due to cultural norms in some societies) to speak to women, who constitute the majority of farmers in Africa (IAASTD 2009). Vorley et al (2012) suggest that training more female extension workers would contribute to closing the gender gap in agriculture, and quote the example of Nigeria’s Women in Agriculture Programme which helps improve women farmers' access to training by ensuring that each of the country's states has female extension workers from headquarters down to the field level. In another example, Malawi made a major revision to its agricultural extension approach by introducing a policy that promoted pluralistic and demand-driven extension systems, and which made special provision for targeting women. (For an assessment of the results of Malawi’s programme, see Masangano and Mthinda 2012).
116. Technological innovation is providing opportunities for increasing the reach and depth of extension services without increasing the number of extension officers.  Technology such as radio has long been used to help convey information to widely-dispersed farmers, but the deep penetration of mobile phone networks in rural regions is creating new avenues for disseminating knowledge cost-effectively. ICT tools including mobile phones, the internet and iPods, combined with more traditional media, can help deliver knowledge in real time to farmers, especially in poorly staffed and remote corners.
117. SMS-based information services such as Nokia Life Tools and Reuters Market Light are now available to millions of farmers, although there is some question about whether they actually contribute to better realised prices (Van Vark 2013, citing research by Fafchamps and Minten).  The Grameen Foundation in Uganda is training representatives from farming communities to act as mobile technology go-betweens in its Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) project. Community knowledge workers, who are farmers themselves, use smartphones featuring a purpose-built app to talk to other farmers to provide agricultural tips, weather forecasts, prices, an input supplier directory, and a market platform linking buyers and sellers. They also collect data from them to create an information loop.  A recent impact study on CKW found that farmers using the service realised significantly higher prices for their produce than those who did not, and farmer knowledge of issues such as crop management, pests and diseases and animal husbandry also increased noticeably (Van Vark 2013). There is some scope for public support for increased use of ICT.  In one such example, Kenya established the National Agriculture Information System under the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Program, where farmers can access information from their mobile phones through toll-free numbers (Waruru 2011).
118. In another example where new technology is used to increase the reach and efficiency of extension, Digital Green, an NGO operating in India, produces short videos on agricultural techniques, which are made by and for farmers themselves and are highly localised in their content and language or dialect. To date, it has produced more than 2,500 short films and reached around 150,000 farmers. Research found that this model of disseminating agricultural knowledge through group video viewing was at least five times more likely to encourage farmers to adopt the new practices compared to existing extension systems (Van Vark 2013).

119. Governments should explore ways of incentivising private sector providers to come up with innovative ways of providing extension and advice, including through the use of new technology.  The donor community could help support this process, for example through co-investing or funding pilots. 

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