Rural advisory services: On the frontline of the fight against food insecurity

Bangladesh women farmer - learning

Photo credit: S. Mojumder/Drik/CIMMYT

Interview with Kristin Davis, PIM lead for Advisory Services within Research Flagship 3: Adoption of Technology and Sustainable Intensification, Research Fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and Executive Secretary of the Global Forum for the Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS)

- What are rural advisory services in agriculture today and what is their role in food security?

Our research team sees rural advisory services (RAS), also known as agricultural extension, as a broad function supported by many actors including government workers, the private sector, civil society, and farmers themselves. Advisory services help farmers to access information on technologies, markets, inputs, and finance, and upgrade their farming and managerial skills. These services are indeed complementary to development of new technologies because they support their uptake. 

An important role of RAS is to “broker” interactions between farmers and other actors such as the private sector, research, education, markets, and government.

RAS play a tremendously important role in food security providing farmers with, for example, advice on crop production and nutrition, ways to protect the environment and manage risk. Advisory services link farmers to the knowledge and inputs needed to achieve food security and to become more resilient. So, RAS are really on the frontline of the fight against food and nutrition insecurity.

“Advisory services link farmers to the knowledge and inputs needed to achieve food security and to become more resilient.”

- In your experience, who are the most efficient agents of rural advisory services?

Efficiency very much depends on the context. As I’ve mentioned, advisory services play many roles. The task of providing information about spacing of maize planting or which fertilizer to use for tomatoes is very different from training farmers on complex practices such as, for example, integrated pest management or soil conservation techniques. The private sector is often seen as efficient, yet they must focus on profit-making activities, and are interested in providing services that are linked to their products. The public sector is usually tasked with public good activities, such as natural resource management, which provide long term benefits that are not easily measured by efficiency or short run returns. So efficiency is not the only criterion to consider.

VFT

Francis Warui a Volunteer Farmer Trainer in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County in Kenya. He is training Dorcas Wangui how to prepare and store forage for dairy cattle. Photo: ICRAF/Sherry Odeyo

This being said, of course one very efficient agent of rural advisory services is the farmer her- or himself. Research shows that fellow farmers are a major source of agricultural information, and they have the added value of common language, proximity, and trust. A good example is the recent work led by the World Agroforestry Centre and the International Livestock Research Institute, which showed that volunteer farmer trainers can be very effective agents of change.

“Fellow farmers are a major source of agricultural information, and they have the added value of common language, proximity, and trust.”

- What are the major challenges of rural advisory services today, and how well are they dealt with?

There are several major challenges facing rural advisory services. In spite of their major role in food security and rural development, they do not have the political support and recognition in the form of policies and funding that they need to perform adequately. Extension needs agricultural policies to provide sufficient incentives to farmers to invest in farming and to demand the information that will support this. It needs the financial, physical, and human resources to get the job done. Another challenge is that extension personnel—and their organizations—are lacking the ability and skills to deal with the complex problems of today, such as, for example, shocks related to climate change and other crises, and the need for a post-crisis recovery. The Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services recently produced a document called the “New Extensionist” that talks about how to strengthen extension capacities.

"In spite of their major role in food security and rural development,  advisory services do not have the political support and recognition in the form of policies and funding that they need to perform adequately."

- If you were to choose one successful example of an existing RAS system, what would it be?

I would like to mention the United States Cooperative Extension Service, even though the US might not first come to mind when thinking of reduction of hunger and poverty. But the Cooperative Extension Service is celebrating their Centennial in 2014, and in the past 100 years they have been very successful in supporting their clientele. Speaking of efficiency, research shows that in the United States, a dollar spent on agricultural research and extension generates at least $20 benefit to the economy (see Julian Alston, M. Andersen, J. James, and Philip Pardey (2010) “Persistence Pays: U.S. Agricultural Productivity Growth and the Benefits of Public R&D Spending” (Springer Press)).
Another successful approach, this time in a developing country setting, is the farmer field school. The schools help empower farmers and achieve beneficial outcomes such as reaching women farmers and improving production and profit. But this is an approach, not a system, which should be used for what it is meant for and should not be seen as a national (one size fits all) system.

- What are the key areas of your research within the PIM program?

Kristin Davis

Kristin Davis

Our research falls under four broad areas. In all our work we include gender dimensions by disaggregating data by gender and by analyzing the implications for both women and men.

(1) General assessments and evaluations of extension programs, such as the state of extension services in the former Soviet countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
(2) Innovative approaches to strengthening national extension systems – for instance, can we use information and communication technologies to improve extension’s reach? How can the private sector play a better role in providing advice to farmers? We want to see if incentives, certification, and professionalization will improve the impact of extension agents.
(3) Capacity and curriculum reform – We want to understand how mentoring can support women extension agents, and how we can reach more women farmers. Part of this work is creating and sharing good training materials found in the course of our research.
(4) Support to strategy development and policy options and advice, such as advising governments on what extension approaches work best in which circumstances.

 

Learn more:

Agricultural Extension page on IFPRI.org 

The role of extension and advisory services in building resilience of smallholder farmers  by Kristin Davis, Suresh Babu and Sylvia Blom (2020 Resilience Conference Brief 13 - Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security - May 15-17, 2014 - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Overview and materials of the workshop “Research on Agricultural Extension Systems: What Have We Learned, and Where Do We Go From Here?” organized by PIM on October 15-16, 2013